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32 Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018
There has been relatively little scientific study of
cetaceans in the UAE. Many of the recorded species
are known only from a few sightings at sea or from
dead individuals washed ashore. Reviews of cetacean
occurrence and distribution in the Arabian region as late
as the 1980s (e.g., Leatherwood 1986, De Silva 1987)
omit reference to the UAE entirely.Later reviews and
accounts (Baldwin et al. 1999, Preen 2004) reveal that
limited historical information is, however,available
(Morzer-Bruyns 1971, Slijper et al. 1964) albeit largely
unsubstantiated. Nineteenth century whalers and observers
on 20th century merchant vessels were the first to document
large whales in the Arabian Sea region (e.g., Brown
1957, Wray & Martin 1980, Reeves et al. 1991). Some
species, such as humpback whales, were documented in
UAE waters, including in the Arabian Gulf (Slijper et al.
1964) where they continue to occur today (Dakhteh et
al. 2017). A record of a dead humpback whale was also
documented off Khor Fakkan in 1973 (Baldwin et al. 1999).
Recent whaling also occurred in the Arabian region in
three successive seasons during the period 1963 to 1966
(Mikhalev 1997, Mikhalev 2000), when illegal Soviet fleets
swept northwards from the Gulf of Aden, along the eastern
shoreline of the Arabian peninsula and eastwards across
the Oman Sea as far as the Pakistan–India border. The
final Soviet tally from this Arabian region campaign was
3,339 whales, including 1,294 blue whales, 954 sperm
whales, 849 Bryde’s whales and 242 humpback whales
(Mikhalev 2000). Almost nothing is known of the population
status of these species in the wider region today,with the
exception of the humpback whale, for which a population
estimate off Oman of 82 (95% CI = 60–111) individuals
was estimated in 2008 (Minton et al. 2008), and appears
little changed since then, suggesting no population growth
since the whaling era.
Gallagher (1991) was among the first researchers to
document occurrence of small odontocete cetaceans in
the UAE based on data from six skulls collected between
1972 and 1973, representing three different species. Ad
hoc surveys for small cetaceans in the mid-1980s,
focusing on the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, Sousa
chinensis (now known as S. plumbea), resulted in reports
of several unidentified cetaceans, including large whales,
but records are often vague, lacking supporting data.
More substantive information was collected later that
decade (Preen 1989) during aerial surveys for dugongs,
although only three species of dolphins were recorded. A
dedicated study of the UAE’scetacean fauna in 1995
(Baldwin 1995, Baldwin 2003) increased the number of
species recorded in the country to 13, including three
species of baleen whale and ten odontocetes. The former
Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency
of Abu Dhabi (ERWDA) (now the Environment Agency
Abu Dhabi–EAD) conducted summer and winter aerial
surveys of western UAE waters in the Arabian Gulf in
summer 2000 and winter 2001 (Al-Ghais & Das 2001).
This focused on estimating the population size and
distribution of dugongs, but also recorded incidental
dolphin sightings. More recent surveys between 2014
and 2015 by the EAD Dolphin Conservation Programme
revealed that the waters offAbu Dhabi hold the largest
reported population of Sousa plumbea in the world
comprising 701 (95% CI = 473–845) individuals (Diaz
López et al. 2017). Other recent information has been
collected during the course of the UAE Dolphin Project,
with most records coming from Arabian Gulf waters.
Of all of these previous studies and surveys, only one
(Baldwin 1995) refers to dedicated survey work conducted
off the UAE East Coast of Fujairah.
Growing knowledge of cetacean fauna in the Emirate of Fujairah, UAE
by Robert Baldwin, Andrew Willson, Elayne Looker & Balázs Buzás
Most records of cetaceans in the United Arab Emirates come from relatively few studies undertaken in Arabian Gulf
waters. However, recent study off the coast of Fujairah, in the Gulf of Oman, has revealed a rich diversity of cetaceans
with 11 or more species now known to occur in the emirate. Among them are three new records for the UAE, spotted,
striped and rough-toothed dolphins, as well as infrequently recorded large whales such as sperm, Bryde’s and blue
whales. Most species are primarily distributed in offshore waters over 500 m deep, though some species, such as the
Indo-Pacific common dolphin, also regularly occur closer to shore, including within the Port of Fujairah anchorage area.
