Bunratty dolphins recorded in the Shannon Estuary

7th Jun 2013

The three dolphins that were in the river in Buratty in April have been observed in the Shannon estuary from a dolphin tour boat.

Following the disapearance of the three dolphins from the river in Bunratty we had hoped that we might record them during ongoing monitoring of the Shannon dolphin population this summer. 

The SDWF carry out annual monitoring of the dolphins from dolphin tour boats operating from Kilrush and Carrigaholt, Co Clare and during dedicated boat transects. During the first monitoring trip from Kilrush this week, three dolphins were recorded by the SDWF. Each dolphin in this small, discrete population is important and it is reassuring to know that the "Bunratty Three" are healthy and have rejoined the Shannon population.

See http://www.shannondolphins.ie/article.asp?id=80 for full story and matches

18 April 2013

For those who were able to listen to the Shannon dolphins through hydrophones deployed from the bridge at Bunratty, it was a fantastic experience - to watch and listen to the dolphins foraging simultaneously.  The Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation (www.shannondolphins.ie) have provided acoustic files for IWDG to link on this website. The mp3 files are posted on Karl Grabe website and can be listened to at:

(7.5 mp3 file)
a larger file is available here
(25mb mp3 file)

18 April 2013

We have had no reports of the dolphins at Bunratty since Saturday and assume the dolphins have returned to the Shannon Estuary.  The Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation will be monitoring the Shannon dolphins this year as part of there ongoing monitoring programme. we will be paying special attention in trying to record these dolphins to confirm whether they are back with the Shannon dolphins and to assess there condition.

Thank you to all of you who assisted with reports, information and images.  A very interesting experience.

Day 15: 15/04/2013

Following a busy weekend at Bunratty it appears the dolphins are spending less time at the bridge. On Friday dolphins were present in the morning and in the evening around high water and remained there for around an hour foraging around the bridge. Interesting dolphins were upriver during low water and not out in the estuary as we might have expected. On Saturday they were observed around the bridges at around high water in the morning but not in the evening. On Sunday no dolphins had been reported up to 5pm but may have occurred at high water in the evening but it would have been dark.  With the rain over the weekend, the fish the dolphins were feeding on may have moved upriver.

So it might be that the dolphin show is coming to an end but those of you who were lucky enough to watch them had a great display. Any sightings please report to sightings@iwdg.ie.

For more information on the Shannon Dolphins see www.shannondolphins.ie

Day 14: 13/04/2013

IWDG member and undergraduate student at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Gary Robinson spent the day at Bunratty on behalf of the IWDG.  Here he reports on the days events:

I arrived at the village at just before 10.00 and already there was a group of onlookers leaning over the bridge that were able to tell me that the dolphins had risen and been spotted just up at the bend in the river but had not been seen for a good ten minutes. Between 10.00 and 11.00 I observed all three and they stayed up in that area of the river, not venturing below the bend. They did not show themselves very frequently and when they did it was just their dorsal fins breaking the water’s surface. Between 11.00 and 12.30 they spent their time moving from the bend in the river downstream towards the first bridge and back up to the bend in the river once more. They repeated this three times over the course of this hour and a half period. From what I could observe, it seemed that the smallest of the dolphins was sticking very close to one of the larger ones. The third dolphin seemed happy enough to swim about on its own. Also between this hour and a half period they appeared to break the surface far more frequently than they had earlier in the morning and the “single” dolphin even treated observers to a couple of rolls.

At approximately 12.30 the trio lined up under the arch of the bridge and swam under it without hesitation. It seemed that they were undaunted by this ‘impassable’ obstacle. They spent the next hour and a quarter below the bridges and were observed swimming and rolling in this area of the river. The swimming format remained as it had for the morning – the smaller dolphin sticking with one of the larger ones and the third seemed happy enough doing its own thing. During this time it was observed that for about half an hour they concentrated their efforts just below the bridge and it certainly appeared that they were probably hunting – there was rapid swishes of tails and what appeared to be doubling back on themselves, perhaps to mop up stunned fish?

