David C. Holroyd

The WeWhale Pod Episode 12 - David C. Holroyd

Our guest for this episode of The WeWhale Pod is David C. Holroyd, dolphin trainer turned animal activist.

Manchester-born David shares the unexpected way that he became a dolphin show presenter and, soon after, a trainer in the 1970s. He also talks about the special connection he developed with two bottlenose dolphins, Herbie and Duchess, and why he has been campaigning for many years to make sure whale and dolphin shows around the world are shut down forever.

He also explains the Atlantean mind connection with dolphins and what that feels like.

Take a listen to the episode below:

David and his sister Tracy have written The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy,  a true story and a damning exposé of the captive cetacean industry. You can buy a copy at the links below:


The Perfect Pair Dolphin Trilogy


Thanks to Skalaa Music for post-production.

You can listen to previous episodes on our Podcast Page.


Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Tilikum

In our fifth and final blog on whales who’ve captured the attention of the world and the hearts of people, we take a closer look at Tilikum.   

The male orca featured in the compelling 2013 documentary Blackfish, which did a huge amount to sway people’s opinions against keeping orcas in captivity in marine theme parks.  

Tilikum’s story is a sad one, filled with so many instances where he suffered throughout his life. Ultimately, though, his story helped to create a ripple effect where marine theme parks came under greater scrutiny and public opinion has shifted.  

Early life, capture and captivity 

Tilikum was born in the waters off Iceland, likely sometime around December 1981. He was part of an extended pod of orcas, who stayed around Iceland. He would have been very close with his mother and other relatives, as orcas have very deep bonds with their familial pods.  

In November 1983, when he was just two years old, he was taken from the water along with two other orcas (Nandu and Samoa).  

Orcas don’t part easily with their children. As the abduction took place, male orcas in the group attempted to divert the humans while the female orcas and juveniles tried to swim the other way. Unfortunately a spotter plane relayed the whereabouts of the mothers and their offspring and that’s what led to the three orcas being taken.  

Tilikum, Nandu and Samoa were confined for a year at Hafnarfjörõur Marine Zoo near Reykjavík, Iceland.  

After being forcibly separated from his pod, Tilikum then had to endure being split up from the two other orcas. They were both sold to a facility in Brazil where Nandu died in 1988. Samoa was resold to SeaWorld, where she died in 1992 from a fungal infection, at the young age of 12.   

Sealand of the Pacific 

Tilikum was sold to Sealand of the Pacific, located on Vancouver Island in Canada. The plane trip from Iceland to the west coast of Canada was a long and presumably arduous one for the young orca. We can only imagine what that experience would have been like for an animal who belongs in the open water.  

In Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum was placed in a tank that was woefully inadequate for a whale of his size (and he was still growing at the time). The tank was just 30 metres by 18 metres with a depth of just under 11 metres.  

His companions were two Pacific Northwest orcas, Haida II and Nootka IV. Tilikum was from Iceland so it should have been considered at the outset that there would be issues around communication.  

Haida II and Nootka IV were also older female orcas who had become accustomed to each other and their own space, something that a three-year-old male orca was naturally going to disrupt.  

The film Blackfish documents the bullying that was inflicted on Tilikum by the two whales and what created this harassment (lack of space, differences in communication, gender and age).  

It also shows that when Tilikum did not perform to the satisfaction of the trainers, food was deprived from all three orcas. This obviously created an unbearable tension between the three captive animals.   

Often times, Tilikum was forced to retreat into a smaller medical pool, to avoid being physically raked by the other two (raking is when whales use their teeth against the skin of another whale). Trainers would keep him there for his own protection for extended periods of time.  

In February 1991, a young trainer at the aquarium, Keltie Lee Byrne, slipped and fell into the whale pool. Witnesses said she screamed and panicked when she realised one of the whales (later identified as Tilikum) was holding her foot in his mouth and dragging her underwater.  

Rescue attempts were unsuccessful as the whales initially refused to let Keltie go, and when she was retrieved from the water, it was sadly too late. The 20-year-old’s death was later ruled an accident.  

No fatal attacks on humans by orcas had ever been recorded before this. And, tragically, this was not the be the last one involving Tilikum. 

After the birth of a calf to Haida II, Tilikum was kept in the smaller medical pool 24 hours a day. Even when the gate to the main pool was left open and Tilikum ventured out, he would quickly get chased back by the two female orcas, who felt protective of the calf.  

