Stories and Sightings

Moonlight and Starlight’s Manx story 

Let’s start at the beginning​

On 16th September 2019 Phoebe Amy Warren was walking by the coast at Gansey, in the south east of the island. She managed to capture on video a pod of three adult bottlenose dolphins and a tiny newborn dolphin behaving erratically and leaping out of the water, which you can see in the video at 01:10. The baby is so small that it appears to look like a little fish leaping up behind the mothers dorsal fin. The size of the calf and the behaviour of the adults, suggests this footage was taken very soon after the calf was born. 

The mother was not known to us as ‘Moonlight’ from the Moray Firth until July 2020 and Starlight was not named until August 2020. Keep reading to learn their story…

Three days later…

A pod of three adult bottlenose and one very small calf entered Peel Bay, on the west coast. It is important to note here just how unusual it was at the time to see bottlenose dolphins on the west of the island, being almost exclusively east coast visitors. 

The group continued to visit Peel bay regularly over the next month and the first good quality photographs were captured by Brian Liggins on 21st October and 1st November off Peel breakwater. We see for the first time that the mother has a very distinctive dorsal fin, with two small notches near the top. This allows us to recognise her over the coming months. 

The foetal folds on the calf are visible, these lines occur when the calf is curled up in the womb and disappear over time. We are interested to see how long this takes. 

January 2020

The pod size begins fluctuating between two and seven individuals. They are still seen frequently but have begun venturing to the south and north of Peel, but still remaining on the west. Most sightings occur within 50 metres of the coast. By 31st December our pair have been reported a total of 27 times.

These photos show the two month old calf with her original pod. By the end of January all other adult dolphins had departed, leaving mother and calf on their own. In January the pair were reported a further 13 times, predominantly by Peel groyne, which we assume they are using to trap fish. 

February-April 2020

Through February and March they were spotted just six times. This was probably due to bad weather making spotting more difficult, as well as the start of the Isle of Man’s covid lockdown.
Things really started kicking off in April with 20 sightings over the course of the month all seen from coastal locations between Peel and the Point of Ayre. The first time they were seen up at the Ayres was 7th April. Other key spots during this time were Jurby, the Lhen, and Kirk Michael. The following footage was filmed by Daniel Crowe at Jurby on 18th April on a mobile phone. 

April 2020

The calf is now nearly seven months old and the foetal folds are still clearly visible. He or she has grown considerably but still retains its much paler grey colouration compared to the mother’s dark grey.

For the first time in seven months they ventured round to the east to Ramsey Bay, which is a favourite spot for our visiting winter bottlenose dolphins. On the 24th May they spent five hours foraging close in at Ramsey beach. It is clear by now that the pair are using the shallow sandy beaches of the north west and around to Ramsey to hunt fish. Throughout May they are recorded on 12 occasions and are getting noticeably closer in to shore. 

Starlight at 9 months. By Kevin Kallow
New foraging behaviours documented​

At the Dog Mills (2km north of Ramsey) there are a series of sandbanks just off the coast. On 20th June, according to observer Sue Corrin, the mother was seen driving fish onto the sandbank and beaching herself. She did this twice, thrashing her tail to slip back in to the water and the activity caught the attention of many herring gulls in the area. This type of foraging behaviour in wild bottlenose dolphins is documented in the tropics but is almost unheard of in this part of the world.  

Through June they were spotted 17 times including some north westerly locations where they hadn’t been recorded before; Blue Point and Rue Point. On 4th June they are photographed at the Point of Ayre by Kevin Kallow, which resulted in this adorable image.

More new behaviour​

Seen over a few consecutive days using the same area, this fantastic video by Ruth Black on 14th July shows they have developed a unique hunting method using our shallow sandy shores to trap fish. This behaviour has never been documented before in Manx waters. 

More fun in Peel​

Bottlenose dolphins are large, powerful and playful. They exhibit a wide variety of behaviour, often creating plenty of disturbance and white water as they surface. Behaviour can include bow riding, tail slapping, breaching and fast swimming. They are inquisitive and are often seen interacting and bow riding with boats. Being such an intelligent species, they have spare time to make up games, like this individual who was having a great time playing with some seaweed. They have also been seen to play ‘football’ with jellyfish, using their beak and tail to throw the jellyfish through the air. 

Mother is ‘missing’ Moray Firth dolphin!

On 22nd July 2020 we received some unbelievably exiting news. Following a link to this website on a marine mammal science mailing list, we heard from Barbara Cheney at the University of Aberdeen Lighthouse Field Station who told us she recognised the mother dolphin. She has two very distinct notches at the top of her dorsal fin which means she can be identified in photo-ID catalogues. Photo sharing confirmed she is definitely the same dolphin known as Moonlight!

Moonlight was part of the resident Moray Firth population of bottlenose dolphins and had been seen there each year since 1996! She, and a group of others left the Moray Firth in 2018 and were photographed off North Scotland and Ireland.  Most of the dolphins returned to the Firth last year, excluding Moonlight and a few others. One of these dolphins had crossed the North Sea and ended up in the Netherlands!

Moonlight was deemed ‘missing’, and it is terribly exciting to discover that she has actually been residing on the Isle of Man for at least the last 11 months with a new calf! For more info on this Scottish connection see the ‘meet the family‘ page.

Starlight is named and the pair are famous​

Following the discovery of Moonlight’s background, MWDW contacted the island’s media to run a press release.

A competition to name the calf took place with the winning name ‘Starlight’ as voted by the Manx public. The pair become celebrities, appearing close in Peel Bay for the BBC. The piece is used on BBC NW Tonight and BBC One Breakfast. They also come in on Peel Carnival day and are watched by hundreds of people. During this time Covid has locked down the world but the Isle of Man lives in a bubble with its borders closed.

Starlight at 11 months

After a few weeks ‘up north’ with sightings around Ramsey and the Ayres, the pair return to Peel and the first good quality images for a month or so are obtained. Starlight still has very visible foetal folds, and is still quite a way off adult size. Thanks to Mann Photos for the images. 

Happy birthday Starlight!

On the Saturday nearest to the 16th September we threw a first birthday party for Starlight to engage our local community. 

This incredible cake was made by Julie at the Whistlestop cafe and arranged by Neil Barron. Kids activities took place and a local family presented us with a papier mache Starlight!


The story continues…