Citizen Science

This work is through my association with the Dolphin Watch citizen science project, which I have been a part of since 2012.  This project occurs in the Swan-Canning Riverpark, Western Australia, and is run by the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) in collaboration with Curtin and Murdoch Universities.

What do we do?

About 20-25 bottlenose dolphins live in the Swan-Canning Riverpark.  Since 2009, over 1,000 members of the general public in Perth have become Dolphin Watch citizen scientists.  We train these volunteers in basic observation techniques and how to ‘observe but not disturb’.  Dolphin Watchers learn how to record the time, date, and location of dolphin sightings, as well as the number of dolphins sighted, whether any calves were present, and any noticeable behaviour.  This information can be uploaded to the Dolphin Watch database via the app or website.  It is then available to us scientists to learn more about how dolphins use the riverpark and how environmental changes or human activities can affect the dolphin community.

Dolphin trio in the Swan River – note the body scarring allowing individual identification (Photo: Sarah Marley)

What have we found?

Each year, the latest Dolphin Watch findings are published in an annual report.  This includes an overview of the effort put in by project volunteers, such as the total number of citizen scientists involved in the project, how many hours of survey time they have contributed that year, and which zones in the river have received the most survey effort.  It also provides information on how often dolphin sightings have occurred, which zones have the highest (and lowest) number of dolphin sightings per hour effort, and what types of behaviour occur in different zones.  Over the past few years, a very similar pattern has been revealed – dolphins are consistently choosing to spend time in particular locations within the Riverpark.  Some of these areas are often used for foraging and socialising activities, whilst others appear to be ‘transit’ areas which dolphins travel through to reach other locations.  However, there is some variability in the use of these areas, most likely as a result of environmental variability, prey distribution, or seasonal patterns.

What does this mean?

This project provides crucial information regarding how dolphins use the Swan-Canning Riverpark.  Citizen scientists provide broad coverage throughout the Riverpark, submitting thousands of monitoring reports each year.  It would be very difficult for scientists to be in so many places at so many times, and thus Dolphin Watch volunteers provide an extremely valuable long-term dataset.  This not only benefits the dolphins themselves by aiding their conservation, but also allows members of the public to look after their river system whilst learning scientific skills.