Team Sousa wraps up the first field season


by Tim Hunt

Well, the first field season for the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project has sadly come to a close (ended 30th October), and what an absolute cracker of a season it has been!

Since the last field blog entry in early August the weather has been much more co-operative and we’ve managed to get out on the water a great deal more than the first half of the season. For this first field season we’ve had a total of 84 days (423 hours) on water and over 260 dolphin school sightings, with dolphins sighted on 95% of the days we got on water. That’s an extremely good sighting rate in anyone’s books! We’ve clocked up over 3700 km on water and identified over 200 different individuals so far (both humpback and bottlenose dolphins combined), so it’s fair to say Team Sousa has been very busy with lots of dolphins, and lots of other amazing marine wildlife here at Ningaloo!

Since August, Team Sousa underwent some personnel changes. We sadly farewelled our resident maple leaf Katy Gavrilchuk and resident South Floridian Lauren Connor, both of whom had been with us from the beginning of the season and instrumental in the development of field protocols. I thank you Lauren and Katy for your assistance (and patience) with this project as it developed, and for bringing good fun times to hours on the water. You are welcome back anytime and I wish you all the best for your future endeavours. With Katy and Lauren’s departure we saw the arrival of English twitcher Mel Froude (a marine mammal and bird enthusiast), Italian cooking extraordinaire (from Italy in fact!) Micol Montagna, and regular sea lubber Englishman Rob Watson. All three were a fantastic addition to Team Sousa and over the past couple of months and we worked really well together and saw some amazing sights on Ningaloo (see below). I’d also like to thank my lovely wife Janine Hunt and father David Hunt for helping out on the boat while they were up here visiting in the middle of this season. I’ll make marine biologists out of them yet! This research could not happen without the help of volunteers so I want to publicly thank all Team Sousa members past and present for making this first field season such a success!

See below some Team Sousa testimonials from their experience on the project:

Lauren Connor (Florida, USA): “My experience working on the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project (a.k.a Team Sousa), was an amazing experience and a fantastic opportunity to work in paradise! Working on Ningaloo reef is unlike any other place in the world, and my co-workers were just as spectacular! Every day spent on or off the water was a new adventure. Whether we were observing a mixed group of twenty something dolphins, or watching humpback whales breach off in the distance, working here is an invaluable experience for any marine biologist!"

Katy Gavrilchuk (Québec, CANADA): “Participating in the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project was a great and unique research experience in a beautiful part of the world. It was gratifying to contribute to the initial stages of this potentially long-term project, which holds important conservation implications for the local cetacean populations. The field work involved a combination of techniques (vessel navigation and dolphin approaches, photo-identification, detailed behavioural sampling), efficient team work and some pretty spectacular encounters.”

Rob Watson (Isle of Wight, UK): “Wow, where do I begin? For me, this was an incredible two months working on the stunning Ningaloo Reef. The amount of research and boat driving experience I gained from this trip was extremely valuable towards my future career prospects. It seemed that every day when we were on the water looking for dolphins, we saw something that made me shout "woah", then we looked at one other with our mouths wide open. If you love Manta Rays, Dugongs, Humpback Whales, Sharks, Flying Fish, Sea Snakes, Bottlenose Dolphins and OF COURSE Humpback Dolphins, you are gunna love this place.”

Melanie Froude (Hastings, UK): "Without wanting to sound like a holiday brochure, Ningaloo Reef really is a paradise. The diversity and abundance of wildlife is unbelievable, every time we thought we had seen it all, something else new would suddenly pop up beside the boat to surprise us! It is honestly one of the most amazing places I have ever been and I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to work there. This is an important and exciting new project to be involved in; the Sousa always proving to be an intriguing species. An added bonus would be the community spirit of Exmouth, the sun and warmth, and, of course, being a part of the awesome ‘Team Sousa’!!"

