PICTURED: Dolphins in Dorset
PUBLISHED: 09:51 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 17:01 05 November 2020
Marine photographer Steve Belasco shares some very special wildlife moments
Back in early spring I noticed some reports on Facebook, with a selection of distant images, of a group of bottlenoses near Portland Bill. I hoped they’d still be around when I headed out in my motorboat on a windy overcast March evening, though with such rough weather I knew they wouldn’t be very near the Bill.
Along the rocky east side of the island, a few hundred metres offshore, I spotted some airborne gulls interested in something beneath them. I approached slowly and was rewarded with the sight of the occasional dark fin piercing the surface, right on the edge of an area known locally as the God Nore Race. This is a small cousin of the notorious Portland Race but it can still kick up very rough. Before long the boat was bouncing around. As my grip on the wheel tightened, I carefully scanned the area for signs of dolphin activity.
As an experienced marine photographer it has always seemed sensible to me, on the occasions I’ve seen them, to get within a modest distance of dolphins and then wait for them to come to you if they’re interested. Fortunately the pod did indeed come to investigate and to play. There were about eight, one or two calves and the rest were adults of up to 10 or 11 feet long.
I was soon grinning and whooping like an idiot, even while cursing as I controlled the boat as it bounced around – trying to keep the island in the background and take photographs, all at the same time.
Wild dolphins tend to pop up just where you’re not expecting them. Look outwards and you hear a loud breath as a dolphin surfaces virtually under your nose. Quickly change to a wide-angle lens for close-ups, and they race off to breach and pirouette further out. But, despite these frustrations, it’s always a joy to see them jostling and chasing each other.
After half an hour of drifting as far as I dared into the race, and having nearly dropped my camera overboard, I was soaked, bruised and deliriously happy. As my new friends moved deeper into the race I called it a day.
Heading back to Portland Harbour I wasn’t sure how many decent images I’d captured, it had been almost impossible to look through the camera viewfinder. But when I got back onto dry land I was delighted with the results, which made the challenge well worthwhile.
Fast forward a few months to July, the weather is hot and the pod had been spotted in the same location off Portland. This time it was relatively calm and I managed to spend a good hour alone with ‘my friends’ who provided me with some thrilling displays leaping clear out of the water right in front of the colourful beach huts that line the Bill.
There can’t be much that beats the intensely moving experience of being the sole human amongst these magnificent wild creatures and observing their behaviour. It also guarantees a big grin from ear to ear – and a rather fabulous cover shot.
Where and when to spot dolphins
The best time to spot dolphins off our coast is early autumn and spring. Their home ranges cover a large area though there are frequent sightings of bottlenoses around Peveril Point and Durlston Head, near Swanage and Portland. They do make frequent fleeting appearances on the surface when hunting, so use binoculars, be patient and remain optimistic. Excited seabirds are a clear giveaway of surface activity. Look for an irregular wave or splash as well as a dark fin breaking the surface. You can find dolphin watching events run by Dorset Wildlife Trust (dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk), Durlston Country Park (durlston.co.uk) and the Seawatch Foundation (seawatchfoundation.org.uk).
Steve Belasco is a part-time marine photographer and a Jurassic Coast Ambassador who is documenting the Jurassic Coast from his motorboat. His images have been widely published, including in his book Dorset From The Sea, a second is on the way. He lives with his family in Portesham. See his photography at stevebelasco.net or download/buy images at jurassicphotographic.com. Signed copies of Dorset From The Sea can be purchased direct from Steve at £9.99 for the ‘coffee table’ edition or £4.99 for the ‘souvenir’ edition (plus £3 postage). Email: email@example.com.