NEW!! November 2011 Renaissance Whale & Dolphin Diary December 2011



Special thanks to Renaissance Services SAOG


Written by Andy Willson, ESO Marine Team 


November 2011


Part 1

The Road to Dhofar… Finally the Weather Clears…


Yikes! Was the first exclamation when we looked at the incoming weather forecast at the beginning of November. We had just been sitting in a soggy house on rain drenched Masirah for four days with a schedule to get down to Salalah and this new information put an urgency on getting off the island.



                                                                              Satellite image of rain over Dhofar on 8th November, 2011




                                                                                           Wind Forecast November 8th 2011 



30 hours later after trailing our adventure wagon and survey vessel past flooded plains and overflowing wadis we reached an impasse at Salalah as we discovered the road north was washed out. A week later the team returned and with the help of Bader al Balushi and Issam al Boussi from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA) we slowly beat a track up the coast crossing breached culverts and failed roads…



               Carefully negotiating between sections of broken roads in Dhofar with boat, camp, sample equipment, kitchen, office and workshop all in tow

                                                                                                         (Photo courtesy Bader al Balushi)



With the journey complete the MECA and ESO team, including volunteers Corrine and Stijn established camp, and were briefed on the scientific protocols required in this years monitoring work. 




                                                                                                    Base Camp finally established near the boat anchorage


Searching from the new research vessel ‘ESO 1’, the first few days of searching yielded sightings of the shy and endangered humpback dolphin. This species is usually found close in to the shoreline throughout much in its habitat in the dohfar region, living in mixed groups of up to 10-15 animals.




                      Bader al Balushi from MECA focuses in on a pod of Indo-pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) close in to the shoreline of Dhofar region



Having made sightings close in the team continued further offshore over the next few days with their search for whales and employing the used of mobile acoustic recording equipment from the boat. This equipment which comprises of a hydrophone (underwater microphone) can allow detection of the whales and dolphins from their vocalisations with greater range than can often be detected by sightings of their surface activity. Click here to visit Wildlife Acoustics, Inc.




                                                              Essam al Boussi from MECA and ESO Team listen tune in to acoustic world of whales and dolphins…




Part 2

Return of Old Friends…


During the survey in Dhofar the team were lucky to be re-united with Dr. Gianna Minton who returned to lend a hand  and re-visit the study sites previously worked during her studies of Whales and Dolphins in Oman. Below Gianna recounts her past and recent experience in Oman.


A trip back in time…


Six years ago I left Oman with my husband and 15-month-old daughter to start a new adventure in Sarawak, Malaysia.  After eight and a half years in Oman, six of which were spent studying the country’s whale and dolphin populations, it was incredibly difficult to say good-bye to the country, its people, our good friends, and the humpback whales which formed the focus of my PhD thesis and so much of my time and energy.  Although I was lucky to be able to start a dolphin research project at the University of Malaysia Sarawak, and have been working happily there for the past 4 years, the humpback whales of Oman still held an important place in my heart, thoughts, work and dreams.  My old team-mates from ESO  were kind enough o keep me involved in the work through regular email contact and allowing me to maintain the humpback whale photo-identification database.   Through this, I was able to keep tabs on which of the whale “friends” that we had made in our previous surveys were re-sighted during my absence, and I could rejoice when the team found new whales, providing hope that the population  might be a little bigger than the estimate of fewer than 100 individuals that was generated from data collected up through 2003.  


Returning to Oman for the first time this November to participate in the ESO whale survey off the coast of Hasik was an incredible experience.  After several years of concentrating on motherhood and elusive little Irrawaddy dolphins and finless porpoises in Sarawak, the chance to work with my old colleagues and reconnect with the humpback whales was irresistible.  While it was heart-warming  to see whales that were “old friends”, it was worrying at the same time, as the lack of new individuals is an indication that the population off the coast of Oman remains small, and is possibly even declining in the face of threats like increased fishing effort,  coastal development and habitat degradation, and higher volumes of shipping traffic in some of the areas we identified as the whales’ core habitat.  I am extremely grateful to the ESO for allowing me to return to Oman and remain involved in this valuable research, and I truly hope that our efforts will give these whales a better chance of surviving long enough for my own children, and future generations of Omanis to admire and enjoy the way I have.




