A landmark study of dolphins in the UAE is making waves and you can get involved…
If you’ve ever seen fins cresting the waves on our shores and wondered if you’re in for an Abu Dhabi remake of Jaws, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that dolphins have been on our doorstep the whole time.
Pioneering research venture the UAE Dolphin Project, headed by founder Dr Ada Natoli, has been monitoring the movements of these aquatic mammals for the last year to find out the why and where of dolphins in the UAE.
After logging over 250 hours, 2,000 nautical miles and snapping 7,320 pictures of the UAE coastline, Dr Natoli is finally back on land to deliver some of the fruits of her labours.
Building a swell
The UAE Dolphin Project, set up by Natoli herself in 2012, is an attempt to further local knowledge on the species, after finding there was nothing to go on when she moved to the UAE seven years ago.
Italian-born Natoli has a PhD in Dolphins and their population structures, coupled with a long history of studying cetaceans – a classification of marine mammals. She says though that she has only scratched the surface with her research in the UAE, work which has important implications.
The creatures are fundamental indicators of marine health, which makes them a vital subject for study as part of forming future conservation efforts.
“We can study dolphins as a marker for the conditions of the marine environment. Dolphins sit at the top of the food chain, so any disruption of their environment, like pollution or overfishing, has an immediate effect on them.
“They’re also very intelligent and their terrestrial equivalent would be the gorilla,” she explains, “so understanding how a highly intelligent and developed species behaves in an environment can inform us on how animals can adapt.”
Beneath the surface
In the Gulf region, 11 species of dolphins and whales have been identified enjoying the warm waters, but coastal species are more prevalent.
The dolphins that flock to our shores are the Indo-Pacific bottlenose and humpback dolphins, as well as the finless porpoise, the most difficult of the three to spot.
Last year, the project carried out a landmark year-long survey along the Dubai coastline from Port Rashid to Jebel Ali to track the movements of the sea creatures and find out what they’re up to.
The team used photo identification for two out of the three species logged, which involves taking a picture of the animal’s dorsal fin.
“Each dorsal fin is unique to the dolphin, like a fingerprint or a face,” Dr Natoli explains. “It’s a unique identifier that allows scientists to track movement of a single individual.”
And track they did, with results totalling 212 dolphin sightings, with some appearing more than once in the same area along the Dubai coastline.
The results bring yet more questions for the UAE dolphin population, which will be addressed in the coming year. For instance the team hopes to further investigate where it is the dolphins go when they’re not coasting in the UAE, and why?
Man power: Get involved
With public collaboration as the core ethos of the project, you don’t even have to be a marine biologist or leave the safety of land to contribute to scientific research.
“Besides the scientific surveys, the heart of this project is to raise awareness and get direct public involvement,” Dr Natoli adds. “It’s called citizen science: the power of the public actively reporting what they see is invaluable information for researchers.”
Citizen science may sound like a new buzzword, but what it really means is that if you see a dolphin while you’re out and about, either on land or at sea, you can report your sighting with a picture and location on the project’s website.
Since the website was launched in 2012, over 300 sightings have been reported in the UAE by the public, both in coastal and marine areas.
This kind of raw data is crucial to the project, because it provides Dr Natoli and her team with vital clues that piece together the big picture of population numbers and habitat in the UAE.
“As skilled as field researchers can be, they can only be in one boat, so involving the public is like having a whole fleet of researchers out there helping us cover a much wider area.”
This grassroots research can help identify hotspots that dolphins habitually return to over the year, as well as population growth and decline.
“Its power is twofold: first, because it makes people understand more about these species, and secondly it makes people more aware of what is around them.”
Dolphins have been spotted all the way down the Abu Dhabi coastline as far as Al Raha Beach, but there are two hotspots in the capital to visit if you want to get a glimpse of Flipper and friends.
The area at Saadiyat Public Beach is a particularly good location to spot these cheerful cetaceans, with fins flipping just off the coast.
Another great spot in the city is near Emirates Palace, where there have been several sightings of bottlenose and humpback dolphins alike.
If you’re not sure what to look for, the UAE Dolphin Project has a handy downloadable guide on the website that will help you distinguish between the four different species of dolphins you might find in the Gulf tides.
You can check for more Abu Dhabi dolphin locations on the project’s website: uaedolphinproject.org
Dolphins: dos and don’ts
Before you grab your binoculars and head out to sea in hope of swimming with a pod of gleeful porpoises, there are a few things you should know.
Don’t expect backflips and a show from dolphins you spot in the wild, because it could backfire.
“People always think that dolphins are a cute and happy species. This may be true: they’re very intelligent, and in a captive environment learn what they can do and what they can’t,” warns Dr Natoli, “but you always have to remember that dolphins are wild animals and they are carnivores. People may be scared of sharks, but dolphins have on average 100 teeth and can weigh up to 300kg!”
Moreover, Dr Natoli does not advocate interacting with the dolphins in any way, so leave the swimming to the resident aquatic experts and don’t be tempted to join in.
In fact, one of the best ways to dolphin-watch is from a distance, so that you can observe the creatures go about their lives with as little human intervention as possible: “Dolphins can suffer from our interference,” Dr Natoli explains. “Continuous disturbances to a resident population have been proven to result in declining birth rates and an increase in mortality.
“Imagine if someone constantly disturbs you while you’re trying to eat or sleep,” she adds. “That’s what’s happening to the dolphins.”
Above all, Dr Natoli reminds us to enjoy the natural phenomenon that we’re lucky enough to have access to on our shores, rather than in a tank at the zoo.
“We’re very lucky that we can see them in their real environment, and we should take advantage of that,” she reflects. “We need to preserve them and their environment to ensure that the next generation will be able to see them too, rather than watching them in captivity.”
Need to know
Be sure to adhere to Be Dolphin SMART guidelines if you spot a dolphin when you’re out and about…
- Stay back 50 metres from dolphins.
- Move away slowly and cautiously if dolphins show signs of disturbance.
- Always put your engine in neutral when dolphins are near.
- Refrain from feeding, touching or swimming with wild dolphins.
- Teach others to be Dolphin SMART.