2019-03-24 by W.M.
Citizen science project aims to learn more about unique dolphin behaviour off WA’s south coast
Marine biologist Kirsty Alexander is passionate about documenting Albany’s dolphin population. (ABC Great Southern: Ellie Honeybone)
Marine biologist and ‘dolphin whisperer’ Kirsty Alexander began her citizen science project, South Coast Cetaceans, after noticing there was a lack of information about the resident and visiting dolphin populations near the West Australian port town of Albany.
For more than 12 months, Ms Alexander and her team of volunteers and university students have been studying marine mammals in a bid to have better management strategies for coastal development.
Cetaceans, and dolphins particularly, are a great indicator of marine health and can often be found frolicking and raising their young in the calm waters of Princess Royal Harbour.
Ms Alexander grew up by the coast and said her family spent many hours exploring the beach, looking at different fish species and carrying out informal investigations of the underwater world.
She decided to turn her passion for the ocean into a career and took on a biology degree at university.
“I always wanted to work in that area,” Ms Alexander said.
“I have worked in the education side of things. I was a TAFE lecturer for a time, I’ve done some community education in developing countries, some ecotourism, and a large part of my career was in coastal and marine ecosystem management and conservation.
“I am passionate about developing guidelines to make sure the environment is conserved — how to actually put them into practice, make them useful and make them matter to the community.”
It was this kind of thinking that inspired Ms Alexander to establish the South Coast Cetaceans research project and Dolphin Sighting Network from her hometown of Albany on WA’s south coast.
“This project come about because of a knowledge gap and a lack of information that I could see,” she said.
“Environmental impact assessments need to look at existing data and there isn’t actually that much for down here for whales or for dolphins.
“Also, it is something that people are pretty interested in. You can talk to people about seagrass and they won’t really care but if you talk about dolphins, then they are interested.”
Mysterious marine mammals
A cetacean is a whale, dolphin or porpoise and there are about 90 different species living within the world’s oceans and rivers.
There is a large resident population of bottlenose dolphins that prefer the protected water of Albany’s harbours, while other populations are spotted further out into King George Sound.
Common dolphins have also been spotted inside the sound and a number of different whale species are spotted each year on their migration journeys.
Common dolphins are among the marine mammals being documented. (Supplied: South Coast Cetaceans)
“Whales are our annual visitors and we see humpbacks, southern right whales and blue whales,” Ms Alexander said.
“For whales we actually have good annual records and we even have one record from a keen recreational boater who has some great footage of a dwarf minke whale.
“Having put that information into the International Minke Whale Database, it has actually changed the map too. There were previously no records of that species from this far south.”
Ms Alexander launches her boat two or three times a week and travels a particular route each day.
“I go out at same time, to the same places and record the habitats that I believe are quite important to the population,” she said.
“I record what the animals are doing from a behavioural perspective, record who is there in terms of how big the group is, note down if there are any calves, and whether they are fishing, socialising or resting.”
Some unique behaviour
Photographs are an important part of the South Coast Cetaceans project, and Ms Alexander has an impressive collection of dolphin action shots.
“Using photographs, we can keep a good record of what they are doing and also identify individual animals too,” she said.
“There’s one that we have given the nickname Chop because probably two-thirds of its dorsal fin is missing.
“It is the only one that has that marking and you can’t mistake it.
The project documents dolphin behaviour, including breaching, tail slapping and bow riding. (Supplied: South Coast Cetaceans)
“Another female that has a calf is called Raggy because the back of her dorsal is very tatty.
“Some that are very clean can be difficult to identify but you can usually work out who they are by who they are hanging with.”
Ms Alexander has also collected photos of dolphins participating in some unusual behaviour.
“Quite often people call me to say that [they] have spotted dolphins with seaweed on their heads,” she said.
“It does seem to happen when they are socialising. Mammals are known to pick things up and play and dolphins are no different.
“They love touching each other and body contact is quite a big feature of their socialising behaviour, perhaps the seaweed just feels good too!”
A project based on cooperation
Ms Alexander began collecting information on these species long before the formal project began, and has also been accessing data collected by those who have been spotting the mammals off the Albany coast for many years.
Her goal is to discover the health of the dolphin populations, whether numbers are declining or increasing, and where the most important habitats for breeding and feeding are located.
“One great thing about the project is accessing what other people have,” she said.
“I said at the beginning we don’t know anything but in fact lots of people do, they are just not within that framework of government or science where they know how to contribute that information.
Albany’s resident dolphins are often seen frolicking in the region’s sheltered harbours. (Supplied: South Coast Cetaceans)
“Local whale watch tour operators know so much about where things are and they collect really amazing photographs.
“So do our commercial fishermen and board riders — those guys who are on the water all the time.”
Part of the project is providing people with training so that they know how to collect information that is really useful and do it in a way that doesn’t really impact on their life.
“If you are already just going about what you are doing, just being able to submit photos or record information on a sheet is really useful to learn more about where these animals are, why they are there, and what it is about that particular area that they need,” Ms Alexander said.
“That’s very useful if we are going to be managing animals into the future.”
A fin book in the works
Land-based dolphin sightings are just as important as ones from on the water. (ABC Great Southern: Ellie Honeybone)
Ms Alexander said it was an incredible privilege to have the animals in the Albany area and she hoped her project would contribute towards the longevity of the dolphin population.
“A lot of the time we can feel a bit like, ‘oh we really are trashing the place’ and ‘is there any hope?’ and I think, absolutely there is,” she said.
“We need to look at all the data, determine what it means, how important these coastal areas are and is there anything we are doing there that it might be best that we didn’t.
“If there is somewhere that’s a really important resting area, how about we have a no wake zone? We can’t say that unless we have some information.”
The South Coast Cetaceans team are putting together a catalogue using mug shots of all the dolphins and their fins.
“It will always be built on,” she said.
“Being able to share that with the community is important so they can begin to recognise the animals and perhaps even contribute their own data.
“I think it is interesting that we live right next to them and we can see them yet we know so little about them.”
The project doesn’t just study dolphins — migrating whales are also documented. (Supplied: South Coast Cetaceans)
Education is key
While out on the water, taking photos in the sunshine is definitely one of the perks of the job, but Ms Alexander said the education side of things was what excited her the most.
“Going and talking to schools where you get all these enthusiastic little people gives you a really good feeling of ‘we’re going to be okay’,” she said.
“It can help with the project goals but it’s also that two-way street in terms of science and conservation outcomes for the schools.
“The benefits flow back into the rest of the community and we need to work hard to make sure that we do the right things in the future, to make sure that this population is okay.”
Kirsty Alexander says she feels privileged to spend her days studying marine mammals. (Supplied: South Coast Cetaceans)
There are dolphin watch groups all around Australia and Ms Alexander said there was plenty of information sharing between them all.
“One of the fantastic things about this was knowing we had an information gap but we weren’t starting from scratch at all,” she said.
“There is a fantastic team on Kangaroo Island who have really set the benchmark for this kind of work, particularly the citizen science side of things.
“There are dolphin watch groups in Mandurah, Perth and in Broome too.
“It’s about what we can do and what is possible.”