x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Region’s first dolphin-research project asks UAE residents for help

With no data on dolphins that inhabit the waters of the UAE and rest of the Gulf region, one group is setting out to make a change.

Fun and games at the launch of the dolphin research project at Dubai Marina Yacht Club last weekend. Jaime Puebla / The National
Fun and games at the launch of the dolphin research project at Dubai Marina Yacht Club last weekend. Jaime Puebla / The National

DUBAI // Experts are hoping that the UAE’s first dolphin-research project, which was officially launched on Saturday, will boost conservation efforts.

There has never been any research carried out on the Arabian Gulf’s dolphin population, an omission that is potentially catastrophic for the long-term survival of the mammal in the region, said the head of the project, Dr Ada Natoli.

“There is no data for the UAE and the Gulf, and without the data the species can easily disappear without any authorities even noticing,” she said. “For there to be conservation, you need this baseline information to be gathered.”

Dr Natoli called on the public to get involved in the project by reporting dolphin sightings to the group on its website.

There have been many sightings in waters around the UAE and Oman, including at areas near the Palm Jumeirah and Burj Al Arab in Dubai, but nothing has officially been logged.

In April, a group sent Dr Natoli video footage of two dolphins. During the project’s first research outing last week, near the Palm Jumeirah, she was able to find the pair among the 23 bottle nose dolphins that were spotted.

Dolphins have unique fins – as distinctive as the human face – meaning there is no need for the cost and complication of tagging, which is an invasive process for the dolphins

Finding the two dolphins from the video was a boost to the research, Dr Natoli said.

“This data allows you to see if the mammals are seasonal or residential here in the UAE waters and it also allows you to see the social relationship between individuals,” she said.

Research carried out on dugong, another large sea mammal, off the coast of Abu Dhabi in 1986 and in 1999, showed a decline of 71 per cent in sightings between the two projects, Dr Natoli aside.

This aside, this type pf project is, she says, “a virgin field” ripe for research in the region.

“Even a small area study will help us understand how many dolphins there are here and whether or not they are seasonal,” she said.

There are only four volunteers involved in the project, including Dr Natoli, who is an adjunct assistant professor at UAE University.

Funding comes from the community, including the boat manufacturer Duretti Marine, which gave the group a boat to use for field work. Dubai Marina Yacht Club has also supported the research, allowing the group to berth their boat for free.

Brunella Capitani, one of the volunteers, urged the public to report any sightings to the group.

“Many people here see dolphins but don’t report them and don’t know how,” she said. “This will help us so much in our work.”

Interest is growing, with students from UAEU and other institutions hoping to get involved in the field work.

Dr Aaron Bartholomew, an environmental scientist at the American University of Sharjah, said he and his students would also be helping the group with their work.

“I hope the students will be able to do either internships or their final projects with the group,” he said, adding that the project offers an excellent opportunity for students to get out into the field. “Who doesn’t want to go out and spot dolphins?” he said.

Dr Natoli added: “I hope in time we can build human capacity for this field in the UAE.”

“Our students are the future conservation leaders in the UAE so getting them involved would be great,” said Dr Bartholomew.

mswan@thenational.ae