For weeks before he moved to SeaWorld Orlando in 1999, he stayed confined in this small space measuring seven metres wide and 3.6 metres deep. At the time, he was six metres long, meaning there was barely enough room for him to turn around.  



It had become clear that Sealand of the Pacific could no longer look after Tilikum (incidentally, it eventually closed for good in November 1992). And he was an attractive prospect to other marine theme parks because of his ability to sire lucrative orca calves.  

So, in 1992, Tilikum and Nootka IV were sold to SeaWorld Orlando, and Haida II and her baby Kyuquot were sold to SeaWorld Antonio. Tilikum faced another plane trip, this time from the west coast of Canada right down to the south east tip of the United States.  

He would go on to spend 24 years at SeaWorld, in a tank that was much smaller and nothing like the expanse of sea he swam in off Iceland. Tilikum was well known for his large size, measuring 6.7 metres long and weighing in at 11,800 lbs (5.3 tonnes). He was twice as large as the next orca being held in SeaWorld Orlando.  

Tilikum is said to have sired 14 calves in the years he was at SeaWorld. Blackfish reveals how he was trained to roll onto his back so that employees could masturbate him with a gloved hand and then collect semen to forcibly impregnate female orcas with.  

During his lifetime, he was bred a total of 21 times with 11 of his offspring dying before he did.  

Tilikum was trained to perform as part of the Shamu show but aside from those shows, he lay listlessly at the surface or the bottom of the tank for extended periods.  

Unsurprisingly, the effects of captivity, bullying, and lack of stimulation showed themselves. He sometimes displayed aggression towards humans and he bit the gates and concrete sides of the tank (causing damage to his teeth). PETA reported that he was charged and raked by other orcas so severely that he sometimes bled, shivered and needed to be kept out of shows.  

The orca was unable to swim any meaningful distance or dive. It’s calculated that he would needed to have swum the circumference of the tank more than 1,900 times in a single day to match the distance he’d have swum in the wild in a single day.  

In 1999, Tilikum again came under the spotlight in regard to a human’s death. A 27-year-old man, Daniel Dukes, stayed in the SeaWorld park after hours and entered into the pool.  

In the morning, he was found dead on Tilikum’s back and an autopsy concluded that he had drowned. There was evidence, though, of numerous injuries on his body.  

Death of Dawn Brancheau 

On 24 February 2010, Tilikum was performing as part of the ‘Dine with Shamu’ show. This live performance involved some guests dining downstairs and seeing orcas through an underwater window.  

Trainer Dawn Brancheau (who worked at SeaWorld for 15 years) was standing alongside the pool, interacting with Tilikum.   

Reports on what happened next differ. Some say the 40-year-old slipped and fell into the pool while others (including SeaWorld) say that Tilikum grabbed her by her long ponytail and dragged her under the water.  

It quickly became clear that Tilikum was not going to let Dawn go and kept her from reaching the surface. A sense of shock and dread took over the Shamu stadium. Onlookers at the underwater window and those seated in the auditorium were ushered away from the awful spectacle that lay before them.  

 As Tilikum swam back and forth between pools with Dawn in his mouth, SeaWorld workers tried to save her. Tilikum was captured into a net but still refused to let her go.  

A rising platform was used to remove him from the water and eyewitness reports say that even after Tilikum was lifted, Dawn still could not be freed from his mouth until employees pried open his mouth. Paramedics worked on the trainer but it became clear that Dawn had died while in the water. A later investigation showed that she died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.  

Dawn’s death drew international media headlines. Concerns were raised over how safe it was to work so closely with wild animals, and also what led Tilikum to act so aggressively towards a person.  

There was talk, in the aftermath, of euthanising Tilikum but ultimately that wasn’t the course taken.  

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) carried out an investigation in 2010 into safety regulations at the SeaWorld facility.  

The investigation slapped SeaWorld with safety violations and $75,000 in fines. It also determined that SeaWorld had wilfully violated employee safety by putting their trainers in the water in close interaction with the captive orcas.  

Tilikum returned to performing a year later. 



In July 2013, the documentary Blackfish was released. It particularly got traction after CNN started to air it in the U.S. Viewers were drawn in by the shocking, never-before-seen footage, and interviews with trainers and experts. Several former trainers spoke up about what they saw as lack of safety consideration for those working at the park, and about what they’d observed with Tilikum over the years.  

