Dolphin Watch: Community Science in Action

How can a small team of scientists hope to measure a community of bottlenose dolphins – highly mobile animals – inhabiting a river stretching 60km through the capital of Western Australia?  By creating a network of citizen scientists!

The Swan-Canning Riverpark is an estuarine protected area flowing through Perth, WA.  Despite being situated in a major metropolitan area (over 1.4 million people), the river is home to a resident community of approximately 20 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.  Murdoch and Curtin Universities are leading the research into Perth’s Swan River dolphins, investigating how environmental changes in the river and human activities can affect the dolphin community.  For more information on the latest paper from this project, please click here.

Dolphin Watching for Science

Click here to view the Dolphin Watch Annual Report 2012-13

Click here to view the Dolphin Watch Annual Report 2012-13

The Dolphin Watch project is a partnership between the Swan River Trust’s River Guardians program, and Murdoch and Curtin Universities.  It was instigated in April 2009 to learn more about the bottlenose dolphins residing in the Swan and Canning Rivers by training members of the local community to monitor the dolphins.

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of attending Dolphin Watch Day 2013.  Each year, the amazing  contribution of the Dolphin Watch volunteers are celebrated on Dolphin Watch Day, providing an opportunity to share the most recent discoveries and research news.  Since the project began in 2009, volunteers have contributed 7,180 records of dolphin sightings detailing the location, group size and behaviour of animals seen in the river.  This has helped develop scientists’ understanding of how the dolphins are using this area, and will support the conservation of these much-loved locals.

Benefits for scientists…

Marine mammals are difficult to spot at the best of times.  But trying to track them down in a long river system, full of bays and inlets, can be a time-consuming process.  However, each year thousands of people use the Swan River for sport, recreation and travel.  If those people are already out on the river, it makes sense to make use of local knowledge to discover more about the ecosystem and its inhabitants.  Dolphin Watch essentially gives the scientists ‘eyes’ along the whole length of the river.

The growing size of this data set will allow scientists to begin studying long-term trends in dolphin habitat use and behaviour.  It will also improve their ability to detect changes in population size and behaviour which may effect the conservation of these iconic animals.  Citizen science projects such as this help us to develop our understanding of the world around us, and directly contribute to important research and conservation efforts.

… as well as volunteers!

This ever increasing amount of date is due to the growing size of Dolphin Watch, as well as the ongoing efforts of established members.  With almost 600 members of the Perth community out voluntarily monitoring the river, it is extremely heartening to see so many people taking an interest in preserving the local environment and it’s fauna.

But it’s more than just spotting the occasional dolphin.  People go out of their way to attend training sessions, fill in sighting reports, and spend hours scanning the water.  Already this year, they have submitted over 600 sightings so far – that’s a total of 2,467 hours dolphin watching!  A phenomenal effort!

And this is because people care.  They take an interest in the world around them, and want to know the outcomes of the research they’re helping to conduct.  They enjoy spending time in the natural environment, and want to ensure that future generations have the same opportunity.  They are an inspiration – and I hope their numbers continue to swell, bringing benefits to not only the dolphin community but our own community as well.

More Info?

The Dolphin Watch Annual Report (2012-13) became available on 14th June 2013.  For more information about the work of this exemplary citizen science program, have a flick through the report here!

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