‘They’re coming this way!’ A day trip with dolphins in Lyme Bay

A marine nature trip into the English Channel from Weymouth proves an exhilarating introduction to an often unseen panoply of UK wildlife

“They’re coming this way,” shouts Tom. “Looks like they’re going to bow-ride.” I wedge myself against the rail and peer down into the translucent water where, sure enough, three dolphins materialise beneath my nose. Their domed heads rise as one, blowholes flaring with a hydraulic “pfff” as they break briefly into our element before slipping back into theirs, torpedo bodies jockeying like Olympic cyclists in our bow wave.

More converge from left and right: 16 in total, including two youngsters that race in tight tandem with their mothers. The hourglass flank pattern identifies these as common dolphins – a smaller, more ocean-going species than the better-known bottlenose. But whatever the species, dolphins always spark the same thrill. We dash from bow to stern, gasping like kids at fireworks as the exuberant cetaceans escort us through the water.

The Snapper, moored in Weymouth.
The Snapper, moored in Weymouth. Photograph: Mike Unwin

It’s a gorgeous day and I’m in the middle of the Channel, 20 miles (32km) out of Weymouth, Dorset. We’re heading towards France, but this is no ferry crossing. Our boat, the Snapper, has been chartered by the wildlife tour company Naturetrek for a pelagic day trip across Lyme Bay. Pelagos is Ancient Greek for “sea”, and the idea is to explore this broad sweep of ocean – demarcated by an imaginary line between Portland Bill in Dorset and Start Point in Devon – in search of wildlife rarely seen from land.

Naturetrek is known more for its far-flung overseas adventures. But in 2020, thwarted by the pandemic, the company launched a programme of UK day trips, its expert wildlife guides swapping the likes of Borneo and the Himalayas for the Forest of Dean and the South Downs. And marine guides such as Tom Brereton, a veteran of pelagic tours in Mexico and the Azores, and a research director for conservation charity Marinelife, are now bringing their expertise to more local waters, setting sail from Dorset and Devon.

Last year a thresher shark was spotted off Dorset.
Last year a thresher shark was spotted off Dorset. Photograph: Gerard Soury/Getty Images

The sky was already cloudless at 8.45am, when we met Tom on the quayside. Having already advised us what to bring (binoculars, hat, sunblock – and sea-sickness pills, if susceptible), and is careful to manage expectations. “It’s a lottery out there. Just enjoy being out at sea; we’ll see what we see.” Soon Weymouth’s grand Georgian seafront is receding behind us as we chug out passing a flotilla of cruise ships mothballed by the pandemic.

To ignorant landlubbers like me, the glittering ocean appears one seamless blanket. The truth, Tom explains, is very different. Over the engine’s throb, he outlines the complex forces that lie beneath: how three tides converging around Portland Bill create a treacherous current called the Portland race that has spelt disaster for ships over the ages; and how the breaking white water on our port side marks the Shambles bank, a four-mile sand ridge that at low tide has also brought generations of maritime misery.

This great skua was one of the stars of the boat trip.
This great skua was one of the stars of the boat trip. Photograph: Mike Unwin

Tom also explains how the sea’s submarine topography determines what wildlife lives above it. The Shambles bank brings us the day’s first cetaceans: a quartet of harbour porpoises quietly fishing the turbulent shallows, their triangular dorsal fins breaking the surface like slow-turning wheels. As we head south, the coastal birds that escorted us out of the harbour – herring gulls overhead, cormorants across the bows – give way to true ocean-going species: Balearic shearwaters, stiff-winged wanderers from the Mediterranean, angle low over the swell; tiny storm petrels flutter in and out of the wave troughs.

At midday, now about 25 miles out, a trawler appears, trailing what appears from a distance to be swirling confetti. It’s gannets, hundreds of them, drawn to the shoaling fish like bees to a honeypot. “We’re coming into birds now,” shouts Tom, as we approach. Soon the sea is detonating around us as these big white plunge-divers smash into the swell and emerge with silver sprats clutched in dagger bills. Kittiwakes join the melee, while fulmars cruise past our bows and great skuas, piratical pursuers of any fishing seabird, cruise menacingly overhead. To starboard, more dolphins arrive, slicing through the surface then disappearing to pile into the shoal from below. This impressive feeding frenzy recalls TV footage of South Africa’s “sardine run”. It is hard to believe we’re in the Channel.

“Bluefin tuna have been seen coming in over the last few days,” says Tom, listing some surprising recent Lyme Bay sightings, including ocean sunfish and sea turtles, and, swiping through his phone, crowns it with his own amazing photograph of a leaping thresher shark. “A lucky shot,” he says. “It made the papers.”

Bottlenose dolphins spotted by Mike Unwin passing a parked cruise ship in Lyme Bay.
Bottlenose dolphins spotted by Mike Unwin passing a parked cruise ship in Lyme Bay. Photograph: Mike Unwin

It’s late afternoon as we chug back into Weymouth harbour, with about 80 more miles of the Channel now in the captain’s log. The sea delivers one final treat: two bottlenose dolphins pass alongside, flashing their irresistible grins. Apparently, the pair have been hanging out around the cruise ships for a while. Dubbed Harry and Wills locally, they have since been identified by marine biologists as a mother and daughter from Scotland’s Moray Firth. Who knows why they made the long journey south or how long they’ll stay. It’s just another mystery of pelagos.

Weymouth Pelagic: Dolphins, Shearwaters and Petrels day trip (£120pp, May-Sept) was provided by Naturetrek, which also operates a Seabirds and Cetaceans of Lyme Bay trip, £125 (April-Sept), from Brixham, Devon

Mike Unwin

The GuardianTramp

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