All the while the water level was dropping and by 14.00 the trio were observed for the last time a little further downstream, just above the bridge for the main N18. I left the area at 18.00 having not seen them again but with the hopes that Karl and Vero may get an evening visit.  At no time did the dolphins appear to be agitated, their behaviour was certainly leisurely, apart from the odd flick of a tail when they were stationed below the second bridge.

The day passed without serious incident (no wetsuits turning up) and one thing that impressed me was the amount of interest that had been generated by the trio’s visits. Despite the inclement weather, there had been a steady stream of people showing up all day long hoping to catch a glimpse of the dolphins. Some left disappointed, some elated. Lots of questions were asked and I hope I answered these as well as I could. If I was to offer my opinion I would say that the dolphins appeared calm, able to come and go from the area at their own free will and were probably just exploiting an easy food source.

Gary Robinson

Day 13: 12/04/13 - Healthy and mobile

Despite rumours that the dolphins were gone, the three bottlenose dolphins recorded at Bunratty Castle made a brief appearance towards high water tonight as they travelled downriver.  However they soon disappeared.  about 30 minutes later they reappeared, foraged off the bridge for around an hour before heading upriver at around 8:30 pm.

Apparently they were seen this morning at between 8 and 10am and reported way up river of Bunratty during the day.  Simon Berrow, Sandra O'Donovan and Jane Brown from the IWDG were at the bridge from 5 until 9pm with hydrophones informing people about the dolphins and sharing the incredible sounds foraging dolphins make. There was great interest and IWDG will try and have people present over the weekend to deploy hydrophones and field questions from the public.

Anybody interested in seeing them might try and be at the bridge around high water which will be around 9-10am and again 8-9pm in the evening. We are confident that the dolphins are very healthy and are moving under all three bridges and well upriver.

Day 10: 09/04/13 - All looking good

The IWDG was present at Bunratty all day today to make a detailed assessment of the dolphins condition and long term prognosis.  IWDG Executive Officer Dr Simon Berrow was present 2 hours before low tide and up to high water at 7pm.  This gave an opportunity to observe the dolphins behaviour from low to high water and assess their reaction to the bridge, which has been reported that they were unwilling to swim under.  The NPWS were also present from 3pm with a number of staff willing to attempt to persuade the dolphins to leave the area.  The local Coastguard at Killaloe were also tasked to assist two hours before high water if required. 

At 11am the dolphins were slowly surfacing in a narrow strip of water around 100-150m up river of the bridge.  Surfacing intervals of 20-30 seconds suggested there were not stressed and the group were not tightly bound. As the tide dropped, leaving less than 0.5m water depth at the bridge, the dolphins remained in their narrow channel gently swimming up and down. 

Close to low water two men in wetsuits and fins entered the water to "swim" with the dolphins.  When asked what were they trying to achieve and were they aware that their actions were illegal and stupid and that there was a mother and calf present, they had the appropriate smug and arrogant replies.  As they approached the dolphins became agitated, formed a tight group and slipped past the swimmers.  The embarrassment of 20-30 students witnessing their stupidity seemed to put them off and the swimmers soon left.  The incident was reported to the NPWS but the swimmers had left Bunratty before they arrived. This reflects the greatest threat to the dolphins - not starvation, not kidney failure but the inappropriate actions of people !!

As the tide turned and water flooded quickly through the bridge there was a marked change in dolphin behaviour.  The dolphins quickly approached the bridge and spread out across the rapidly expanding river. We deployed hydrophones from the bridge and were treated to an amazing orchestra of dolphin echolocation, whistling, grunts, groans and feeding buzzes. Yes, the dolphins were foraging. Over the next 4 hours we witnessed feeding rushes, feeding buzzes and saw fish being caught on at least three occasions. Two were large individuals, possibly mullet and one a smaller, round fish, possibly smelt. As the tide rose the dolphins swam under the bridge, surfacing and even breaching right under the bridge they were "afraid to pass under". 

