A productive month on the Dampier Peninsula

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After a month of work at Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsula, our team has now completed the first of four field trips to this area over the next two years.

This is towards a project which aims to investigate the abundance, local movements and gene flow of inshore dolphins at several locations across Australia’s remote Kimberley coastline.

After being blessed with fine conditions and a successful first week on the water, we had a frustrating 5 days of strong easterlies keeping us on land. Such conditions are, unfortunately, to be expected at times in the dry season. But it did at least give us time to process data and explore our surroundings. The beautiful red cliffs of Cape Leveque proved to be a fine windy afternoon sunset spot.

Fortunately, we were able to exploit several periods of lighter winds and calm afternoons to clock-up some 140 hours on the water for the month overall. This enabled us to complete our 5 transect runs in good conditions, explore beyond our core study area, and spend a bit more time in areas where the animals seemed to be present in greater numbers. A total of 69 groups of our target species were observed over the month.

Transect routes through Cygnet Bay

We continued to encounter small numbers of humpback dolphins throughout the southern half of the study area, including several mother & calf pair resights separated by distances of over 20 km. An interesting observation was that of two dolphins – one humpback and one snubfin – associating amiably as a mixed species pair for at least 90 minutes, and briefly joining a snubfin mother & calf pair. Studies in Queensland report interactions between these two species as predominantly of an aggressive/sexual nature.

The snubfin dolphins continued to be elusive, often very shy of the boat, and rarely encountered in anything other than flat seas. We did, however, successfully photograph several groups, including mother & calf pairs and one widely spread foraging aggregation of 15-20 animals.

Snubfin mother and calf

Bottlenose dolphins were the most frequently encountered in the area. New individuals continued to appear throughout the month, while several were consistently observed within the same two or three bays day after day. On several occasions these animals treated us to a fine display of their agility by terrorising schools of small fish near the mangroves.

Imminent consumption

Simon Allen. Feeling silly.

On our last couple of days we were joined by MUCRU colleague, Simon Allen. When he wasn’t too busy posing for the cameras, he was able to accompany us on the water. Needless to say, this boosted the biopsy sampling productivity, and we now leave Cygnet Bay with a good number of bottlenose dolphin samples. These, in addition to samples collected over the next 2 years of the project, will enable us to analyse the level of gene flow among animals from different sites in the Kimberley.

In our last week at the site, we met with the Bardi-Jawi Sea Rangers to discuss our research and soak up some of their knowledge of these waters. This active group of rangers have assisted in various turtle, dugong and cetacean research in recent years, and were enthusiastic about how they might get involved in our project. It was great to meet the guys, and we hope to work more closely with them in future seasons.

We are grateful to the Kimberley Marine Research Station, at Cygnet Bay Pearls, particularly those staff who stayed late at ‘the office’ to retrieve our boat at dusk. Their help and subsidised accommodation was much appreciated. We’re really looking forward to our return there in September!

Next stop… the eastern Kimberley town of Wyndham and its adjacent waters of the Cambridge Gulf. This will be our base for another month of field effort. We’re told to expect plenty of crocs; fingers crossed for a few dolphins too!


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