                                                                         Gianna on survey, poised to capture images to enable photo identification of humpbacks




Part 3

Old Friends Meet New Friends!


After several days of fruitless searching the team was beginning to wonder if the humpback whales were going to show up…this section of coast hadn’t previously received much survey attention at this time of year, so knowledge of there whereabouts undetermined. Was the run of successful sightings at off the coast of Masirah the month before indicative of their preferred location during November?


The first sign that ‘someone’ might have been around was captured early morning on an audio recording as the distant and eerie song of the humpback whale was captured from the survey vessel’s hydrophone. The song of the humpback whale at this time of year is thought to be an indication that socialising amongst individuals would be commencing for the start of the breeding season. Unfortunately the singing whale in question stopped singing before a specialised technique used for finding vocalising whales enabled its location to be revealed so that the survey team could identify it.


Undeterred the team continued on and was able to log sightings and take valuable samples from an offshore form of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) whilst witnessing some spectacular bow riding and acrobatic performances as the group of 50 individuals continued their route out to sea at a blistering pace.




                                                                                             A Bottlenose dolphin performs in front of the survey team



Later the same day around dusk the team, bobbing around some 8km offshore rubbed their eyes in amazement…had they just seen a whale blow against the shoreline or was it just the apparition of  waves braking against the cliffs? A second sighting confirmed the distinctive bushy outline of the humpback whale exhalation set alight by the late afternoon rays of sunlight… Excited by the first whale sighting the vessel was soon alongside and Gianna on the camera was capturing the dorsal and tail images of the animal… it was indeed an animal she hadn’t seen before in her previous work in Oman…a new friend? Andy then called out ‘Scooby Doo’ recognising the animal he’d first seen in the same area in March of 2010 and 2011… For the rest of the survey when searching for the humpbacks Andy was caught humming ‘ Scoobie doobie doo where are you?’ after the theme tune to the popular children’s cartoon…




                                          Scoobie takes a dive at the end of a long day of searching…the first humpback whale to be sighted during this seasons Dhofar surveys



Part 4

The Adventures of Scoobie Doo


After waving goodbye to volunteers from ESO and Minisiry of Environment the team soon got into its stride as more whales were encountered over the next few days. 




                                                             Andy Willson and Gianna Minton head off on the teams new vessel for a morning of inshore survey work



Five minuets out from shore Scoobie showed up again with some friends in tow…and there followed a morning of the team recording the behavioural activities associated with the socialising amongst 4 different whales… As the manager of the teams photo identification whale catalogue Gianna recognised the 3 new whales quickly…(scroll below to 'meet the whales & their tales'). ‘Swoosh’, ‘Saddle’ and ‘Blacky’ cavorted lazily around the bay, with Scoobie, apparently doing not much at all. Previous surveys in the same area in March had revealed a rash of feeding behaviour amongst the same whales, but it seemed at this time the whales were between feasts. On a couple of occasions the whales approached the research vessel closer, taking a natural interest in the team who has been documenting their activities for many years.




                                                                                     “Blacky” and “Swoosh” cruising together in the backdrop of fishing activities



As the day progressed skin samples and photos were taken of each of the whales. This approach has already revealed a greater insight into each of the whales histories and hopefully with further laboratory work of their relationship to each other. Are these animals family or friends? Although reassured to know these old animals were still around, the fact that the team keep re-sighting the same individuals at different study sites is worrisome…statistical analysis indicates that the more re-encounters out of a limited number of sightings is indicative of a small population.