So the dolphins still appear healthy, their surfacing behaviour is "normal", they are actively foraging and showed no fear of the bridge.  Local opinion suggested there were up to 10 dolphins at the beginning, but four remained initially, with three present over the last 9 days. The dolphins include an adult and a calf, maybe 2-3 years old, and one immature. 

It is our, and the NPWS opinion, that the dolphins are healthy, well able to pass under the bridges if they wish and are actively foraging. NPWS stood down their intention to try and encourage the dolphins to leave.  It looks like the dolphins have found a good food source and are exploiting this opportunity on each flood tide.  Between tides they are resting in a shallow pool. The IWDG will continue to monitor the situation and use images to assess the condition of the dolphins over time. We encourage people to go and admire these fantastic animals from the safety and comfort of the bridge, as it is a fantastic spectacle. We also hope that those people who wish to swim with them, throw stones and engage in other inappropriate behaviour stay away and do not do anything to force the authorities to act to protect people rather than to protect the dolphins.

Enjoy it while it lasts !!

Day 9: 08/04/13

Not much to report new today Mon. 8th April; but video footage from Margaret O' Halloran confirms the dolphins still present.  On viewing it, they appear to be swimming reasonably strongly and there is no obvious sign of traumas or injury, but it is impossible to tell how this ordeal may be impacting on their health.  Hopefully with a plan devised tomorrow (Tues. 9th), we'll be in a position to report with some good news, i.e. that they have been encouraged out of the river Ratty back into the Shannon Estuary.

Day 7 & 8: 07/04/13

We are now on day 8 and the situation remains unchanged.  The 3 remaining dolphins were still in the immediate area this morning Sunday 7th April. Mid this week sees a new moon and low tides to 0.4m, and we are concerned that this creek will get close to drying out, which would be very serious.  Apart from the potential risk of live-stranding in low water during the week, there are very real concerns about the water's salinity and the colder temperature of this small body of water, compared to the larger Shannon Estuary.  Bottlenose dolphins have adapted to living in a marine (salt water) environment and prolonged exposure to fresh water is likely to be detrimental to their health.  

A speedy decision needs to be made by the authorities responsible for the management of Special Areas of Conservation that will bring closure to this saga.  This small group represents around 3% of the resident Shannon Estuary bottlenose dolphin population, which is one of only four such populations in Europe. The state is obliged under the EU Habitats Directive to do everything within reason to protect bottlenose dolphins.

Day 6: 05/04/13

The only real development today is that we can now confirm that there were originally 4 dolphins involved in this incident.  Images (below) only seen today, taken by Dominick Moloney on Sunday 31st March clearly show 4 bottlenose dolphins swimming infront of Durty Nellies. Clearly one of them has successfully navigated its way under the bridges and out of the river presumably on the first day. According to staff at Durty Nellies, the remaining 3 dolphins were present throughout the day today, which is now day 6.  


The weekend is likely to draw greater numbers to view the spectacle, and we'd ask people to watch respectfully from the road/bridge.  Under no circumstances should people attempt to enter the water or interact with them, just in case it makes the situation more complicated than it already is.

Day 5: 04/04/13

The site has been visited today by IWDG Conservation officer, Dr Joanne O' Brien and the 3 bottlenose dolphins remain in the same location at Durty Nellies pub, Bunratty. Isabel Baker, researcher at the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation has matched two of the dolphins to the Shannon Dolphin catalogue held by the SDWF using images supplied by Pat Flynn.  This confirms the group as Shannon dolphin, which suggests they are used to navigating in shallow tributaries of the Shannon Estuary. However, as the Shannon population is small we must also monitor these dolphins to ensure they do not get into difficulty as the population cannot withstand any unexpected losses.