Micol Montagna (Milan, ITALY): “My experience on the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project definitely exceeded all expectations, and I felt I learnt a lot. As this is a “live in” position, I felt myself completely involved in the project and all that is related to it. I felt I got a better understanding of the whole program itself, not to mention the Ningaloo Reef area, as there is such an amazing variety of marine wildlife and it is possible to get in contact with many other researchers conducting their studies there. Furthermore, I would say that this interaction with other researchers gave the place a really stimulating atmosphere, and it makes it possible to learn more about different fields, create contacts and get knowledge about different organisations. I really appreciated how the research assistant’s duties have been organized, meaning I could improve my skills in all the different tasks the project involves; either in the field (getting more confident in all the photo ID techniques, swapping the roles every day with the other team members) or in data entering and analysing. I felt it was a really intense and satisfying experience, and also a unique experience to live so close to such a wonderful marine life and environment. "

Dolphin sightings As we continued our transect surveys to systematically search for dolphins we got to know the various areas of the North West Cape and the animals that seem to be “regular” to those areas. With ~95% of humpback dolphin sightings analysed thus far we’ve identified over 80 individual humpback dolphins (excluding calves) in waters around the North West Cape. We’ve identified over 100 individual bottlenose dolphins, and that’s with only ~50% of sightings analysed, so it’s safe to say that we will have a lot more individuals in the catalogue once they have all been processed! Of all our humpback dolphin sightings, almost a third have been in mixed groups with bottlenose dolphins. The behavioural interactions between the two species is very interesting to observe, much ‘socialising’ goes on so it will be interesting to look at these sightings over the summer back at the CEBEL office at Flinders Uni and see if it’s the same individuals that are being sighted together. Nevertheless, mixed sightings certainly make for great Sousa photos!

Typically, humpback dolphins don’t surface too close the boat and are often difficult to approach closely to get photos (hence a 400mm zoom lens on my camera!). They almost never bow ride the boat and in a second they can be gone never to be seen again! You’re probably asking yourself why on earth I’m doing my PhD on somewhat elusive animals? Well, information available on these animals in WA is scarce and there is not information available to conduct a proper conservation status assessment. So, the only way to build knowledge is to be out there on the water, and when Sousa are spotted, we must approach very slowly, patiently, and cautiously and trust that on at least one surfacing the animals will be close enough to get a decent dorsal fin photo. You win some and you lose some, but that’s the nature of fieldwork. With bottlenose dolphins however, it’s a very different story. This species will go about their daily behaviours as if we weren’t there. They will in fact regularly surface right next to our research vessel and often bow ride. Bottlenose dolphins do make for great photos and we’ve managed to capture some pretty nice shots throughout the season (see photos below).

Safety on the water One thing to remember when conducting marine fieldwork - the ocean is the master. Early one morning while conducting transects Team Sousa came across a small capsized vessel on the edge of Ningaloo Reef. We immediately searched the general area for survivors and radioed the authorities. We were advised that a vessel had capsized the afternoon of the day before and that both persons on board had been rescued. However, we radioed through the boat registration to confirm this was in fact the same vessel and a response a number of minutes later advised this was the same vessel. We were less than a couple of miles from the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp so advised authorities we would tow the vessel back to land to be retrieved. Three quarters of the way to the boat ramp the towed vessel took on too much water that it was very difficult to tow any further against the outgoing tide so we navigated directly inshore and took it to the beach. Here we were able to use the small waves rolling in to overturn the vessel the right way up. From there we were easily able to tow the boat back to the boat ramp where the extremely grateful owners (read capsize survivors) met us and we winched their boat on to their trailer. The vessel owners shared with us that they were on the edge of the reef and a couple of sets of rolling waves came in that they could not navigate away from and subsequently their boat was flipped. They were in the water for about two hours before someone came to get them, and although not far from shore where they capsized, it was still far enough that with tides and currents, they weren’t able to make much way and get to the beach. Apart from a few minor fractures, bruises and pretty bad sunburn, they were thankfully ok.

Seeing this capsized vessel really brought home the message that the ocean can be a dangerous place and that a large rolling swell means waves can break out of nowhere and put vessels at risk. I’m fortunate that I’ve had experience driving boats in coastal waters here in Australia, Canada and Fiji but no matter how much experience a skipper has, the ocean is, and always will be, the master.