The film centred on the attack on Dawn, but focus was also dedicated to going back in time to explain exactly what Tilikum’s life had been like since he was taken from his family. The picture painted is that Tilikum had become affected by psychological trauma, perhaps even psychosis, due to what had happened to him. 

You can read more about this in a PETA report on the effects of captivity on Tilikum and orcas generally at SeaWorld.  

Tim Zimmerman, a writer with Outside magazine and producer on Blackfish, said, “I think that’s the most amazing thing that comes out of Tilikum’s story. He killed three human beings. And yet when you learn about his life story, he does become the victim and you do sympathise with him.” 

Blackfish also featured other attacks on trainers (one attack shown involves trainer Ken Edwards being repeatedly pulled underwater by an orca in an incident that lasts 12 minutes).  

The death of trainer Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque in Tenerife is also detailed in the documentary. He died due to grave injuries inflicted by the orca Keto. 

The film sparked huge reaction and a groundswell of support for the plight of whales kept in captivity. It also reached a wider audience when it was added to Netflix in late 2013. 

After the documentary’s release and following protests by PETA and other groups, attendance at SeaWorld theme parks dropped. The company’s profits fell (rumoured to be in excess of $10 million), it lost promotional deals and had to cut jobs. 

SeaWorld had chosen not to participate in Blackfish and has disputed many elements of the film, saying it conveys falsehoods and manipulates viewers emotionally.  

See the Blackfish trailer:

Tilikum’s death 

Tilikum continued to be mostly kept in a medical pool, to keep him from attacks from other orcas. Apart from performing in shows, he is said to have been listless, again lying at the bottom or top surface of the water.  

On 8 March 2016, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum’s health had deteriorated and he was being treated for a bacterial lung infection. Just a week later, the company announced that it was going to stop breeding orcas in captivity, meaning that the orcas currently in the marine theme parks would be the last.  

Animal activists welcomed the news but said the company should organise for the rehabilitation and release of the whales it currently has in captivity.  

In January 2017, at the estimated age of 36, Tilikum died of bacterial pneumonia.  

Lisa Lange, senior vice president for PETA, summed it up well at the time of his death, “From the moment, he was taken from his ocean family, his life was tragic and filled with pain, as are the lives of the other animals who remain in SeaWorld’s tanks and exhibits.” 

Check out previous blogs 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: The Thames Whale 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Keiko 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Migaloo 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Tokitae 

Atlantic spotted dolphins

Deep dive...into Atlantic spotted dolphins

Fast swimmers who are often active at the ocean’s surface, Atlantic spotted dolphins are found across most of the warm Atlantic.  

Unsurprisingly, they get their name from their distinctive spots! When they’re born, they start out grey, like other dolphins. But after a year or two, they develop speckles which later turn into mottled spots.  

By the time Atlantic spotted dolphins mature into adults, they appear with light spots on their dark backs and darker spots on their pale bellies. Interestingly, the Atlantic spotted dolphins who live in the Gulf Stream, far offshore, often lack spots.  

The species (Stenella frontalis) weighs in between 220 – 320 pounds and are around five to seven feet long. The dolphins have bulky heads and bodies, and long, narrow beaks. Their dorsal fin is long and curved.  

The cetaceans usually form groups of between 5 and 50 individuals but they are sometimes spotted travelling in large pods of up to 200. They’re extremely social and are also very playful. Atlantic spotted dolphins can be seen performing acrobatics, riding the bow waves of boats and/or surfing the waves behind them.  

As well as being a fast swimmer, the Atlantic spotted dolphin is a great diver. It can dive for up to 60 metres and has been recorded holding its breath for up to 10 minutes.  

Atlantic spotted dolphins have been extensively studied by the Wild Dolphin Project in the Bahamas since 1985. They use surface and underwater photography to identify individual dolphins.

Every field season, known dolphins are re-identified, new dolphins including calves and immigrants are identified, and the losses of animals are documented too.  

The research project also monitors reproductive and health status, and social associations. Find out more on the Wild Dolphin Project website

The species is listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species

Where do Atlantic spotted dolphins live? 

The species is found across most of the warm Atlantic (warm, temperate and tropical waters) and usually keeps within 360 kilometres of the shore. Sometimes, it can be seen in deeper oceanic waters.  

