Have you ever heard of a snubfin dolphin? Not many people have – and up until 2005, no one had at all.
In that year, what was previously considered to be a bunch of Irrawaddy dolphins swimming around off the northern coast of Australia, was discovered to actually be a separate species entirely. And so snubfin dolphins became Australia’s first endemic species of cetacean. But now, almost ten years later, we still don’t know a whole lot about them.
As part of the Kimberley Marine Research Program, the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) is funding research into the distribution, abundance and genetic connectivity of Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins across the Kimberleys. This is a collaborative research project, involving scientists from Murdoch University, Curtin University and Australian National University. Through a mixture of visual observations from vessel-based surveys and acoustic monitoring using underwater noise loggers, the project hopes to improve our knowledge of where and when dolphins occur. It will also investigate the effectiveness of using noise loggers as an alternative technology for collecting data on distribution and seasonality of dolphins across the Kimberleys.
During July and August this year, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Roebuck Bay component of this project. My supervisor Chandra and I spent a few weeks working with Dr Deb Thiele (Australia National University) to collect visual and acoustic data on the snubfin dolphins of Roebuck Bay. It was a real pleasure to work with Deb, who has been conducting research in Roebuck Bay for several years on the abundance, habitat-use and behaviour of this snubfin dolphin population. We were also working in with local Yawuru Indigenous Rangers Cornell and Johani, who helped us on the boat to collect observational and photographic information on the dolphins. And to finish off our Snub-Team, we had Jason from Environs Kimberley who helped us navigate through the bay. The Kimberleys are a stunning place in general, but it was especially great to explore it with people who know the area (and its wildlife) so well!
Over five weeks, we spent a lot of time out on the water and became familiar with a whole host of Roebuck Bay’s other marine residents. Sightings of dugong, turtles, manta rays, sharks, sea birds, and various fish made every day unpredictable but very special!
I’ve been remarkably quiet the last wee while partly because I’ve been away on fieldwork. But also because it involved such amazing animals, cool people, and beautiful surroundings that I had no idea how to begin describing it! A large part of PhD life revolves around stress – the pressure of making progress, meeting deadlines, producing outcomes. But an important part of PhD life is to realise how lucky I am to have these experiences, travel to these places, and meet these people. And this trip was definitely one of those fortunate events.