                                             Gianna zooms in on “Saddle”, a whale first encountered by the team in 2001 when they freed it from a fishing net off Duqm




                                        Sorting samples. Andy works with the sampling kit to extract and store valuable skin samples after a successful biopsy attempt  






Part 5

Who’s Watching Who? Transients, Residents and the Researcher.


There was a distinct absence of our humpback whales in the last few days of the survey…and we were wondering why. On the last but one day we had seen a couple of pods of small Long Beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus capensis tropicalis) scooting past at break-neck speed… in more of a hurry to get somewhere than usual, but why? 


As the survey vessel nosed its way out of the anchorage on the last day the answer  presented itself. A group of up to 120 False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens) plied their way determinedly down the coast with the presence of a small army on the march. Like their larger cousins the Killer Whale, this species falls in the select category of cetaceans that prey on other cetaceans, and although slightly smaller, travels in much larger group sizes. Typically such animals are transient and travel extensively in order to find enough prey to satiate their appetites. 


                                          Who’s watching who? An individual False Killer Whale ‘spy-hops’ next to the boat to get a good look at the survey team



Earlier in the year the team witnessed individuals from a similar sized pod closing in on a humpback whale and making strikes at it. However on this calm morning it seemed like their route was clear of potential snacks and the team was able to witness them travelling at speed in their subgroups, comprised of mothers and calves, male escorts as they headed southwards at a steady 16 kph




                                                                                         Acrobatics of a False Killer in front of a Dhofary coastal town



For the track home at the end of most survey days the vessel was kept on a tight meandering course to hug the bays and headlands of the rocky coastline as a means to document those species found close to shore. The last day was no exception in finding a small group of 10 Indo-pacific Humpback Dolphins (Sousa chinensis) cavorting in shallow water amongst rocky crags of the foreshore. 


As with their larger relatives the humpback whales, photos of small cetaceans can also be assessed to identify individual animals. On this occasion the animals were unusually inquisitive and so the team took advantage of the opportunity, generating photos add to the existing catalogue taken from the region over the years. This continued as a couple of very young calves circled the boat and the group continued bow riding even as the team  pulled away to head home. 




                                                               Gianna gets a few final shots of the survey to add to archive of the small cetacean catalogue




                                                Yet another animal can’t help but ‘spy-hop’ to take a look at the strange creatures watching them from the boat!



Part 6

All Ears: Continuous Immersion in the Acoustic World of Whales and Dolphins


After the successful trial of a loaned acoustic array system deployed in Dhofar earlier in the year, ESO has pushed ahead with the purchase of its own equipment that will allow the research team to continuously listen out for whales and dolphins throughout the year along the Dhofar coast.


The array is comprised of multiple units mounted on the seabed that are essentially just waterproof canisters containing audio recording systems and a specialised microphone (hydrophone), to pick up underwater sounds. 


The pictures below show the team preparing and deploying the units at the end of November on the Dhofar coast. 











The first recordings will not be retrieved from these units until early 2012, and will then have to undergo extensive processing through acoustic software packages in order to identify cetacean vocalisations. Of particular interest in this experiment will be the songs and calls made by humpback whales who are known to engage in breeding activities at the site in the late winter months.


Deployed as an array, it is hoped the processed data from multiple units will enable the team to localise the position of singing whales. Crucially also this information will play an important role in filling in gaps in determining what the whales are up-to at times of the year when the team is unable to be on site. When the team is on-site then the layering of visual data taken from boats and clifftops together with acoustics will provide the most detailed insight into the lives of these animals. Hopefully these new efforts will enable the team to answer questions relevant to conserving this endangered and enigmatic population that at present we can only speculate about. 




                                                         An underwater acoustic recording device recently deployed at a popular humpback whale singing site…

                                                                                                       Click here to visit Wildlife Acoustics, Inc.




Hope you enjoyed this month's Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Diary! The Team will be returning to Dhofar to conduct their investigations throughout 2012…so tune in for regular updates!













































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