Atlantic spotted dolphins are often seen in the waters off the Bahamas, the Azores, the Canary Islands, Brazil and off the U.S. East Coast (from the Gulf of Mexico to Massachusetts). In the Bahamas, the Atlantic spotted dolphins spend a lot of time in shallow water on sandbanks which makes them very accessible to research.  

Check out this underwater video of Atlantic spotted dolphins in Tenerife taken on the WeWhale vessel ‘Esiel’.  

What do they eat? 

Atlantic spotted dolphins often work as a team to catch prey together. They eat small fish, invertebrates (molluscs, crustaceans etc.) and cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish etc.). The species has been observed using their beaks to dig into the sand on the ocean floor to catch hidden fish.  

Threats to Atlantic spotted dolphins 


One of the main threats to Atlantic spotted dolphins is entanglement in fishing gear. This can go on to cause injury, fatigue, comprised feeding and sometimes even death. 

Vessel strikes

The species is at risk of vessel strikes throughout their range but the threat is higher in areas with busy ship traffic. 

Environmental change and pollution

Climate change and pollution are a threat to all whales and dolphins because of the loss of habitat as waters become warmer.  
Plastics and micro plastics, along with chemical pollutants, entering into the water system are a serious threat to all creatures in our ocean.  
Atlantic spotted dolphins, like other cetaceans, use noise to communicate and to locate prey. Increased noise pollution from vessels and other human activity interferes with this ability. 


There is no commercial hunting of Atlantic spotted dolphins but there have been recorded instances of the species being hunted and killed in the Caribbean, South America, West Africa, and other offshore islands, for food and bait. .

Natural predators 

As with other dolphin species, Atlantic spotted dolphins are sometimes the prey of orcas and large sharks.  

Billy Heaney

The WeWhale Pod Episode 11 - Billy Heaney

Our guest for this episode of The WeWhale Pod is Billy Heaney, zoologist, wildlife presenter and filmmaker.

Billy talks about his path to becoming a zoologist, his time spent researching grey seals in Cornwall, and his film ‘In Search of the Killer Whale’ which captures a pretty spontaneous trip he and two friends made to see orcas in the wild in Iceland.

He also chats about his work with Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s campaign ‘EndCaptivityForever’. While dolphinariums have been closed in the UK since 1993, they aren’t actually illegal in the country. The campaign seeks to make them illegal, meaning they can never happen again.

Billy also talks about ending whaling and the need for more ocean sanctuaries for whales and dolphins.

Take a listen to the episode below:

You can find out more about Billy’s work on his website and Instagram.

Thanks to Skalaa Music for post-production.

You can listen to previous episodes on our Podcast Page.

WeWhale launches short documentary, The Future of Whale Watching

WeWhale is proud to launch its short documentary, The Future of Whale Watching, which features the work that the organisation is engaged in and outlines its vision for the whale watching sector. The film also includes some stunning whale and dolphin footage captured from WeWhale’s boats in Lanzarote and Tenerife (including underwater footage).  

WeWhale’s mission is to make the world a noise and emission-free whale and dolphin watching place, where animals can thrive, and humans can learn. The organisation believes that the only way to offer animal and eco-friendly observation tours is to remodel vessels to become silent and CO2 neutral boats.  

The documentary, made by filmmakers Ricardo Neiva and João Matos, explains how WeWhale came about, in the words of its founder, Janek Andre:  

“Whale watching has been around for 70 years and there hasn’t been much innovation. There are more than 3,000 boats around doing whale watching worldwide at the moment. They still use old engines, old boats and ferry style tours.

“Diesel and petrol engine systems are creating a lot of noise but also leave a lot of lubricants in the water, in the ocean. So they basically not just create a lot of noise pollution but also environmental pollution.  

“So the idea is we refit our boats to hybrid ones or 100% electric ones, to have this threat for the animals taken out. By remodelling boats to silent ones, using electric power, using wind power, using solar power, so that we are clean and 100% animal friendly.” 

WeWhale boats are equipped with hydrophones and 360 degree cameras so that guests on board have a full and enriching experience. The WeWhale team is motivated to take guests out into the ocean in small groups, explaining about the ocean, the importance of its inhabitants,  and bringing greater understanding to the world of whales and dolphins. 

The Future of Whale Watching

The documentary also features other members of the WeWhale team, including Mercedes Reyes, Director of WeWhale Tenerife and Head of Conservation at the organisation.  

