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In September 2017 MCC initiated Cambodia’s first long term study investigating coastal cetacean species.

The project has been set up through a collaboration between the DMAD Marine Mammals Research Association, a Turkish NGO, and MCC. 

The project is combining boat and land surveys with photo-identification techniques to investigate abundance, distribution and residency patters for cetacean species encountered in Cambodia’s Kep Archipelago, namely the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) and Indo-Pacific Finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides). Gathered data will be used to identify critical habitats for feeding, socializing and resting for each species, with this information ultimately being used towards the establishment of informed cetacean management strategies. 

If you are interested in joining our dolphin research team, please apply through the application form in the ‘contact us’ section. 

If you are interested in knowing more about cetaceans, or the steps which led to the formation of ‘The Cambodian Dolphin Project’, please take some time to read through this page. 

 

What Are Cetaceans?

Cetaceans are an order of marine mammals, referring specifically to whales, dolphins and porpoises. There are around 88 species in total which are split between 2 suborders; mysticetes and odontocetes.

 

Mysticetes

  • Commonly known as whales;
  • larger than odontocetes;
  • baleen instead of teeth which acts like a sieve to filter food from the water column;
  • paired blow hole;
  • use low frequency sounds to communicate;
  • migrate long distances.

 

  

 

Odontocetes

  • Commonly known as dolphins, but include porpoises too;
  • teeth (at least 2);
  • single blow hole;
  • communicate with high frequency ‘whistles’ and clicks;
  • do not tend to have long migration patterns;
  • Biosonar/echolocation to find their prey.

 

  

 

It is a common misconception that species such as sperm whales or killer whales are whales, when in fact they are dolphins!

 

Life Histories

  • Cetaceans are long lived species with a life span of 18 - 100 years;
  • they have a relatively late sexual maturity (c. 6 years);
  • breeding is seasonal;
  • single calf at each breeding event;
  • Breeding events occur every 1 – 4 years.

 

Why Study Cetaceans?

  • For an ecosystem to be healthy and productive, it should be in balance with each species playing its part. For example, if a cetacean species was removed from an ecosystem this could lead to trophic cascades, bringing about an increase in top predator fish and a decrease in lower trophic level fish.
  • Cetaceans are top predators, keystone species and can be used as indicators of ecosystem health. Monitoring cetacean abundance can therefore be used as one way to monitor the health of an ecosystem.
  • If we wish for cetacean species to be present in the earth’s seas for future generations, investigation into populations is vital. Baseline data and monitoring schemes are important for understanding where to focus conservation efforts and deciding what type of strategy to implement.

 

Threats To Cetaceans

Many cetaceans across the globe have a ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’ status according to the IUCN (http://www.iucnredlist.org/). This means their populations are at risk of extirpation, or extinction, if population declines continue to decline at the current rate.  Threats include:

  • Historical hunting: Dolphins and whales were hunted for their meat, blubber and baleen. Whilst whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, the detrimental effect this has had on population numbers means species stocks are still depleted.
  • Overfishing: Prey depletion and bycatch, as well as trawling which leads to habitat degradation.
  • Marine traffic: Vessel strikes, noise pullulation.
  • Capture for live display in aquaria: Counties all over the world are supporting the aquarium trade.
  • Marine litter: Ingestion and entanglement.

 

It is important to keep in mind that many threats facing cetaceans are anthropogenic, with coastal populations being further at risk to the effect of anthropogenic activity.

 

 

 

 

Why do dolphins in Cambodia need to be studied?

Cambodia is home to several endangered cetacean species, and whilst confirmed species are protected by law, this law is not informed with data to support effective protection. To date, no long-term studies have been carried out on coastal cetacean species in Cambodia and so there is the need and opportunity to collect this much required baseline data.

 

Which species will be encountered in the study region?

 

We are expecting the most common species in the region to be the following three coastal species.

 

Orcaella brevirostris

The Irrawaddy dolphin (2.3 to 2.7m) is robust with a round melon, no beak, and a mouthline that angles up, giving it a smiling appearance. It has a long flexible neck, allowing it to turn its head from side to side, a distinct neck crease, and a small triangular dorsal fin with a blunt tip. The pectoral fins are large and spatulate, with curved leading edges and rounded tips. The Irrawaddy dolphin has a uniform dark blue-grey to medium grey or pale blue colouration, with a paler underside. In the field, it is most likely to be confused with the finless porpoise but the porpoise is much smaller and lacks a dorsal fin.

Irrawaddy dolphins are shy of boats, not known to bow-ride, and generally dive when alarmed. They are relatively slow moving but can sometimes be seen spyhopping and rolling to one side while waving a flipper, and occasionally breaching. They have been seen spitting water from their mouths in the wild, and this behaviour is thought to help them hunt by confusing schools of fish. They are generally found in groups of 2-3 animals, though sometimes as many as 25 individuals have been known to congregate in deep pools.

 

  

 

Sousa chinensis

The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin has a distinct hump at the base of the dorsal fin,  it is a medium sized (2.6 – 2.8m) ,  robust dolphin with a rounded melon that slopes down to the beak. The pectoral fins are broad and rounded, and the beak is long and narrow. There is substantial morphological variation among differing populations, and colouration of this species ranges from white to pink to dark grey. In the western portion of their range, calves are born a light grey colour and darken with age. Whereas in the eastern portion of their range calves are born a dark grey and lighten with age. This transition from dark to light colouration results in the animals going through various stages of having dark spots and speckles around the body, all of which fade with age.

 

Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins are coastal animals, venturing quite far landward into estuaries and mangroves. Their inshore habitats are often turbid waters and thus sound production and reception are crucial for navigation and social contact. In addition to their high frequency echolocation clicks, they are highly vocal, producing whistles and screams singly or in sequences and of varying lengths. They are not known to bowride very often, but they do breach, lobtail, and even somersault on occasion. They may also be seen swimming on one side while waving a fin in the air. They are generally slow swimmers but will sometimes chase each other around in circles at high speed; this may be courtship behaviour. The average life-span of an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin is thought to be approximately 40 years of age.

 

  

 

Neophocaena phocaenoides

Finless porpoise (1.2 to 2m) are the only members of the porpoise family without a dorsal fin and are easily recognisable at sea. The low profile makes them nearly invisible if the seas are rough. In place of a dorsal fin, finless porpoise have a dorsal ridge along the back that runs from above the fins to the beginning of the tail stock. This ridge is covered in circular wart-like tubercles or bumps, and in the indo-pacific finless porpoise the tubercules cover a wide area. Finless porpoise are one of the smallest cetaceans and the only member of the porpoise family to have a bulbous melon - there is no prominent beak. The mouth is small and curves slightly upwards and there is a slight depression behind the blowhole. Finless porpoise have a small, streamlined body which is pale grey-blue in colour with a lighter belly and white chin.

Finless porpoises are active animals, usually swimming in small groups or alone. They swim just below the surface of the water with sudden, darting movements. Little disturbance is caused when they break the surface and they tend to roll onto their sides when doing so. They have been known to spyhop, but are rarely seen breaching. They are generally shy and avoid boats. Calves have been sighted riding on the mother's back, gripping the dorsal ridge, and coming out of the water when the mother breathes.

 

 

 

The future of the project

We are excited to announce that in January we will be starting acoustic surveys!  Moving forward, although the project is initially focusing on the waters of Cambodia’s Kep Archipelago, it is hoped that the project will expand to cover the entire of Cambodia’s coastline over the coming years.

 

 

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