BootsnAll Travel Network

Day of the Dolphins

Bay of Algeciras, 3rd October 2012
Common Dolphins
I’d been watching the wind forecasts for days, and finally it looked like conditions in the Strait of Gibraltar were calming down. My mind was made up. I left Malaga and made straight for Tarifa where—weeks earlier—a persistent sea state of 3-4 put paid to my plans to go whale watching.

Most of the cetaceans here are concentrated in the middle of the strait where common dolphins, striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales are frequently encountered, as well as orcas (who follow the bluefin tuna and have developed a knack of nicking it straight off the fishing lines, to the chagrin of the Moroccan fishermen in their tiny boats), and also sperm whales and the odd fin whale that might be passing through. So it was with great expectations that we set out. But there are forecasts and then there are actual conditions. Not for nothing is Tarifa known as one of the kite-surfing hotspots in Europe.

The wind picked up steadily and after getting thoroughly drenched without seeing as much as a fin, the good people at firmm (the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals) promised us another outing, this time departing from Algeciras to see the dolphins in the bay (no pilot whales or orcas there, but I remember the wonderful experience I had when I first came to Gibraltar in 1987).

So we set off in convoy, with a kind English-Dutch couple giving me a lift in their car. As we crossed the hills into Algeciras the wind died down and the harbour lay baking in the sun. We boarded the FIRMM Fly Blue and set out into the calm waters of the bay with gentle waves rippling the surface. The sea state was 2—almost perfect.

Sweeping with my binoculars I half expected to see dolphins leaping in the distance, but it wasn’t until we drew level with the tip of Gibraltar that the guide pointed out the first group of common dolphins—and there was no need for the binoculars because we were nearly on top of them! In fact we were on top of them as two to three individuals swam directly underneath the bow, twisting and turning and darting from side-to-side.
Common Dolphins

For the next fifteen minutes we passed through what I can only describe as a ‘dolphin zone’ with hundreds of animals surfacing all around and ahead of us. The bay was boiling! Somewhere in the mêlée I saw a sunfish floating just below the surface, like a big, fat pale pancake. I stared at it, gobsmacked, and completely forgot to take a picture.

The dolphins were scattered all around us, although a few groups were swimming fast in some direction or other, jumping frequently. About ten minutes after we left the ‘dolphin zone’ we came across another school of perhaps a dozen animals, with several mother-calf pairs among them. They were travelling steadily west and not engaging with the boat (which kept a respectful distance).
Common Dolphins
Although hundreds of dolphins were concentrated in such a small area, they clearly displayed different behaviours. I would have loved to see what they got up to underwater. Did they all congregate around a big buffet of fish and were either off playing or moving away after eating their fill?
Dolphin Zone Guess
The oval near the tip of Gibraltar marks the area where I think we’ve seen most of the dolphins, but of course this is only a guess. I don’t know the real extend of the group or how far out they were.

It is great to see that—after all these years—the dolphins are still there, and in such numbers (despite two outbreaks of morbillivirus). But the Bay of Algeciras is one of the most polluted waters in Europe and the Strait of Gibraltar is one of the busiest shipping routes. Moreover these are international waters so that declaring it a marine park is practically hopeless.
Common Dolphins and Ships
Still, firmm is actively engaged in conservation and research and I’m delighted to have gone out with them. It has taken a long time for the research community and the world at large to notice the cetaceans in the Strait of Gibraltar. While dolphin watching has started in Gibraltar in 1969, it wasn’t until the nineties that the first research programmes have been put into place (e.g. Hashmi D. D. K., Adloff B., 1991. Surface frequency of cetaceans in the Strait of Gibraltar. In: P. G. H. Evans (ed.), European research on cetaceans, 5: 16-17—this was the time before the internet and I can’t find the document, although I think I have the actual journal!).
Dolphins & the Rock

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