Dubai: Twice a week in the last couple of months, a team of marine scientists, researchers and volunteers have been going out in the sea to conduct a survey of dolphin population off the coast of Dubai.
Led by Dr Ada Natoli, assistant professor at the College of Natural and Health Science at Zayed University, and founder/director of the UAE Dolphin Project Initiative, they spend 3-4 hours during each trip, covering a specific transect (a path where one counts and records occurrences of the objects of study) out of a total area of over 1,000 square km of Dubai coastal waters from Port Rashid until Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary.
Their mission is to gather scientific data and produce baseline information of marine resources. The data will be used to assess the number of species, population structure and, if possible, predict population trend of local dolphins.
At present, there is no exact information on the number of dolphins in Dubai. Dr Ada reiterated it is important to establish baseline information about the status of their population to provide precise and clear information to the government and scientific community and raise the level of public awareness. Dr Ada added the study will also “help formulate effective conservation measures that will not only protect local dolphins but also ensure the long-term viability or our marine resources.”
The initiative is a joint venture between Zayed University and Atlantis Dubai. Dubai Municipality has granted the permit to conduct the research while F3 Marine has provided the boat, logistics and crew.
On Monday, Gulf News joined the expedition around The World Islands Dubai, an archipelago of small artificial islands constructed in the shape of a world map. Joining the team were Kelly Timmins, director of conservation, education and CSR (corporate social responsibility) at Atlantis Dubai; Bryana Cope, assistant researcher at Zayed University; and volunteers Sonia da Silva Carneiro and Melissa Caton-Brown. Raymond Tabiano was the captain and Aries Garovillo was assistant skipper.
Dubai dolphin species
The current project is a continuation of the initial study conducted eight years ago. Based on the previous survey, Dr Ada has come up with a catalogue of local dolphins and identified the three most common dolphin and porpoise species found in Dubai waters.
These are: Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin – dark grey colour with falcate fin; sometimes a spotted belly is visible. It has a robust body with a medium length beak. Approximate max length is 2.6m metres and possibly bigger species can be sighted offshore).
Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin – they are similar in size with Bottlenose Dolphin but easily recognisable by the characteristic bump in front of the dorsal fin. Gray colour with long slender beak. Approximate maximum length is 2.7m.
Finless Porpoise — dark grey back with no dorsal fin. Total length is approximately maximum of 2m. It has a blowhole (nostril of a dolphin on the top of its head) so it surfaces horizontally.
From the 2013-2014 survey, Dr Ada and her team were able to identify a total of 92 Bottlenose Dolphins and 23 Humpback Dolphins. “But these were only individual dolphins identified and did not reflect the actual dolphin population in Dubai,” Dr Ada noted. “The previous survey, however, confirmed the regular presence of two species of dolphins (the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin and Indian Ocean Humpback dolphin) and one porpoise (Indo-Pacific finless porpoise) – all considered threatened according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List,” she added.
The project sequel began in February and will run for one whole year. Dr Ada said out of the 12 outings so far, the team has recorded eight sightings of Bottlenose Dolphins and three sightings of Finless Porpoise.
Some of the dolphins they have recently seen were the same dolphins they identified 7-8 years ago. “This means, some dolphins have made Dubai their residence in the past decade,” Dr Ada observed.
Dr Ada and her team used photos of dolphin’s dorsal fins to identify them. Each dolphin has a unique fin shape and structure, similar to human face – and dolphins can be individually recognised by the unique patterns of notches and scars on their dorsal fins. The team has completed a photo-identification catalogue of dolphins and they use this to recognise individuals from the previous survey to have a more precise information of dolphin residency and population size.
The team has also been recording other marine species, including turtles and sea snakes as well as cormorants. In fact, on Monday, the team has rescued a hawksbill sea turtle infested by barnacles.
Dr Ada said the project requires “determination, patience, and faith” that it will make a difference to protecting our marine resources. The government and private sector have already extended their support but the public has a bigger role to play.