“Whale soup”

The North West Cape during the months of July-October is, for lack of a better term, whale soup. In July we witnessed what we believe was an immediate post birth of a humpback whale calf. There was splashing off in the distance and as we got closer we could see very small pectoral fins flailing about at the front of an adult. We sighted soo many very small calves with mothers during July/August that it’s likely these animals were less than a few weeks old. It’s possible given the humpback whale population in Western Australia that a number of births are occurring in areas not previously documented before. We had humpback whales on a few occasions breach out of nowhere and scare the begeezuz out of us, the closest being ~20m from the research vessel! Just incredible! During September/October on the Exmouth Gulf side we were literally dodging whales while we were conducting our line transect surveys. Exmouth Gulf is a resting ground for humpback whales and where our transect lines are located is the thoroughfare for mother/calf pairs and escorts as they exit the Gulf around the tip of the NWC and head south to their summer Antarctic feeding grounds. Humpback whale calves appear quite inquisitive and on two separate occasions while with a group of ~20 bottlenose dolphins we were buzzed by a humpback calf that swam right alongside our vessel while mum kept a close watch (see photos). It’s moments like those that you pinch yourself as you can’t believe what you’ve just witnessed.

An incredible diversity of marine life on the NWC In addition to humpback whales, the manta ray and sea turtle sightings appeared to increase the last few months of the field season (August-October). At one point we saw six manta rays together in one single location in the Exmouth Gulf! For turtles the increase in numbers was expected given this time of year it’s turtle mating season, but it often threw us off as you would see an object at the surface of the water which, from a distance, looks like a dorsal fin, when in fact it was turtles on top of each other doing as nature best intended. In late October on the night of the full moon we went to a beach on the tip of the NWC in the hope of seeing turtles nesting. None of us had seen it before and immediately upon arriving at the beach we were all extremely lucky enough to be able to witness not one, but three green turtles come up the beach, dig their nests then lay their eggs. Again, just incredible!

If dolphins, whales, manta rays and sea turtles aren’t enough marine diversity to tickle your fancy, then fear not, the NWC has got a lot more to offer. We were constantly surprised but what we could come across while looking for dolphins. We were fortunate enough to see sea snakes (say that 10 times really fast!), a leopard shark, a bow mouth guitar fish, shovel-nosed rays, eagle rays, tuna, kingfish and of course plenty of reef fish. Above the water we saw a variety of bird life including shearwaters, ospreys, sea eagles, brown falcons, pelicans, ibises, crested terns, herons, and gulls.

On the last week of the field season we actually came across a lone whale shark just on the outside edge of Ningaloo Reef. Whale shark season officially ends in August and some tours still run into September, so for us to see a whale shark sighted from a boat (tour operators use spotter planes) in late October is, as best put, extremely bloody lucky! The 6m whale shark didn’t stick around for long, but came right by our boat and we managed to snap a nice pic of it with the GoPro. So in summary, if there’s marine species that can be found in tropical waters, the NWC has probably got it! I’ll say it again, this place is truly amazing.

So we’ve got our marine creatures that we regularly observe when out on the water, and then we have their terrestrial counterparts, namely kangaroos and emus. We regularly sight roos and emus on our way to/from the boat ramps, and sometimes you even have to stop on the road to let a family of emus pass by! If you ever get to Exmouth you’ll notice the emu signs on the edges of town. It’s not rare to see an emu cruising on the edge of the road around the township of Exmouth! If you’re on the road at night, I can GUARANTEE you will see kangaroos. The buggers are everywhere! :)

Many photos of the incredible diversity and landscape were taken throughout the field season, all of which unfortunately cannot be shared in this blog. To see more photos of the wonder that is Ningaloo and our experiences on the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project (NWCDRP) please ‘Like’ the CEBEL Facebook Page at CEBELresearch and check out the NWCDRP album, as well as other albums from research conducted by CEBEL.

Well, that’s it for 2013. It’s been an absolutely incredible experience and what I would deem a very successful first field season. Now to firmly plant myself in the office back at Flinders Uni, look at all this data, do some analyses and plan for the 2014 field season. Team Sousa will be back in Exmouth in early April 2014 for another six month field season and we certainly look forward to bringing you more photos and interesting observations of dolphins (and other marine life!) on the wonder that is the North West Cape and the spectacular World-Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range National Park.