This paper represents the first quantitative assessment of the distribution and abundance of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) inhabiting the waters around Lampedusa Island, Italy. Eleven years of photo-identification data, collected from 1996 to 2006 by three different research groups, were brought together, reviewed and analysed to fulfil the following objectives: (i) to obtain baseline information on the abundance and residency of the local bottlenose dolphin putative population; (ii) to review the current Marine Protected Area (MPA) boundaries, especially those referred to waters around Lampedusa Island, with a view to establish a new Special Area of Conservation (SAC); and (iii) to explore the potential and limits of analysing heterogeneous datasets to improve future data collection methods. The most resident dolphins were regularly observed in six specific areas around Lampedusa Island. From a total of 148 photo-identified bottlenose dolphins, 102 were classified as well-marked. The capture histories and the distribution of sightings clearly show a number of dolphins regularly use the study area. Best estimates for the first period within the ‘core study area’ were obtained for 1998 data. The 2005 estimate was significantly larger than the 1998 estimates (z = 2.160; P < 0.05) compared to that of 1998. Implications of our results for the current MPA, for transboundary conservation initiative involving Italy, Malta and Tunisia and for directing future research within and outside the MPA are fully discussed.