Mercedes talks about how her interest in whale and dolphin conservation was sparked by a special encounter with a white dolphin when she was a young girl. Ever since then, she’s been curious to learn all she can about cetaceans and to do as much as possible to help with their long-term protection.  

The documentary also discusses how important it is for people to choose companies that practise responsible and respectful whale watching.  

Along with the people featured in the documentary are the real stars of the show, the whales and dolphins! The many species, filmed from the WeWhale fleet in Lanzarote and Tenerife, include false orcas, rough-toothed dolphins, short-finned pilot whales, Atlantic spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and Bryde’s whales 

Founder Janek Andre said of the documentary, “We’re really thrilled at WeWhale to share this short film with everyone so they can see the work that we’re doing and get involved in the discussion about the future of whale watching.

“We’re at a crucial crossroads in terms of environmental protection and wildlife conservation so it’s a very good time to focus on how responsible whale watching can actively contribute to this.” 

The Future of Whale Watching documentary will be added to over the coming year as WeWhale launches new whale watching locations in Europe. The documentary can be viewed on the WeWhale YouTube page and also on the WeWhale website

WeWhale Association website

News - New website for WeWhale Association is launched

We’re delighted to launch a new website for WeWhale Association, the sister organisation of WeWhale.co. The website – at www.wewhale.org – showcases the many projects that are being undertaken with the mission of creating awareness and protection for the cetaceans of the world.  

These projects are:  

End Irresponsible Whale and Dolphin Watching Practices
Irresponsible whale and dolphin watching practices harm cetaceans and their environment. We expose companies not following regulations and we aim to create awareness amongst people so they can recognise irresponsible practices.

Attacks Against Orcas
A vital initiative dedicated to raise awareness about aggressions against the critically endangered Iberian Orca population. We aim to prevent acts of harassment and on receiving reports of harassment or crimes against orcas, we work on legal prosecution.  

Stop Whaling
WeWhale Association is a member of the International Whaling Commission as an NGO observer. The last meeting was held in 2022 in Portoroz, Slovenia. 

End Captivity
WeWhale Association actively participates as a leading member in a European sanctuary dedicated to reintegrating captive dolphins and whales within the EU. This initiative is designed to transition these marine mammals from captivity back to their natural environments in a responsible and ethical manner. 

End Ship Strikes and Animal Injuries
In addition to the technical development of a ship strike prevention system, we expose vessels that do not adhere to local regulations to prevent collisions, thus contributing to the death toll of whales and dolphins. 

More information on each of the projects and how people can help support them is available on the website.  

President of the WeWhale Association, Janek Andre, said, “We’re excited to have a brand new website that highlights our projects and initiatives to a wide audience. Our work is defined by projects that discover, expose, and prosecute wildlife crimes against whales and dolphins, as well as raising awareness among the public and local communities in areas where whales and dolphins play a vital role in the ecosystem.” 

Check out www.wewhale.org for more information.  

beluga whale

Deep dive...into Beluga whales

One of the smallest species of whale, the beluga whale belongs to the family Monodontidae, along with the narwhal 

Weighing in at up to 1.5 tonnes and measuring between four and six metres in length, the beluga is also known as the white whale. It begins life as a dark grey calf but its skin lightens as it ages, becoming white when the animal reaches physical maturity.  

Its white skin helps the beluga to camouflage itself in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions where it’s found. The beluga whale is recognisable by the melon on its top of its head which helps to focus and modulate its vocalisations. Belugas are known as the ‘canaries of the sea’ because of the wide range of communication sounds they use, including clucks, mews, chirps, trills, whistles and squeals. 

The melon on its head can change shape while it makes sounds. This, along with the flexibility that the beluga has in its neck vertebrae, means the animal can make facial expressions and move its head side to side. These actions often come across as endearing to humans (a reason it was so heavily targeted by the captive animal industry).  

The beluga’s scientific name is Delphinapterus leucas which translates to ‘dolphin without a fin’. Instead of a dorsal fin, the beluga has a tough dorsal ridge which helps it to easily swim under ice floes.  

But don’t get confused by its scientific name, the beluga is most definitely a whale, belonging to the toothed whale group. The species has 18 to 20 teeth in both its upper and lower jawbones.  

