Solitary cetaceans should not be seen as an unusual occurrence within the cetacean realm, or indeed amongst social mammalian species as a whole.

However, their occurrence across the world has led to many management difficulties of the situations which surround them – and it would appear that these unique individuals are on the increase. Whilst there are many theories behind the existence of the solitary cetacean it is recognised that the solitary state may be temporary or may become a permanent feature, however as  dolphins are extremely social creatures, living in close knit groups, it is a mystery  why some individuals leave their family pods to lead an apparently ‘solitary’ life.

There are several theories as to why this occurs. Some include Socio-ecological variables such as food availability, predator disturbance or reproductive strategies, being ostracised by their pod or through environmental conditions, for example when rough seas forces group separation. To date over 95 solitary or sociable cetaceans have been recorded worldwide, most common being bottlenose dolphins, but has also included orca, beluga whales, common dolphins, risso’s dolphins, spotted dolphins, dusky dolphins and even narwhal. One dolphin that has been well documented is Clet, a male bottlenose dolphin. Since appearing around the UK coastline, he is the first dolphin to be tracked across so many regions, his adventures mapped by multiple organisations, including Marine Connection in a catalogue of sightings, photographs and behaviour reports to help record his movements.

Marine Connection has been monitoring the phenomenon of solitary cetaceans for many years and have first-hand experience of what can happen in instances where the public do not take due care around these animals or retain respect for the dolphins’ wild nature. Whilst on the surface it appears that interacting with these animals causes no harm, unfortunately for many solitaries this has resulted in injury, or even death. Even the most well-intentioned sociable human interactions with cetaceans are accompanied by unpredictable impacts/risks to the animals. Each solitary cetacean has to be treated on a ‘case by case’ basis as the situation can differ greatly depending upon the nature of the individual animal, location, public attitudes and accessibility.

On an international level legislation does exist which aims to protect marine mammals. However, what appears to be comprehensive, worldwide coverage of protective legislation does not afford them adequate protection as solitary cetaceans present a unique case. In a ground breaking court case in the UK, the Wildlife and Countryside Act was successfully used to bring about the prosecution of two individuals charged with disturbing a solitary dolphin, known as ‘Dave’. This test case was a breakthrough for the protection of solitary cetaceans as a whole in the UK, as laws had been used to protect groups of wild dolphins but never a solitary animal.

Fungie (c) G Timmins
Clet - River Dart, Dartmouth (c) Rachel @ Monty Halls
Dusty (c) Glenn Murphy

When wild dolphins or whales become habituated

As humans we all possess unique characteristics and behavioural attitudes, which are shaped by past experiences and encounters – so is this the same for cetaceans? Can the sequence of events leading up to them becoming solitary shape their behaviour and response to others.

People are unaware of the consequences that swimming with wild dolphins may have. For many, the only experience they have had of dolphins is from shows in marine parks or swim-with dolphin facilities, neither of which reflects the true nature or needs of dolphins in the wild. This type of captive interaction is a disservice to dolphins as it teaches people, even on a subconscious level, that they exist for our own amusement, promoting the idea that dolphins are friendly animals who will openly welcome approaches from humans. This is not the case, and is responsible for the attitude some people have to solitary cetaceans.

Cetaceans are enigmatic and it is understandable that people want to get closer to them when they appear closer to shore from time to time causing much excitement. This usually leads to an escalation in boat traffic – with people taking to the water to see the cetacean, which can threaten its’ welfare. Excited boat handlers may unintentionally injure the animal and incidences of direct or deliberate injury are thankfully rare, however it can and does happen.

In an attempt to further understand the solitary individual and the process through which it becomes a sociable, solitary cetacean, the process of habituation has been classified. These stages can be found on Page 3 of the Marine Connection report on solitary cetaceans entitled ‘Lone Rangers’.

What we are doing to protect them

Dusty (c) M Dodds, Marine ConnectionMarine Connection believes that there is much that can be learned from observing solitary dolphins or whales that frequent the same area over a period of time, however it is vital that the safety of the animal is paramount and any issues which may pose a threat addressed.

Marine Connection is part of the Marine Animal Rescue Coalition (MARC) Solitary Dolphin Working Group which actively addresses issues on the protection of solitary wild cetaceans, specifically around UK shores, and what can be done to afford them greater protection, in both the short and long term. A vital part of this programme is public outreach – to help inform people who encounter solitary wild cetaceans on what is best practice to adopt when around the animal in question.

How you can help protect them

If you encounter a solitary, wild cetacean:

  • Watch from a safe distance – do not attempt to reach out or touch the animal. Wild cetaceans, if feeling threatened, have been known to butt, bite or tail-slap people.
  • Never attempt to feed a wild cetacean – to do so may expose it to digestive problems and disease and be part of the cetacean losing their natural wariness of humans.
  • Do not harass the animal by attempting to get too close or attract its’ attention, to do so is an offence and may lead to prosecution.
  • Boat owners please note; solitary dolphins are usually curious about propellers – and many have sustained serious injury as a result, so if in the vicinity, please do not made any sudden manoeuvres and if possible and safe to do so, stop the boat engine until you know the animal has moved a safe distance from the vessel. Marine Connection has worked with the WiSe scheme (Wildlife Safe Operators) to devise a code of conduct for responsible action around solitary dolphins.
  • If you think someone is acting inappropriately or irresponsibly near any whale or dolphin please contact your local police station immediately as it is an offence to disturb or harm dolphins under Section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) as amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and also Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c.) (Amendment) Regulations 2007.

If you have any concerns please

contact us
Photo Credits: Main Pic – Terry Whittaker, Trio pics l to r – T Read, R Coles, G Murphy, Bottom pic – M Dodds