Series of bridges at Bunratty, 04/04/13 © Joanne O Brien, IWDG/GMIT

Joanne confirmed that the group appeared in apparently good condition with no obvious signs of distress, but there is growing concern that they have spent a long period in this narrow stretch of  water with no sign of leaving.  We can't rule out the possibility that their acoustic abilities may be impaired by the series of bridges and concrete pillars that span one of the bridges, and that they may be finding it difficult to navigate as a result of an "acoustic trap".   We are in discussion with NPWS with a view to exploring options in the event of a decision being made to encourage them back into the Shannon Estuary. This situation will be monitored closely. 

The above image gives an idea of what the dolphins must navigate before returning to the safety of the Shannon Estuary.

Day 4: 03/04/13

Bottlenose dolphins in shallow water 03/04/13 © Sue MageeThe latest report from this evening (Wed 3rd) from Sue Magee of DolphinWatch Carrigaholt suggests that the 3 bottlenose dolphins are still in the same area and show no signs of being stressed (image left). They were observed feeding. The group has what looks like a juvenile or sub-adult. This is good news and supports advice that they should be left to their own devices unless there is a compelling reason to intervene.  Please continue to keep us informed.


Day 3: 02/04/13

The IWDG have just confirmed from video footage received on 2nd April, that the three dolphins in the Ralty River, at Durty Nellies pub, Bunratty are bottlenose dolphins and are almost certainly from the Shannon Estuary resident population, though this has not been confirmed yet. It is the considered opinion of the Shannon Dolphin Wildlife Foundation (www.shannondolphins.ie) and the IWDG that they not be interfered with and left to swim back into the Shannon Estuary on their own.

Three dolphins were reported swimming in the muddy creek at Bunratty Castle on Sunday 31st March. They were initially reported as common dolphins, an open water species, but video evidence taken on 1st and 2nd April confirms they are bottlenose dolphins; a coastal species with a population of c130 individuals in the Shannon Estuary.  The Shannon Estuary is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for bottlenose dolphins, an Annex IV species on the EU Habitats Directive, and accordingly, they are afforded a high level of protection under both Irish and EU law. 


Although it is very unusual to see dolphins this far up a muddy creek, recent acoustic monitoring carried out by the SDWF have recorded bottlenose dolphins on 15% of days off Shannon Airport and 25% of days off Aughinish; thus bottlenose dolphins are upriver much more than we previously thought.

Bottlenose pair at Bunratty, Co. Clare 02/04/13 © Pat Flynn

The dolphins in the above video do not seem to be stressed, but local observers suggest they are reluctant to pass under the bridge at the site. However, they must have swam under this bridge to get to their present location. We recommend that the dolphins are left alone to swim back down the creek on their own terms. Obviously if they become stressed (as determined by breathing rate) then some intervention may be required.

Bottlenose dolphins in the Shannon Estuary are frequently observed foraging in shallow waters, although it is unusual to find them in a Shannon tributory. It is very unlikely that they will strand, but of course the situation will be monitored.

We'd advise local rescue agencies or individuals to consult with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and/or IWDG before taking any measures which may disturb these animals.  It is an offence to interfere with bottlenose dolphins anywhere in Irish waters, but in particular when within an SAC where the designation is aimed at protecting a local dolphin population and their habitat.  Full consent would be required from the competent authority (NPWS) and this would extend to coaxing the dolphins out of their current location. Based on footage viewed so far, they look fit and healthy and appear to be foraging, perhaps on an early season salmon run.

We will endeavour to keep you updated if there is any significant change to the situation. Any suitable photo- ID images that show well-marked dorsal fins should be forwarded to the SDWF on www.shannondolphins.ie to assist in their ongoing research into the bottlenose dolphins of the Shannon Estuary.

IWDG would like to thank the following for their input and time so far: Sue Magee (DolphinWatch Carrigaholt), Seamus Hassett (NPWS), Pat Flynn (image above) and Margaret O' Halloran (video)

Simon Berrow & Pádraig Whooley, IWDG




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