New aerial and boat surveys offshore Fujairah have shed new light on the presence of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) off the UAE’s East Coast, according to the Fujairah Whale and Dolphin Research Project.
Operating under the patronage of the H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Crown Prince of Fujairah, the research is jointly undertaken by the Port of Fujairah and Five Oceans Environmental Services. It is the only project in the region which focusses research specifically on marine mammals in deep, offshore waters.
The 2021 survey season, which began earlier this month, has so far included multiple aerial surveys and boat surveys in waters between 10 and 30 nautical miles offshore Fujairah.
Over a four-day period, four different cetacean species have been identified, one of which, the Striped Dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) has only been recorded in the UAE twice before, both times in Fujairah by the same team in April 2017. These are the only live sightings of the species anywhere in the Arabian region in the past twenty years, according to a press release from the team.
It is unknown whether Striped Dolphins are genuinely rare in the region, or whether they simply spend all of their time far offshore, where people rarely venture.
The other three species encountered were the Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), the Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus), a deep-diving specialist, and the Indo-Pacific Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis tropicalis). All three are considered to be breeding residents of Fujairah, judging by the presence of juveniles and calves within the pods.
The Common Bottlenose Dolphin is the most frequently recorded species in Fujairah. It is now the subject of a genetic study, using samples collected during the project surveys. It is hoped that results will reveal the relationship between Fujairah’s dolphins and those elsewhere in the wider region, as well as providing more information about the origins and relationships between individual dolphins within Fujairah.
The project is collaborating with the Dubai Dolphin Project as well as overseas universities for this genetic research. Small calves were noted in pods of both Common Bottlenose Dolphins and Indo-Pacific Common Dolphins during the surveys, indicating breeding. Foraging behaviour was also witnessed, with dolphins circling and corralling small fishes before taking turns to feed. All four species are highly sociable, forming close-knit communities (pods). Some relatively large pods were encountered, including over 100 individuals in a single pod in some instances.
Both aerial surveys, conducted by helicopter, and vessel surveys followed a similar approach, surveying along predetermined transect lines designed to maximise the chances of finding marine mammals and allowing for comparison between surveys. The work done in previous years and that done in 2021 can therefore be directly compared. The surveys are conducted four times a year. This allows for results to be analysed to detect any seasonal differences in the distribution and abundance of marine mammals as well any change that occurs between years.
Whilst the target of the research is whales and dolphins, other important marine wildlife is also recorded. The current surveys recorded several sightings of sea turtles, including both the Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) which is classified by IUCN as Critically Endangered in the North Western Indian Ocean, and the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) which is Critically Endangered globally.