It’s been another extraordinary summer in the saga of Dony the roving bottlenose dolphin. This is the dolphin for whom the term ‘dauphin ambassadeur’ was surely coined. After leaving the Blasket Islands and Dingle in July 2001, Dony spent time in England, the Channel Islands, Normandy, Belgium and even Holland, before settling on honorary French (or perhaps I should say Breton) citizenship in early 2003. But that didn’t mean an end to his journeyings; far from it, as since then he has ranged up and down the Atlantic coast, rarely staying more than a few days in any one location, though spending most of his time in Brittany. Only Dony’s exceptionally friendly and interactive behaviour with human companions, whether in boats or in the water, has made it possible to track his frequent and unpredictable movements from port to port. The situation has been complicated, however, by the presence in the same area of another equally interactive dolphin, Jean Floc’h. The task of collecting and cataloguing sightings of both dolphins has fallen largely to Sandra Guyomard of Réseau Cétacés, aided by Gauthier Chapelle in Brussels, and all dolphin enthusiasts and students of the ambassador dolphin phenomenon are greatly indebted to both of these for their diligent networking.
As a result, irishdolphins.com has been able to keep its Dony Location/Sightings page more or less up to date, and recently we have even been able to fill in a few blanks as sightings from months or even years ago have been reported to the network. Reviewing these, I note that in 2003 it was towards the end of July that Dony suddenly left Brittany and rapidly swam south to the Vendée resort of Les Sables d’Olonne. It really seemed just like one of us going south for a summer holiday! He stayed there for an unusually long time, over a week in fact, despite the uproar and consternation his presence caused in official circles, before finishing his vacation with a tour of the boatyards of St.Nazaire. Then it was back to Brittany for the autumn and winter. Dony’s faithfulness to the Cap Sizun area in the winter of 2003 and the first half of 2004 – even allowing for many appearances in other Breton locations - cannot be disentangled from his interactions there with Jean Floc’h, of which more elsewhere.
However, come the holiday season of this year and once again Dony had the urge to head south. The first leg of his journey, from the island of Ouessant off the Finistére coast to Bono in Morbihan, a distance of at least 220km and possibly a lot further, was completed in under 6 hours, according to the sightings reported by several reliable witnesses – an average speed of at least 35km/h maintained for the best part of a day! Another record for Dony? Then in the second week of July, Dony continued southwards, this time hopping rapidly over the Vendée to the county of Charente-Maritime. On the 17th July he reached his furthest known point south at Royan, a small town at the mouth of the huge estuary of the river Gironde, at whose head lies the city of Bordeaux; and he seems to have spent most of July and August in the same area. From here, as Gauthier points out, it’s ‘only’ another 300km south to meet up with the Basque country dolphin Paquito at San Sebastian, but the great thing with Dony is that we never know which way he’ll turn next!
As soon as Dony stays more than a few days in one place, the crowds start to gather as the news of his presence gets into the local media. Just as last year in Les Sables d’Olonne, this led to chaos in the harbour at Royan, with over 300 people crowding onto pontoons to get a closer look on the 27th July. The local authorities panicked, perhaps fearing an accident among the crowds, and since they were unable to control the people, tried instead to control the dolphin, with equal lack of success. They had already been busy leading Dony out of the harbour for several days; of course he simply swims back in with the next passing jetski or zodiac… Order was only restored when stormy weather induced Dony to move temporarily to other nearby harbours. French harbourmasters are obviously a force to be reckoned with however, as they have been vigorously ordering swimmers out of the water every time Dony has turned up again in Royan since!
We are often asked how we know that this ‘French’ dolphin is the same dolphin that we swam with in Ireland and which we perversely still insist on thinking of as ‘our’ Dony, years after he left our shores. Well, the answer is that when you have chance to see them close up, every dolphin looks different, just like any other animal or human being you get to know. Dony is particularly easy to recognise because of the propeller injury he received in Weymouth, England in 2001. The wound healed quickly despite being deep, but his dorsal fin will always bear the scar. We also have good photos from Dunquin days showing a very clear pattern on the trailing edge of his dorsal fin, something which has been confirmed many times since. The tissues in this part of the body are not really renewed, and although new nicks may appear, the old ones will remain.
What is more surprising is the recent discovery by Gauthier that tooth-rake marks which were photographed in April and again in September 2001 were still visible in July 2004. We always had the impression that these healed up in a matter of months, so once again we have to revise our assumptions!
Every solitary dolphin we have met has been amazing and unique in their own way, but it’s hard to beat the saga of Dony, the gypsy dolphin!