The beluga has a thick layer of blubber, which makes up to 40 per cent of its weight. It also has a thick layer of skin. Both of these are needed to keep it warm in the cold Arctic waters.  

Belugas are very social animals, coming together in pods to migrate, hunt and interact with others. They’re also naturally curious, often approaching boats and divers, and naturally smart. This means they can easily be trained, which has been exploited by marine parks, zoos and even by the U.S. and Russian naval forces.  

Check out this New York Times article about navies training dolphins and whales.  

The average life span of a beluga whale in the wild is 35 to 50 years.  

Where do beluga whales live?

Belugas live all around the sea ice in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. The regions include Russia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska. Most populations migrate as the sea ice changes in the Arctic – as ice forms in the autumn, they move south and then return again in the spring when the ice breaks up.  

However, even during the winter, they’re fine with swimming around thin ice, which they can break through to breathe. Belugas are often found along coastal bays and inlets and are equally comfortable in freshwater and saltwater.  

Some populations have become resident in areas, including the Cook Inlet in Alaska where they are recognised as ‘critically endangered’.  

Occasionally, belugas have gone off track in their navigation. In 2018, one was spotted in the River Thames in London but fortunately it returned later to the sea. Find out more about the individual who was given the name Benny the Beluga 

In 2022, another beluga made its way up the River Seine in Paris. It was successfully rescued to be transported to the sea but sadly had to be euthanised when it became unwell and couldn’t breathe. Read more in this BBC article.


The beluga whale is listed as ‘Least Concern’ globally on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, though it is defined as endangered or depleted in specific regions of the world e.g. Cook Inlet in Alaska, Sakhalin-Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River in Russia.  

Globally, the beluga whale population is estimated to be 136,000.  

What do they eat? 

Beluga whales eat a wide variety of fish and shellfish species including salmon, herring, cod, octopus, squid, smelt, flatfish, crabs, shrimp and molluscs. They’re also known to eat snails and sandworms.  

The species relies on its hearing and its ability to echolocate (using the melon) to hunt for prey. Belugas also have really good vision in and out of the water.  

Threats to Beluga whales 

Vessel strikes

Beluga whales are at risk of vessel strikes throughout their range but the threat is much higher in areas with busy ship traffic.

Environmental change and pollution

Climate change and pollution are a threat to all whales and dolphins because of the loss of habitat as waters become warmer.  

As their life cycle and habitat is so closely connected to life in the Arctic circle, beluga whales are a species more affected globally by climate change and the melting of the polar caps. The effects include reduction in food sources and changes in migration patterns.
Plastics and micro plastics, along with chemical pollutants, entering into the water system are a serious threat to all creatures in our ocean.
Beluga whales, like other cetaceans, use noise to communicate and to locate prey. Increased noise pollution from vessels and other human activity interferes with this ability. 

With their great blubber stores, research shows that belugas tend to accumulate more chemical contaminants in their bodies which affect their long-term health.  

Entanglement in fishing gear

Like other cetaceans, beluga whales can become entangled in fishing gear which goes on to cause injury, fatigue, comprised feeding and sometimes even death. 


Belugas are hunted by polar bears and orcas, being more vulnerable if they get trapped under the Arctic ice. The whales are also hunted by indigenous people of the north. Thankfully commercial hunting of beluga whales is no longer permitted.

Vanessa Pirotta

The WeWhale Pod Episode 10 - Dr Vanessa Pirotta

Our guest for this episode of The WeWhale Pod is Dr Vanessa Pirotta, wildlife scientist and science communicator.

Vanessa talks about how the film Free Willy inspired her (and a generation of marine scientists) to get involved in working with whales.

She also chats about the work she does with a citizen science marine programme in Australia and her fascinating research work focusing on whale snot and using drones.

The conversation also delves into southern right whales and Migaloo, the famous albino whale!

Take a listen to the episode below:

You can find out more about Vanessa’s work on her website and Instagram.

Thanks to Skalaa Music for post-production.

You can listen to previous episodes on our Podcast Page.

Risso's dolphins

Deep dive...into Risso's dolphins

Tending to inhabit deep offshore waters, Risso’s dolphins are the fifth largest member of the family Delphinidae and are sometimes called ‘grey dolphins’.  

As they prefer deep water, Risso’s dolphins are relatively understudied (there are several places around the world where they’re found near the coast which has enabled research carried out to date).

