Abu Dhabi leads world in humpback dolphin numbers

Anjana Sankar /Abu Dhabi Filed on September 18, 2017 | Last updated on September 18, 2017 at 06.54 am
Abu Dhabi leads world in humpback dolphin numbers
As per the findings, 1,834 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are estimated to live in Abu Dhabi's coastal waters.

(Supplied photo)

The Environment Agency (EAD) - Abu Dhabi's 'Dolphin Survey', estimated that 701 Indian Ocean humpback dolphins inhabit Abu Dhabi's coastal waters.

A first of its kind survey has revealed that Abu Dhabi is home to the world's largest population of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins.

The Environment Agency (EAD) - Abu Dhabi's 'Dolphin Survey', estimated that 701 Indian Ocean humpback dolphins inhabit Abu Dhabi's coastal waters.

It is the largest-ever reported population of these species in the world with South Africa marking a population of 466, Mozambique 105, Kenya 104 and Tanzania 63.

As per the findings, 1,834 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are estimated to live in Abu Dhabi's coastal waters.

Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, EAD secretary-general, said: "Dolphins are apex predators that bio-accumulate marine toxins, consequently, they are good indicators of marine environmental quality. As very little was known about the ecology and conservation status of dolphin species in Abu Dhabi waters, EAD started a dolphin survey in 2014. This has provided population size estimates and information on the main threats, which is required as a basis for the assessment, monitoring and conservation of these charismatic species." 

To date, 64 days of vessel-based surveys have been completed covering 5,592 kilometres of survey track. In addition to the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea), 693 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), and 52 finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides) were recorded.

Edwin Grandcourt, manager, marine assessment and conservation section, EAD, told Khaleej Times that the survey was conducted on a customised 45-foot research boat with elevated platforms.

"We conduct surveys during the spring and winter months, and there are five people aboard the vessel at any given time. Each survey lasts for three weeks, and they are conducted during daylight hours. We conduct systematic search for dolphins. When we encounter them, we take environmental readings, and also photograph the dorsal fins at the back of the dolphins."

According to him, each dolphin has distinctive cuts, notches and scars at the trail end of the dorsal fins that help researchers distinguish them individually, much like a human face. 

"The dolphins may come two to three metres close to the vessel or sometimes are spotted 50 or 60 metres away. But we have zoom lenses with which we can photograph them. Once we comeback from the survey, the photographs are analysed and the individual fins are digitised to create a database of all the animals we have seen. That is used to compile a photo ID catalogue," said Grandcourt.

And using a 'Mark Recapture' method, the population size is estimated based on re-sighting of dolphins. He said though the number of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins look significantly high, it is still small and the species remain vulnerable especially as they inhabit shallow water where human activities coincide.

"The survey is crucial as the research findings will be put into a conservative management plan that will help us formulate policies and guidelines for dolphin conservation in Abu Dhabi."

'Significant finding but dolphins under threat'

Bruno Diaz Lopez, chief biologist and director of The Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI) in Spain, explained the international significance of the findings. "The discovery that Abu Dhabi has the largest population of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins has evoked scientific interest worldwide. It has also given Abu Dhabi an opportunity to become a global reference for the conservation of coastal dolphins."

"However, this opportunity may not last long. Abu Dhabi's humpback dolphins are threatened by a variety of factors, some of which are plainly evident and others of which are poorly understood. Many of the dolphins bear evidence of serious injuries, at least some of which were caused by human activities. Without a doubt, future research studies and action is urgently needed to protect these vulnerable animals and their habitat," said Lopez.

Humpback dolphins

Humpback dolphins are members of the genus Sousa. These dolphins are characterised by the conspicuous humps and elongated dorsal fins found on the backs of adults of the species. They are found close to shore along the coast of West Africa, the Indian Ocean from South Africa to Australia.





Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.

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