“To compliment the boat survey, we are also rebooting the ‘Report a Sighting’ citizen science campaign, to encourage the public and people who operate vessels to report sightings of whales and dolphins,” said Dr Ada, adding: “We will host a series of public virtual awareness sessions to ensure people are collecting the right information and reporting it, which will most certainly increase our understanding of these animals in our waters.”
She said sightings of whales and dolphins can be reported on the UAE Dolphin Project website and social media or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Timmins from Atlantis Dubai added: “We are proud to be supporting such valuable research, which will ultimately serve to provide important information to formulate effective conservation measure. Our role is not only to deliver the highest standards care to our resident animals, but also to ensure we contribute to protecting species in the wild. Atlantis, The Palm is committed to delivering engaging and impactful education programmes, which connect people to animals.
"The aim of every programme is to provide people with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions to better protect the environment, whilst nurturing an appreciation for each and every animal.”
How to identify dolphins
Identifying the species of dolphins at sea is very challenging. There are, however, few characteristics that can make the identification fast and reliable. According to UAE Dolphin Project Initiative, there are three dolphin and porpoise species that mainly reside in UAE coastal waters. They are Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphin, Indian Ocean Humpback dolphin and Finless porpoise.
The main characteristics to focus on when identifying are their dorsal fin, overall size and colour. Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins are dark grey in color with falcate fin. Their spotted belly is visible. They have a robust body with a medium length beak. Approximate maximum length is 2.6 metres.
The Indian Ocean Humpback dolphin is similar in size to Bottlenose dolphin but is easily recognisable by the characteristic bump in front of the dorsal fin. It is grey in colour with long slender beak. The Finless Porpoise is dark grey and it as the name suggest, it has no dorsal fin. Total length is approximate two metres.
The fin of a dolphin is unique. For identification, the image of the dorsal fin needs to be clear in the photo. Here are some tips from UAE Dolphin Project Initiative when taking photos of dolphins:
> Focus on the dorsal fin and zoom as much as your camera or videocamera allows
> The fin should be facing you perpendicularly, so both your and the dolphin’s direction should be parallel.
> If you are encountering a group: try to photograph as many individuals as you can, and try to get one group picture
Dolphins, porpoises and whales are marine mammals belonging to the order Cetacea (from the Greek work ketos, “large sea creature”), and people often use them interchangeably. The orca, or killer whale, for example, is actually the largest member of the dolphin family.
According to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), dolphins and porpoises differ in their faces, fins, and body shapes. Dolphins have longer noses, bigger mouths, more curved dorsal fins, and longer, leaner bodies than porpoises.
NOAA noted dolphins are by far more prevalent than porpoises. Most scientists agree that there are 32 dolphin and only six porpoise species. ”Dolphins have prominent, elongated beaks and cone-shaped teeth, while porpoises have smaller mouths and spade-shaped teeth. The dolphin’s hooked or curved dorsal fin (the one in the middle of the animal’s back) also differs from the porpoise’s triangular dorsal fin. Generally speaking, dolphin bodies are leaner, and porpoises’ are portly.”
Dolphins are also more talkative than porpoises. Dolphins make whistling sounds through their blowholes to communicate with one another underwater. Porpoises do not do this. Dolphins give birth tail first, have built-in sonar, and use their blubber as a heating and cooling system for their bodies. Dolphins also have one of the most complex languages in the animal kingdom and have even been known to refer to others by a given name.
Dolphins and porpoises, however, have many similarities – one of which is their extreme intelligence. Both have large, complex brains and a structure in their foreheads, called the melon, with which they generate sonar (sound waves) to navigate their underwater world.
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April 14 is Dolphin Day. This day is dedicated to dolphins, aimed at educating people about dolphins and how they help protect the oceans. Dolphins exist at the top of the food chain and provide a balance to the marine environment. They also give marine biologists a good look into the current health of the ocean.