SWMRP update: >10 years of research, 800 surveys and 2200 dolphin groups encountered

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UPDATE ON THE SOUTH WEST MARINE RESEARCH PROGRAM

It is hard to believe that I, John Symons PhD candidate, have now been in Bunbury, Western Australia, working with the South West Marine Research Program (SWMRP) for over 20 months now with the end of my fieldwork component for my PhD research rapidly drawing near. It’s provided so many unique opportunities to witness wildlife on the water and help improve our understanding of potential population-level consequences of human activity. My research is tied into several research components including dolphin surveys, vessel scan samples and vessel noise levels.

We have documented many calves being born over the past two years. Mojo and her new calf Juju surfaces next to each other.

We have documented many calves being born over the past two years. Mojo and her new calf Juju surfaces next to each other.

CRACKING 800 SURVEYS

Since the inception of the SWMRP a decade ago, ongoing dolphin photo ID surveys have been conducted year round in the waters in and around Bunbury covering the coastline from Binningup in the north to Busselton in the south. Over the last ten years, we have conducted over 800 boat based surveys, sighting more than 2200 groups of dolphins resulting in over 12,000 sightings of individual dolphins (including recounts). This work has been made possible through the work of three PhD candidates, several additional researchers and a plethora of international and national research assistants and a number of great partners who have supported the SWMRP over the last decade. The data collected over the last ten years will be utilised as part of my research of Stage 3 of the SWMRP assessing potential population-level effects of human activity specifically informing dolphin spatial usage (for assessing the level of exposure to boat traffic and boat noise specific individuals are exposed to), age-class specific survival rates and reproduction.

While out on these surveys the last 20 months, we have been privileged to witness a number of amazing sights. We have had sightings of numerous newborn calves over the last two years, including several individuals that were less than a week old. We’ve also gotten to witness some amazing foraging behaviour in that time including dolphins chasing and catching fish and at times being joined in the fishing by some local birds. We’ve gotten to see a scattering of penguin sightings, a couple of Australian sea lion sightings, and juvenile hammerhead sharks (e.g. we saw more than 15 on a single day once). We have even been treated to a few days of glass-like waters.

Our study site (Bunbury, WA) is mainly divided into three transects: Buffalo Beach, Beack Beach and the Inner water transect (see insert). We also conduct surveys in Busselton and in offshore waters.

Our study site (Bunbury, WA) is mainly divided into three transects: Buffalo Beach, Beack Beach and the Inner water transect (see insert). We also conduct surveys in Busselton and in offshore waters.

VESSEL DATA GALORE

Over the last 20 months, the SWMRP has been collecting vessel scan samples up to four days per week from an elevated position in Bunbury. This data set has now grown to over 55,000 individual vessel position fixes over that time in large part due to the many dedicated research assistants that have assisted me. The vessel scan sample data, in combination with existing automated identification system (AIS) data, high-resolution GPS tracks of dolphin tourism vessels and historical shipping and tourism data, will be used to model vessel usage across a large portion of the study area as part of my research assessing potential population-level effects of human activity on dolphins.

 

COMPLETION OF ACOUSTIC DATA COLLECTION

Over the last year, SWMRP have been collecting passive acoustic recordings of vessel noise in collaboration with Prof. Peter Madsen from Aarhus University in Denmark. One month of continuous recordings has been collected from each season (spring, summer, autumn and winter) over a one-year period. This data will be analysed in combination with our vessel scan sampling, AIS data, and GPS tracks of dolphin tourism to better understand the received acoustic levels at our three recording stations. These results will then be used to model vessel noise across the study area. The data collection portion of this work has now been completed and was conducted as part of the Assessing potential population-level effects of human activity on dolphins, a component of Stage 3 of the SWMRP.

 

RE-POWERING OF THE RESEARCH VESSEL

After supporting multiple PhD candidates and spending over 5000 hours in action out on the water, our trusty workhorse engine for the last ten years is finally being retired. The re-powering of the research vessel was made possible through the support of the South West Development Commission, SWMRP, Dolphin Discovery Centre and a number of individual supporters through a Crowd Sourcing campaign. Thanks to Bluewater Marine for their support!

SUPPORT

We thank our current partners for supporting Stage 3 of the SWMRP: Southern Ports Authority, Dolphin Discovery Centre, Cristal Global and South West Development Commission. Special appreciation to all of the research assistants who have made this work possible including: Dane, Tamara, Linda, Claire, Michelle, Vitaliy, Julie, Cecillie, Danielle, Micha, Claire, Jessica, Kelseyleigh, Sherie, Kath, Lorna, Lauren, Sarah, Lexi, Danielle, Nathan, Emma, Martin, Alessandra, Nicola, Sarah, Andy, Miranda, Maddey, Lucia, Jillian, Devin, and Saliza.

PUBLICATIONS ARISING FROM THE SWMRP

 

BLOG WRITTEN BYJohn Symons.

Lars Bejder PhD
Lars Bejder PhD
Professor Lars Bejder PhD is the Research Leader of the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit.
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