Solitary Dolphins

What is a solitary dolphin?​

You may have heard of Donald the dolphin who was a Manx resident in the 1970s before he moved on to Wales and Cornwall (Lockyer – 1978).

Donald was a solitary male bottlenose dolphin, a phenomenon which is not entirely uncommon around the world. A famous example is Fungie who was a resident in Dingle harbour from 1983 until his passing in October 2020.

Donald with Maura Mitchell. Image copyright D. Aspinall
Why do some dolphins become solitary?

Bottlenose dolphins are the most common dolphin species to exhibit solitary behaviour. It is thought that this happens because of the dolphins’ ‘fission-fusion’ society, in other words a very fluid and ever-changing social structure. Some years pods may not change at all, whilst other years it may reform completely due to bachelor males or mothers with juveniles moving around. Mother-calf pairs may move around as male bottlenose dolphins have been known to practice infanticide, that is killing the calf in order to free the female up again for mating.

Solitary dolphins typically avoid other dolphins and seek out interaction with boats and humans, particularly around harbours and becoming known as a ‘sociable, solitary dolphin’.

A ‘solitary pair’

We now consider Moonlight and Starlight a ‘solitary pair’ as they actively avoid other dolphins, but seek out human interaction. 

Since the beginning of their residence to Manx waters they have hunted very close to shore, with Moonlight using feeding methods learnt in the shallow Moray Firth area. We believe this explains her preference for shallow, sandy bays such as Peel, Ramsey and Port Erin. As a result, Starlight has grown up around human interaction and enjoys bow riding boats and jet-skis, swimming around kayakers and paddle-boarders, and close approaches of swimmers or people wading the shallows. 

Signs of habituation

As Starlight has only interacted with her mother and humans, she is likely to display behaviour more similar to a social solitary dolphin than Moonlight who was a member of a large population prior to coming to the Isle of Man.

In Goodwin and Dodds – 2019 – Lone rangers, a report on solitary dolphins there are six stages of habituation. Moonlight and Starlight display behaviour at stage two, with elements of stage four.

A special Moonlight and Starlight Code of Conduct is in place to regulate interaction. 

Moonlight by Peel Lifeboat slip, photo by Vicky Walmsley