CLIFF BENSON, a director of the Wales-based charity Sea Trust, was steeped in luck earlier this month when he spotted a superpod of dolphins about ten miles off the Irish coast in the Tuskar Rock area of Co Wexford. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.
He was doubly lucky in that it was a fine sunny day with a relatively calm sea and he was trying out his newly-acquired binoculars with built-in high definition video camera. His video footage was screened by RTÉ and the BBC. It was one of those rare occasions on which everything fell into place.
The scientific method of establishing how common dolphins are is called 'constant effort watching'. Volunteers sit on a headland and scan the sea for dolphins for 90 minutes. The exercise is repeated from the same vantage point at least once each month and over a number of years the pattern of dolphin activity in the area emerges.
In addition to land-based constant effort watches from points around the coast, watches are conducted along lines at sea called transects. These are the routes that ships follow between ports. The Rosslare Harbour to Wales ferry route is a long established transect.
Volunteers from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group monitor each month on Irish Ferries vessels sailing into Pembroke while colleagues from the Welsh side do likewise aboard the Stena Line's Stena Europe superferry out of Fishguard.
Most of the time small numbers of dolphins are recorded by the dedicated surveyors but every now and again someone hits the jackpot. Dolphins normally live in small groups called pods each numbering a dozen or more of these marine mammals.
When an abundant source of food is located several different pods coalesce into a large aggregation known as a superpod. The superpod of Common Dolphins seen off the Tuskar on 9 January was estimated to number at least 250 and possibly up to 500 animals. Since the sea was boiling with jumping dolphins an accurate count was out of the question.
Data from ferry-based surveys to date show that dolphins are regularly recorded in small numbers along the Wexford/Wales transect and that they are more plentiful during the warmer months of the year so to capture a large superpod on film in mid-winter on a calm, sunny day was pretty exceptional. The video may be accessed on YouTube at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWr43fqfMzc and more about dolphins at www.iwdg.ie.