Continuing research aims to investigate the population size, status and structure of cetaceans present in waters off
Fujairah using a variety of line transect, photographic, genetic and acoustic research techniques.
Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018 33
Establishing an updated baseline
The Fujairah Whale Research Project began in
February 2017 and has included eight dedicated vessel
surveys and one aerial survey for cetaceans to date,
undertaken approximately every 3–4 months. Surveys
were typically between 3 and 5 days in length and
followed pre-designed survey transects. Aminimum of
three observers and consistent replication of survey
methods allows for comparison between data sets. The
survey area includes deep, offshore waters and is depicted
in Figure 1.
Distribution of cetaceans off Fujairah
Cetaceans are distributed throughout the survey area,
based on both sightings and acoustic detections made
during vessel transect surveys. The majority of sightings
were in relatively deep water (500 m+). The data reveal a
concentration of sightings towards the southwest corner
of the survey area, which is considered a ‘hotspot’ for
several dolphin species. Figure 2 depicts a sub-set of
sightings recorded during vessel-based surveys, as well
as acoustic detections made during routine acoustic
surveys using a drop-down hydrophone at transect stations.
Figure 1. Fujairah Whale Research Project survey area showing transect stations (circles).
Transects are typically surveyed along E–W orientation, but may also be surveyed along N–S orientation.
Figure 2. Summary of vessel-based observations and acoustic detections of cetaceans recorded during offshore
34 Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018
A dedicated aerial survey was conducted between 20–
22 March 2018 inclusive. Flights were conducted both
during the morning and the afternoon, with flights generally
lasting 2–2.5 hours. A total of 2,414 kms were searched
along predetermined transects. In terms of distribution,
aerial survey results were similar to those of the vessel
surveys in that the majority of sightings were recorded in
the southwest corner of the survey area (Figure 3). The
aerial survey additionally revealed common dolphins
between the survey area and shore, including in the
Port of Fujairah anchorage. Observations (supported by
photographs) recorded by Port of Fujairah personnel from
work vessels have since revealed the repeated presence
of common dolphins in this area.
Figure 3. Summary of observations recorded during an aerial survey of waters off Fujairah in March 2018.
Figure 4. Common bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus (photo by Jacky Judas).
Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018 35
Figures 2 and 3 show the distribution of a range of
species recorded during vessel and aerial surveys. Of the
species recorded, three represent new records for the
UAE, including pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella
attenuata), striped dolphin (S. coeruleoalba)and rough-
toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis;Figs 5–7).
Other records from the recent vessel and aerial surveys
included common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus),
Indo-Pacific common dolphin (Delphinus delphis tropicalis),
Risso’sdolphin (Grampus griseus)and spinner dolphin
(Stenella longirostris;Figs 4, 8–10, 12–13).
Additional third party observations (with photographic
evidence) were reported, including sperm whale (Physeter
macrocephalus)and Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni).
A reported sighting of orca (Orcinus orca)was also received
and, although it was not supported by photographic
evidence, is thought to be an accurate identification.
Species that have been additionally recorded in the
literature in the past (Baldwin 1995, 2003), but for which
no recent evidence is available, include false killer whale
(Pseudorca crassidens). The blue whale (Balaenoptera
musculus)is considered highly likely to occur in Fujairah
waters from time to time, based on a stranding of a dead
blue whale at Khor Fakkan, Sharjah reported in November
2017 (with photographic evidence).
Figure 5. A small group of rough-toothed dolphins, Steno bredanensis revealed by our aerial survey, representing a first record of the species for the
UAE (photo by Andy Willson).
