Welcome to the Marine Mammal and wildlife Research and Community Development Expedition blog where you can keep up to date with all the happenings and information from Kenya

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Close Encounter with Dolphins

Working on a Sunday isn't always a bad thing... with tourism still recovering, we are taking every opportunity to join the tour boats and collect research data, so I set off at 8 this morning with Camille and Moha for a day of dolphin surveys. Last year we expanded our cetacean research to include the tourist boats that take visitors to the Kisite Marine Park. Whilst our core research enables us to assess population size and social associations, studying the interactions of the tour boats with the dolphins is equally important in enabling our partner Kenya Wildlife Service to manage tourism responsibly and ensure that impacts on the dolphin populations are regulated.

With their kind co-operation, we boarded the Dolphin Dhow tour, to record data on the location, duration and dolphin individuals encountered. With a beautiful sunny and relatively calm day, no one was complaining about giving up their Sunday. As we approached Kisite Island, we joined a couple of other tourist dhows that had come across 11 Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins, including a mother-calf pair and a sub-adult, travelling in a tight formation towards the Kisite reef. After the launch of the dolphin-watching code of conduct a year ago, it was pleasing to see them all drive responsibly, following the group from behind at a distacne of about 30m, so as not to disturb their behaviour. This is particularly important when there are young dolphins present.

After 15 minutes two more boats joined us with another four adult bottlenose dolphins bow-riding to join the group. The behaviour changed, with peduncle and tail dives, and more scattered distribution suggesting that they had started foraging at the edge of the reef. A fantastic opportunity for the tourists and our research team to observe these wild animals with the sub-adult giving us a couple of playful leaps and tail slaps on the water's surface to a soundtrack of rythmic gentle blows as they exhaled at the surface.

As the dolphin group reformed to set off travelling again, Dolphin Dhow moored up the boat to give us the opportunity to cool off and enjoy the underwater world. After two and half years working here, today was one of the best snorkelling trips, with exceptionally good visibility and an astonishing diversity of reef fish, of all shapes, colours and sizes...

Then it got better... we were unexpectedly joined by four of the dolphins, swiming around and beneath us. One of the most valuable regulations in the code of conduct was to prohibit explicit swimming with dolphins. There is an anthropomorphic view that dolphins are 'friendly' and enjoy human company, and we all too easily forget that we are in the company of wild animals. Pursuing wild dolphins to get close enough to drop people in amongst them has to impact on their natural behaviour and is believed to cause stress or interfere with key behaviours such as foraging. It is comparable to driving off-road in a terrestrial park to get close to lions - something that few responsible tourists would tolerate these days.
However when the dolphins voluntarily to come to you, it is an exceptionally rewarding experience. For 5 mintues we had clear views of these beautiful, and surprisingly large, wild animals, swimming with easy grace and precision. The sound of their echolocation clicks reverberating through the water and seemingly through your body as they approached head-on was astonishing. However, it is an innate desire to observe and understand behaviour in animals that keeps me endlessly enthralled by the natural world and makes every day in the field a new experience. So to be in the water looking down on the sub-adult as it rolled on to its back for two adults to rub along its belly, was an unparraleled privilege.

After a wonderful swahili lunch on board the boat, bobbing on the Indian Ocean, it was very difficult to feel sorry for myself for having missed out on the Humpback whales a few days ago... today was another one of those "I love my job" days! With special thanks to Dolphin Dhow for making it so.



croissantpark said...

Wow, you really looked like you had an adventure. I have only swam with Wild Dolphins in Bimini 1 X and that was exciting but Africa. That's a whole another story.
Enjoy your adventure!!
God Bless,