Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New study on whales launched in the Emirate of Fujairah, U.A.E

New study on whales launched in the Emirate of Fujairah, U.A.E

The shallow seas along the Sea of Oman coast of the Emirate of Fujairah slope seawards for several kilometres before the seabed drops precipitously. Deep sea underwater cliffs and vast canyons plunge to over 2,000m deep, punctuated by sea mounts, pinnacles and ridges. This unexplored underwater realm is cold and dark, and carries the immense pressure of the weight of the water above it. It is hard to imagine that life could thrive in such conditions, and yet this deep sea habitat supports one of the largest and most formidable predators on the planet – the mighty sperm whale.

This at least is the theory behind a new scientific research project just launched in the Emirate of Fujairah. Supported by the Office of the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Fujairah, U.A.E, the study will be lead by a team of international whale scientists from Five Oceans Environmental Services and will involve systematic scientific surveys to try and detect the presence of sperm whales and other whales and dolphins off the Emirate, based on visual transects from vessels and acoustic surveys using hydrophones (underwater microphones) to pick up the clicks and calls that sperm whales use to navigate, find prey and communicate with other members of their pod.
Live sperm whales were last documented off the Emirate over twenty years ago, when both solitary males and pods of females were sighted due east of the Port of Fujairah. 

Since then, at least two dead sperm whales have washed up on the shoreline suggesting their continued presence here. Finding out whether or not they still live in this area is the first objective of the study. Once located the sperm whales will be subject to in depth study to better understand their behaviour, ecology, seasonality and ultimately their population status, structure and origins. The latter will involve genetic study of DNA based on tissue sample collection using biopsy techniques. 
Although very large, with males weighing up to 40 tonnes and measuring up to 16 meters, sperm whales are difficult to locate and study. They spend long periods of time underwater, regularly diving to depths of hundreds of metres and remaining submerged for up to an hour. It is at these depths that the whales forage, looking for prey such as giant squid and large deep sea fish that studies elsewhere in the world have shown to be among their favourite food. In the Arabian region, however, almost nothing is known about diet, or anything else to do with these mysterious creatures and the study off the Emirate of Fujairah will be the first ever dedicated study of sperm whales in the region.

A range of other whales and dolphins are also expected to be encountered during the surveys such as bottlenose dolphins, false killer whales, Risso’s dolphins and Arabian long-beaked common dolphins, as well as other marine wildlife, such as pelagic seabirds, turtles, game fish, sharks, rays, tuna and kingfish. A separate research study conducted over the past few years has already revealed a remarkable diversity of sea snakes, including eight species from the Emirate of Fujairah.

It is considered important to study understand the large marine mammals that inhabit the waters off the Emirate of Fujairah, U.A.E., and to protect them from threats posed by human activities, such as shipping and fishing. The study will help to inform us of how best to look after these ocean giants. Depending on the results of the first phase of research, a second phase will be planned which will encourage participation of interested Emirati University students and will seek the support of fishermen and the Port of Fujairah.  The public will be able to follow the progress of the study via a dedicated website, and facebook, instagram and twitter accounts.

Peter Dickinson
Independent International Zoo Consultant

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