Wales' own dolphins in Cardigan Bay

The UK’s biggest pod of dolphins lives in Cardigan Bay, where they’re a daily delight for visitors and scientists like Sarah Perry, who moved to New Quay to study these beautiful animals. She’s been watching the Cardigan Bay dolphins for more than a decade, and is on first-name terms with them…

Sarah Perry is a zoologist and science officer with the Wildlife Trust and the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, which carries out research into the area’s resident dolphins and porpoises. 

What’s the big attraction of New Quay for you?

Dolphins seen close to New Quay in Ceredigion on the Welsh coast

Dolphins close to New Quay, Ceredigion by Shane Jones
Bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises are the main species in Cardigan Bay, along with lots of Atlantic grey seals. In the deeper waters of the Irish Sea we have other species of dolphin, minke whales, and fin whales, which are the largest creatures on earth after the blue whale. We also get basking sharks, the occasional orca, and leatherback turtles come through in late summer to feed on jellyfish. So there’s lots of interesting wildlife here.

If I want to see a dolphin, where’s my best bet?

New Quay.  We do surveys from the harbour wall here, and we generally get sightings every day from June to October, so you’re almost guaranteed to see them.  The best place to start is the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, which is free and has lots of great information on the species we have and how we should protect them. But generally speaking, you can see dolphins anywhere between Aberystwyth and Fishguard, at any time of year, but much more frequently from April through to November.

Why do they choose Cardigan Bay?

A pod of Cardigan Bay dolphins seen on a dolphin spotting boat trip

A pod of dolphins in Cardigan Bay, Ceredigion by A Bay To Remember
Wild animals are primarily motivated by food availability, and most of the time we see them in New quay they’re displaying foraging activity - chasing fish. Having dolphins here is a good sign of how healthy Cardigan Bay is. If it was polluted, that would affect species lower down the food chain, the fish could disappear, and the dolphins wouldn’t be able to survive.They’re quite opportunistic feeders, but in this area there’ll be bass, mullet, salmon, sewin, garfish, mackerel, although they do grub about on the sea bed and eat whatever they can find. You also find them hanging around the Teifi Estuary when the salmon are migrating.

Are dolphins as naturally playful as we like to think?

When we go out on surveys we often have them bow-riding the boats, and they seem to enjoy doing that. But what’s less known is that they are also quite fesity with each other – we see them leaping out of the water and jumping into each other – and towards other species. 

How can you tell the difference between the two species?

Porpoise swimming off the Pembrokeshire coast, near Ramsey Island

Porpoise swimming off Pembrokeshire coast
The size, mainly. Bottlenose dolphins grow up to about 4m in length in this area, whereas harbour porpoises only grow to 1.5m. Another good feature is the dorsal fins. Porpoises have small triangular ones, whereas in dolphins they’re more sickle-shaped.

Do you get to know individuals?

When we’re out doing surveys we take pictures of the dolphins’ dorsal fins, because many of them have unique notches out of the trailing edge of the fins, by which we can identify individuals. Here at the Centre we’ve got a catalogue of the animals we see, and each year we get repeat sightings so we build up a picture of where they go, what they’re doing and who they’re hanging out with.

Do you give them names, or is that too un-sciencey?

A pair of dolphins swimming along the Cardigan Bay coast

Dolphins swimming along the Cardigan Bay coast, Ceredigion by A Bay To Remember
Some of them! We don’t name them straight away - they sort of develop nicknames as you get to know them. But it’s a good way of engaging with the public. The animals have a catalogue number, but if something happens to ‘number 21’ it’s not so inspiring than if it had a name. We also have an ‘Adopt a Dolphin’ scheme, and all of those are named.

Are you allowed to have favourites?

You try not to, but you do. There’s one called Topnotch who’s been around for 20-plus years. And there’s one called Sue who is a favourite of one of the charter boat skippers. If we see her, we’re always sure to tell him! We had one a few years ago that got the nickname Gimpy, who couldn’t move its tail quite as well as the others, but it seemed to be surviving just fine. 

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