Spotlight on ‘amazing’ animal

Dr Ben Burville with Robson Green during a break in filming for More Tales from Northumberland.
Dr Ben Burville with Robson Green during a break in filming for More Tales from Northumberland.

A Morpeth man’s efforts to learn more about a species of intelligent animal in the North Sea is progressing well.

And experienced diver Dr Ben Burville, who recently featured on an episode of More Tales from Northumberland, is urging county residents to back proposals that will help protect white-beaked dolphins when they are in the Farnes East.

After being granted a wildlife licence from the Marine Management Organisation to film the species underwater off the north Northumberland coast, he has managed to get some useful footage on occasions over the last two years and this is helping academics and organisations with their work.

Dr Burville has linked up with William Shiel and skipper Alan Leatham through 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.

Farnes East is the name for the site that is 11km offshore from the Berwickshire coast and within close proximity to the Farne Islands. It is one of the areas that are set to be given Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) status as part of new proposals by Defra.

“Since I was granted the licence, I have been building up a catalogue of underwater photos and footage so we can try to identify as many individual white-beaked dolphins as possible,” said Dr Burville.

“Unlike some other species of dolphin, it is difficult to identify them from boats because of the amount of spray that these dolphins generate and the fact that less than 20 per cent of them have identifiable features on the dorsal fin.

“Hopefully, I can carry on this work for at least another five years to learn more about them. It would be particularly useful to get a clearer picture on the sex mix of the pods in the Farnes East.

“They are incredibly inquisitive animals and they come to look at me close up when I’m in the water – I sometimes wonder who is examining who?

“Filming them is an amazing experience. Time just stops.

“It would be great if the Farnes East gets MCZ status because the dolphins would have much less disturbance from ships and large fishing activities. I have submitted a report about my work so far to Defra.”
The consultation runs until April 24. For more information, visit consult.defra.gov.uk/marine/tranche2mczs

Dr Burville is working with the School of Marine Science at Newcastle University and the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrew’s University. In addition, information and footage from his dives are being used by working groups of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS).

The GP’s day job sees him working at a practice in Amble. His passion for sea diving goes back more than 25 years and he specialises in swimming with marine mammals.

His white-beaked dolphin work is carried out during wildlife expeditions that are available on the Ocean Explorer between late June and early October. To promote these trips, he has set up a website called North Sea Pelagics – he receives no money from the people going on the expeditions as observers.

For more information, visit www.northseapelagics.co.uk