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17.07.12

THE CONSERVATION COLUMN: Red Sea Rescue for Dolphins in a Spin

Debbie Winton is a marine biologist, PADI Divemaster and Earthwatch Programme Coordinator. In this month’s CONSERVATION COLUMN she reports on an initiative that is helping protect the diverse reefs and sea life of the Red Sea...

When you’re thinking of the Egyptian Red Sea, pictures of coral reefs carpeted with anthias and damselfish, turtles floating by and some of the most brightly coloured coral colonies you’ve ever seen are what spring to mind.

But somehow, dolphins don’t tend to enter that typical Red Sea scene in people’s imaginations. This is largely due to the fact that we know hardly anything about dolphins living there. Cetaceans in the Red Sea are among the world's least understood, but eight species of dolphin and one baleen whale are considered to be regular inhabitants. Abundance estimates have never been attempted, making a status assessment very difficult. This lack of scientific information is hampering development of targeted policies and strategies directed towards their conservation. Even if the Red Sea basin really is one of the least ecologically disturbed seas globally, increasing marine pollution as well as degradation of coastal habitat from urban, tourist and industrial development represent real threats.

Let sleeping dolphins lie

One of the most common dolphin species - and a fantastic sight if you are lucky enough to see it perform its signature moves - is the spinner dolphin. This species is the main focus of a project supported by Earthwatch, who collaborate with the only marine conservation organisation in Egypt – the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) – on the Red Sea Dolphin Project (http://www.earthwatch.org/europe/exped/costa.html).

The Red Sea Dolphin Project is the first research project dedicated to cetaceans in Egypt, and is part of a wider project on sustainable development. Tourist development is increasing rapidly in the Red Sea, and not just for divers. It has been realised that swimming with dolphins is a popular and easy to guarantee experience in some lagoons along the Egyptian coast, where spinner dolphins in particular go to rest during the day. Almost as regular as clockwork they turn up at sunrise after a night feeding in deeper waters, to relax, sleep, play and generally re-fuel before heading out at dusk for another fishing session. These are rare places, where you can see for yourself that dolphins really do sleep by shutting down half their brain at a time – one eye closed while the other is wide awake!

But their inquisitive nature means they quickly wake up if something unusual happens, like a person jumping in the water and flapping around next to them. Juveniles in particular will play and interact and provide the experience of a lifetime - if you don’t get too excited and try to chase them, grab their tails or jump right in the middle of the group with a big splash. They often seem to enjoy the interaction and can stay with a group of people for long stretches of time, if they behave the right way. But this still means they are not getting their well-earned rest. So what happens when at night, they have to go and expend a lot of energy catching food? Will they be able to catch as much? If not, will their body weight suffer, then their health and their reproductive capacity This is what our scientists are trying to find out. And when tourists don’t behave in a suitable manner, how does that affect the dolphins? Do their breathing patterns change, do they try to escape, and can it put newborns in danger? And unfortunately, as we witnessed on our June expedition, we know that best practice guidelines for swimming with dolphins aren’t always stuck to. You can’t help but get upset when, while doing your tracking survey, you see zodiacs – a type of inflatable boat - chasing and circling dolphins to cut them off and dropping tourists right on top of the pod, again and again, as each time the dolphins try to swim away. Legal obligations, monitoring of operators and raising awareness are the only actions that might stop this altogether, and are the ultimate aims of the research carried out in these lagoons.

Reef recovery

HEPCA are well known and respected in diving circles in the southern Egyptian Red Sea, not just for their research on dolphins. They are responsible for the installation of hundreds of mooring buoys at popular tourist boat sites, and for implementing a waste management system along 200km of coastline, including recycling for resorts. These activities tackle two of the biggest problems facing the Red Sea –increasing levels of marine debris and reef damage from anchoring boats.

But it is not only the Red Sea where these issues occur – they are global problems that you will see evidence of at any dive site around the world. Can you remember a dive where you haven’t noticed a plastic bag floating by, or fishing line or netting entangled on the reef? And have you ever wondered how that great chunk of coral, which looks like it used to be attached to the main reef, managed to break off? For the latter, when you discover that a hundred boats a month might moor in the same place, their crew walking on the reef and tying their ropes round to secure the boat, it soon becomes apparent how it happens. And I wouldn’t want to be on a boat when that big piece of reef breaks off, ropes entangled with it...

Since 1998, HEPCA have given best practice and environmental awareness training to more than 800 boat skippers to try and reduce these impacts. Dive operators can also become members, and as such make a pledge to assess and reduce their impact on the environment. Worldwide, marine environmental organisations are working to raise awareness and find solutions. Eco-dive resorts are cropping up all over the place, and diving speciality courses focusing on conservation are becoming more popular.

So next time you decide where to stay when you go diving, think about adding “eco-friendly” to your list of requirements. Let’s increase the chances that young “Bubblemakers” will be able to enjoy the same reefs that we admire today.

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