Cetacean species recorded off Fujairah, including new records for the UA
Figure 6. Pantropical spotted dolphin, Stenella attenuata, previously unrecorded from the UAE (photo by Robert Baldwin).
Figure 7. Striped dolphins, Stenella coeruleoalba, previously unrecorded from UAE waters (photo by Robert Baldwin).
36 Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018
Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018 37
Figure 8. Indo-Pacific common dolphins, Delphinus delphis tropicalis (photo by Balázs Buzás).
Figure 9. A large group of Indo-Pacific common dolphins, Delphinus delphis tropicalis seen from the air (photo by Robert Baldwin).
38 Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018
Strandings reveal conservation concerns
Two dead sperm whales have been recorded at Fujairah
in recent years; one washed ashore on a beach next to
Fujairah Port in 2012 and more recently one was found
by Fujairah Port authorities on 15th June 2017, floating at
sea approximately 1 nautical mile from the port breakwater.
In both cases, determination of the cause of death
was not possible. Broken bones noted during the recovery
of the skeletons could have been caused by a ship strike,
and/or by bulldozers and cranes when moving the
carcasses on the beach. The proximity of both animals to
the port, and the condition of the carcass in the recent
case, suggests that death occurred close by and that ship
strike may have been the most likely cause.
The dead male blue whale found near the port in Khor
Fakkan (on 27th November 2017), also had suspected
ship strike injury. The evidence of potential ship strike on
this whale highlights the need for more comprehensive
management of shipping activities to avoid unnecessary
whale mortality. Work has already begun at the Port of
Fujairah to help address this issue.
Both sperm whale carcasses were recovered. The more
recent skeleton remains buried to allow for decomposition,
whilst the skeleton from the 2012 stranding was recovered,
treated and cleaned (Fig. 11) in preparation for a proposed
Figure 11. Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus bones recovered from a stranding at Fujairah in 2012 (photo by Robert Baldwin).
Figure 10. Indo-Pacific common dolphins, Delphinus delphis tropicalis (photo by Balázs Buzás).
Tribulus Vol. 26 - 2018 39
Recommendations for further study
The Fujairah Whale Research Project has begun
collection of behavioural and acoustic data, as well as
samples for future genetic analysis. Analysis of photographs
as part of a photo-identification study has also begun on
specific species (e.g., bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins).
It is recommended that these studies are continued and
expanded where possible, and that dedicated transect
surveys, both vessel-based and aerial, are repeated in
the future. This combination of work will enable detailed
investigation of populations status, size and structure of
cetaceans off Fujairah and will provide information of value
to conservation planning as well as planning for a ‘blue
economy’, such as that related to marine tourism and
other maritime industries. It is additionally recommended
that a specific study of Indo-Pacific common dolphins in
the Port of Fujairah anchorage is initiated due to the
potentially interesting interaction between this species and
the on-going shipping and industrial activities at the port.
The Fujairah Whale Research Project is generously
supported by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad
bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the Crown Prince of the
Emirate of Fujairah, UAE. The project is run in partnership
between Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES)
and the Port of Fujairah. Sincere thanks are due to the
Port of Fujairah for logistical support, including supply of
permits, vessels and all related equipment, as well as
independent submission of sightings on a regular basis.
Individuals from other organisations occasionally join the
5OES research team, and a few deserve specific mention
here due to their repeated contributions to the project,
including Dr. Jacky Judas from Emirates Nature-WWF
and Dr. Csaba Géczy. Reports of sightings of whales and
dolphins are occasionally received from third parties and
we especially thank Neil Murphy from Sheesha Beach
Dhow Cruises, as well as Fadi Yagmour for sharing a
sample from the dead blue whale mentioned in this paper.
Thanks are also due to helicopter pilot, Mark Trotter.
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Five Oceans Environmental Services
P.O. Box 660
Sultanate of Oman
Al Mayya Sanctuary
.O. Box 666
United Arab Emirates