The cetacean is named after a French-Italian naturalist called Antoine Risso who first described the species to renowned naturalist George Curvier in 1812. 

Risso’s dolphins have a bulbous head, no discernible beak, elongated flippers and a tall curved dorsal fin.

Their colouration changes over their lifetime from dark grey to light grey or even white (check out this recent Newsweek article on a completely white Risso’s dolphin spotted off the Californian coast). As a Risso’s dolphin ages, it becomes paler.  

Due to their prominent dorsal fin, Risso’s dolphins sometimes get mistaken for orca or white sharks when they’re spotted mostly underwater. 

The species measures up to four metres in length and weighs in at up to 500 kilograms.  

One distinctive feature of the species is that they’ve much fewer teeth compared to other cetaceans – they have between two and seven pairs of teeth in their lower jaw and usually none in their upper jaw.  

Risso’s dolphins are noticeably scarred, either with scratches caused from teeth raking between dolphins or circular markings from prey such as squid, cookie-cutter sharks and lampreys.

The scarring contributes to the colour changes experienced over their lifetime.  

The species is very active on the ocean’s surface, often leaping out of the water, spy hopping and slapping the pectoral fins or fluke on the water’s surface. Risso’s dolphins typically avoid boats but have been observed bow riding on occasion.  

They also sometimes ‘porpoise’ which means moving in and out of the water in a series of fast leaps (most often when they’re being hunted by predators). They regularly dive down to around 300-500 metres and can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes.  

Risso’s dolphins are usually found in groups of between 10 and 30 animals though they can also be found individually or in pairs. There are documented superpods of Risso’s dolphins with hundreds of animals gathering together.  

With an estimated lifespan of at least 35 years, the Risso’s dolphin is listed as ‘Least Concern’ globally on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  

Studies are currently being carried out into Risso’s dolphins off the Balearic Islands by the Alnitak Research Institute. In 2021, the species’ IUCN status in the region was changed from ‘Data Deficient’ to ‘Endangered’.  

You can read more about the research in this Discover Wildlife article from June 2023.  

Risso's dolphins

Where do Risso’s dolphins live? 

The species is found worldwide in temperate, subtropical and tropical waters, preferring offshore waters (especially near the continental shelf edge). The dolphins are usually found in habitats from latitudes 64° North to 46° South.  

In the Northern hemisphere, they’re found in regions including the Gulf of Alaska, Gulf of Mexico, Newfoundland, Norway, Japan, the Red Sea, Russia and the Azores.

They’re also found in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Canaries and are occasionally spotted off the UK and Irish coasts. In the Southern hemisphere, Risso’s dolphins are found in locations including Argentina, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.  

A Risso’s dolphin called Pelorus Jack became famous in New Zealand in the late 19th century. He was first noticed in 1888 awaiting boats near the entrance to Pelorus Sound, in the Marlborough Sounds, and he’d escort the ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson.

He often swam up against the boats and rode their bow waves.  

Pelorus Jack did this for a long time – 24 years – and his fame grew with lots of people coming to see him. Read more about him in this Dolphin Project article 

What do they eat? 

Risso’s dolphins love to eat squid but they’re also known to eat prawns, shrimp, cuttlefish, octopus and krill.

They mostly feed at night and usually suck in their food rather than biting it, which explains why they have relatively few teeth compared to other cetaceans. 

Threats to Risso’s dolphins 

Entanglement in fishing gear

Like other cetaceans, Risso’s dolphins can become entangled in fishing gear which goes on to cause injury, fatigue, comprised feeding and sometimes even death. Historically, Risso’s dolphins died in large numbers when they got caught up in purse seine nets along with tuna. Dolphin-safe tuna fishing practices have been implemented over the past few decades, helping to significantly reduce this impact. 


Risso’s dolphins are hunted for meat and oil off the coast of Japan (including the cove at Taiji) and several other countries around the world (Indonesia, the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka and the Solomon Islands).  

Environmental change and pollution

Climate change and pollution are a threat to all whales and dolphins because of the loss of habitat as waters become warmer.  
Plastics and micro plastics, along with chemical pollutants, entering into the water system are a serious threat to all creatures in our ocean.
Risso’s dolphins, like other cetaceans, use noise to communicate and to locate prey. Increased noise pollution from vessels and other human activity interferes with this ability.

