Team Sousa wraps up the second field season


by Tim Hunt

The 2014 field season of the North West Cape Dolphin Research Project (NWCDRP) finished up at the end of October 2014, and as with 2013, a very successful season it was indeed. Team Sousa kicked off fieldwork on 9th April 2014 and finished up on 27th October 2014, logging a total of 288 dolphins sightings over 94 survey days (533 hours on water).

Our target species, the recently described endemic Australian humpback dolphin, Sousa sahulensis, was frequently sighted, and as seen in 2013, in regular mixed species associations with sympatric Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). Interestingly, 2014 yielded more humpback dolphin school sightings than bottlenose dolphin school sightings (168 vs. 140 in 2014 compared to 109 vs. 163 in 2013, humpback and bottlenose respectively). 2014 saw numerous resights of the same individuals sighted in 2013, with some new individuals being added to the photo-identification catalogue. As of the end of 2014, there are just over 100 individual humpback dolphins identified, and just over 250 individual bottlenose dolphins identified within the North West Cape study area. With the high re-sighting rates of some individuals in both 2013 and 2014 field seasons, preliminary evidence suggests there is certainly a degree of residency of both species to the study area. I, Tim Hunt, CEBEL PhD Candidate will be spending 2015 in the office at Flinders University analysing both field seasons of data, not only determining abundance, residency and site fidelity, but also habitat use and social structure of Australian humpback dolphins around the North West Cape.

Plenty of data to keep me busy!

The NWCDRP would certainly not be possible without the volunteer field assistants, who come from all over the globe to gain experience in marine mammal research and further their skills in the field. In no particular order, I would like to shout out a HUGE HUGE thankyou to 2014 Team Sousa members Victoria Pouey-Santalou (France), John Symons (USA), Kate Indeck (USA), Gabi Kowalski (Germany), Kaja Wierucka (Poland), Vicky Stein (USA), Natalie Ashford-Hodges (UK) and Cindy Van Schie (Holland) for their very hard work this field season. We had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, and some absolutely amazing animal encounters, including killer whales, false killer whales, humpback whales, manta rays, tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, dwarf minke whales, swarms of schooling fish, flying fish, and plenty of sea turtles, seas snakes and emus. Let’s not also forget all those amazing push-ups ;-). Thanks to all my supervisors for their guidance and support this field season, especially to Dr Guido Parra for coming to Exmouth, imparting his wisdom and showing me the ‘biopsy rifle ropes’. Collecting dolphin skin samples using a PAXARMS biopsy rifle was an element of data collection introduced half way through the 2014 field season, and all samples collected this season and coming seasons will help give insight into population social and genetic structure in the region. Thanks also to honorary Team Sousa members David “Papa” Hunt, Karl Beerenfenger, Daniella Hanf, and all others that came out on the water with us and helped out. I want to give special thanks to my wife Janine and baby daughter Amelia for moving up to Exmouth and supporting me through this field season. It was fantastic to have my girls to come home to at the end of each day.

Thanks must also go to the Exmouth community, local businesses and local government departments for their support and interest again this field season. The sense of community pride and conservation is very strong in Exmouth, and what you have is truly something special and unique. I had amazing turnouts to the community presentations this season so thank you Exmouth for your interest and support. Special thanks to Cape Conservation Group for their continued support, John Totterdell (MIRG Australia) and NOAA Southwest Fisheries for their contributions of dolphin sightings, and to staff from the tourism industry that contributed dolphin sighting information. Thanks to the Murdoch University Coral Bay Research Station for the use of their boat and vehicle, and to our funding bodies, the Australian Government’s Australian Marine Mammal Centre, and the Winifred Violet Scott Charitable Trust, whom without this research would not be possible. To everyone else that has been involved in the NWCDRP in 2014, thankyou thankyou thankyou.

As we progress into 2015, plans are being finalised for the 2015 field season of the NWCDRP. Keep your eye on the CEBEL Facebook site for updates of this project and for more photos of the 2014 field season and Team Sousa’s adventures on the World Heritage Listed Ningaloo Coast. Sadly, I won’t be back for a full season in 2015 as I must submerse myself in the data collected over 2013 and 2014 and write my PhD thesis. However, I will be aiming for publications this year so keep your eyes out on the CEBEL website and Facebook site for results of humpback dolphin research on the North West Cape. Farewell Exmouth, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I will miss you. I very much hope to continue conservation work in the beautiful part of the world post PhD in 2016.