Studying and caring for Whales and Dolphins

In one of the world’s most rapidly developing regions, the future of whales and dolphins in Arabia is dependent upon our understanding their conservation needs.

It is considered important to study and understand the large marine mammals that inhabit the waters off the Emirate of Fujairah. Careful stewardship of the marine environment in which they live, as well as protection from threats posed by human activities, such as shipping and fishing is critical to their continued survival. Scientific research will help to inform us about the detailed lives of whales and dolphins and teach us how best to look after these ocean giants.

There are numerous scientific techniques that have been used to obtain information on cetaceans in the Arabian region, from interviewing of local people to use of high technology equipment. Most research, including that off Fujairah, involves surveys at sea in vessels by specialists, followed by dedicated assessment and analysis of results, discussion with peers in other parts of the world and interpretation of information. Although the information gained can be rewarding, cetacean study requires a long-term commitment of time, resources and energy and even then researching animals that spend their entire lives at sea, often underwater, is not a simple task.

Vessel surveys follow predetermined route plans and recording procedures provide information on the relative abundance of the cetacean that are seen. Repeated surveys will reveal areas and seasons that may be preferred by cetaceans. The distribution of some species may alter seasonally, though very little is known about patterns of movement.

Research also aims to collect tissue samples from live cetaceans from whith DNA can be extracted. Results of analysis of DNA can provide a range of information, from identification of sex of the individuals sampled to observations about genetic variability and population stock identity. This can have significant conservation management implications. Information on genetic variability among individuals, populations and species may also help to assess how well they may be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions and threats.

Another technique used to study cetaceans in the region, involves photographing individuals and using natural markings to identify and compare them with others. Photographs of dorsal fins, for example, can allow individual whales to be recognised. Comparison of photographs over time and between places can help researchers learn about social organisation, seasonal movements, habitat use, life history, longevity, birth and death rates and even population size and identity.

As cetaceans are often beneath the surface of the water, listening to and recording the sounds they make can allow information to be collected even when individuals are not visible. Hydrophones are being used off Fujairah in an effort to explore the use of sounds in the biology and behaviour of sperm whales and other species. Acoustic records may be used to help inform studies on the composition of populations, social organisation, behaviour, communication and echolocation.

There are other studies that can help to inform conservations needs, for example the measurement of skulls from any stranded cetaceans can help determine taxonomic status of species and sub-species. Rare opportunities to study whales and dolphins under different circumstances may also provide useful information, for example observations made onboard vessels conducting seismic surveys during offshore exploration for hydrocarbon reserves. Many other such platforms of opportunity abound but remain largely unused and additional data gathering by fisheries observers, shipping crews, military personnel, pilots and others could be of value.

Such scientific research is essential to help formulate, develop and implement conservation management measures. From information already obtained about cetaceans in some parts of the region, a lot can be extrapolated and applied to other parts of Arabia. The results of the more detailed studies in the region have provided information on many aspects of cetacean distribution, biology, ecology, habitat requirements, behaviour, life history, interaction with people and other topics. The early formulation of management plans would also help to identify those areas for which research is most needed. Review and revision of plans can then be performed as new information is gathered.