Natural predators 

Orca have been observed preying on Risso’s dolphins and sharks are also predators of the species.  

Bryde's whales

Deep dive…into Bryde’s whales 

Bryde’s whales, which belong to the baleen whale family, are found in warm temperate, subtropical and tropical waters.  

They’re considered one of the ‘great whales’ or rorquals, a group that also includes blue whales and humpback whales 

Bryde’s whales are named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian who built the first whaling stations in South Africa in the early part of the 20th century.  

The species looks very similar to sei whales but are smaller and also prefer warmer waters. They’re slender in appearance and their colouration is dark blue-grey with white bellies. Their heads make up about one quarter of their entire body length.  

With three prominent ridges on the front of their blowhole, Brydes’ whales have slender and pointed flippers, a strongly hooked dorsal fin and a broad fluke (tail).  

Like other baleen whales, Bryde’s whales have grooved pleats on each side of their mouths that sieve water from the food that they ingest.  

You’ll most often spot the species alone or in pairs. More rarely, they are spotted in groups of up to 20 feeding together.  

Weighing in at up to 20 tonnes, Bryde’s whales spend most of their day within 15 metres of the water’s surface and they usually swim at around 1.5 to 6 kilometres an hour, though they can increase speed to 20 kilometres per hour. 

They’re well known for being able to change directions unexpectedly when swimming. Another distinctive behaviour is how they blow water up to three metres in the air.  

The Bryde’s whale spends most of its time in the open ocean, away from the coast. They can dive to great depths to catch their favourite prey.  

Where do Bryde’s whales live? 

The species prefers waters of 16°c or more so they’re only found in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate waters. They are the only species of baleen whale that lives in these warmer waters. They’re spotted mostly between latitudes 40°N and 40°S. 

Some Bryde’s whales are year-round inhabitants in their locations whilst others migrate seasonally from shallower coastal waters to deeper offshore waters.  

In the Pacific Ocean, the species is found around Japan, Australia and New Zealand and in the Indian Ocean, the whales also found in Australia along with South Africa and southeast Asia.

They are also spotted in the Atlantic Ocean, from the Gulf of Mexico right across to West Africa (they’re a species that is often spotted in the Canaries), and they’re found off the coast of South America.  

If you recall a news story from a few years ago about a man being caught up in the jaws of a whale and subsequently spat back out, it happened in South Africa and involved a Bryde’s whale. Find out more in this news article from The Guardian 

Bryde's whales


Bryde’s whales are an understudied species and more research is needed on their migration patterns and population. 

Due to the fact that Bryde’s whales and sei whales have (and still continue) to get confused for each other, it has made it difficult to estimate population numbers.  

Bryde’s whales were not heavily targeted during the peak period of commercial whaling, mostly because their location was outside of common whaling grounds and also because they were smaller and had less blubber than other whale species. It’s thought, therefore, that their population numbers were not impacted to any significant degree by whaling.  

On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Bryde’s whale is classified as of ‘Least Concern’.  

What do they eat? 

Bryde’s whales mostly eat schooling fish, which includes sardines, anchovies, mackerels and herring. They have also been documented eating krill, plankton, red crabs and shrimp.  

They’re active lunge feeders, pushing through the water with an open mouth and throat pleats extended.  

Only two species of whales have been observed using bubble nets to catch prey – humpback whales and Bryde’s whales.  

Threats to Bryde’s whales

Vessel strikes

Bryde’s whales are at risk of vessel strikes throughout their range but the threat is much higher in areas with busy ship traffic.  

They are the third most commonly reported species struck by vessels in the southern hemisphere.  

Environmental change and pollution

Climate change and pollution are a threat to all whales and dolphins because of the loss of habitat as waters become warmer.  
Plastics and micro plastics, along with chemical pollutants, entering into the water system are a serious threat to all creatures in our ocean.
Bryde’s whales, like other cetaceans, use noise to communicate and to locate prey. Increased noise pollution from vessels and other human activity interferes with this ability. 

Entanglement in fishing gear

Like other cetaceans, Bryde’s whales can become entangled in fishing gear which goes on to cause injury, fatigue, comprised feeding and sometimes even death. 


In recent years, Bryde’s whales have been hunted off the coasts of Indonesia and the Philippines. A number of Bryde’s whale catches are carried out by Japan, which does so under the guise of its ‘scientific whale research programme’. See more in this IFAW article