Doctor swaps his surgery for the sea in search of dolphins

Dr Ben Burville and one of his pictures of a white beaked dolphin.
Dr Ben Burville and one of his pictures of a white beaked dolphin.

A MORPETH man is once again going out to sea to discover more about an intelligent animal.

Dr Ben Burville has specialised in swimming with seals and other marine mammals over the years and now he is turning his attentions to the white-beaked dolphin.

He has been granted a wildlife licence from the Marine Management Organisation to film the species underwater off the north Northumberland coast and has already seen a few of them up close over the last few weeks.

The plan is to build up a database of individual dolphins in the next five years, including sightings over the winter months, in an effort to establish whether there are resident pods.

Dr Burville is working closely with William Shiel and skipper Alan Leatham out of Seahouses using the commercial boat Ocean Explorer, a 30ft rigid inflatable boat with twin 200hp outboards, which enables him to cover a large area of water during each excursion.

He said: “This project is combining my love of diving in the sea with my interest in dolphins. My dissertation for my marine biology degree was about echolocation in bottleneck dolphins.

“The importance of going underwater was shown in a study by two Danish scientists in Icelandic waters as they found that less than 20 percent of individual white-beaked dolphins could be identified from the surface.

“Despite being the most numerous dolphin in the North Sea, the species has rarely been studied due to the complexity of getting offshore. We have confirmed an area where we know that for certain months of the year there is a high probability of seeing them and anecdotal accounts from local fisherman say that they see more of them in the winter.

“These dolphins are normally found in pods, between three and 30 in size, but what isn’t known is things such as how many males and females make up a pod and how they behave as a group and it will be fascinating to find out.

“They are intelligent creatures and it was mind-blowing that when I swam in a dolphin-like fashion, they came alongside me to find out what I was doing out of curiosity.”

The expeditions will help efforts by various organisations to have a section 11km offshore from the Berwickshire coast and within close proximity to the Farne Islands, dubbed the Farnes East, recognised as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) by Defra.

Seals, puffins, guillemots, gannets and minke whales are among the mammals and birds that have been spotted in the area.

The glacial feature to the south, known as the Farne Deeps, is of particular importance for foraging and breeding white-beaked dolphins.

Dr Burville, who lives in Morpeth and works at a practice in Amble, uses free diving methods to help ensure that the dolphins do not accidentally get hurt. Wildlife enthusiasts are welcome to observe the animal from the boat.

The experienced diver said: “Another reason for doing this is to raise the profile of the sea waters off the north Northumberland coast because I don’t think many people know just how much fascinating wildlife can be discovered in them.

“Seeing pods of wild dolphins jumping in the open North Sea is a truly spectacular sight.

“I’m very keen to make sure that there is no disturbance of these animals in a harmful way.

“On our trips out so far, they have chosen to come to us and they bowride the boat, but it stops before I go in the water.”

For more information about future expeditions and to enquire about going along email bburville@hotmail.com

To support efforts to make Farnes East a MCZ, visit www.wildlifetrusts.org/MCZ/farnes-east