Marine scientist Liz Hawkins is trying to rectify that with a three-year research project into Byron Bay’s bottlenose dolphins.
Liz, who is doing the research as part of a PhD through the Southern Cross University (SCU) Whale Research Centre, is studying the dolphins that live around Byron, from South Golden Beach to Lennox Head and the Richmond River. She is particularly focusing on the impact of boats and kayaks on the dolphins, in an effort to protect them from overload that can occur in other places with major commercial dolphin watching industries.
“There have been several scientific studies of dolphins in the wild around Australia, but no significant work has been done on the Byron population,” said Liz, 23, from Ewingsdale.
“My study will be focusing on the behaviour and acoustics of the dolphins while investigating the impacts of vessel interactions on their communication,” she said.
“I'm using Byron Bay as my control site because there is no major commercial dolphin watching industry here, although there is the potential for one.”
With an increase in commercial and recreational boating along coastal areas in Australia there had also been a significant increase in ambient noise, Liz said.
“This can cause considerable disturbance to marine organisms, particularly dolphins that rely on sound (acoustics) for communication, foraging, and navigating,” she said.
“Dolphins are susceptible to boating interactions year-round, and in some areas these interactions can cause changes in their behaviour and social structures. If we can gain a greater understanding of the social structure and communication of wild dolphin populations, we can improve the conservation and protection of their marine environment through management guidelines.”
Liz is about to carry out a four-week field collection period during October. She will observe dolphins around Byron by land and sea, using the SCU research boat, Baysail Charters’ yacht Ironbark and Dolphin Kayaks of Byron Bay.
For the past six months Liz has been identifying the dolphins around Byron, establishing a photo catalogue of their signature dorsal fins. She's also started to establish an acoustic catalogue, identifying the different sounds they make such as whistles, squawks, squeaks, and sonar clicks used for navigation and catching fish.
“I estimate that more than 120 inshore bottlenose dolphins live in Byron Bay, but we want to establish exactly how many dolphins there are, their social structure, acoustic repertoire, home ranges and significant habitats. This information will also be valuable in the management of the Cape Byron Marine Park.
“A substantial amount of funding for equipment, such as up-to-date hydrophones (underwater microphones), computer equipment and digital underwater cameras, is needed to accomplish this study. We're currently seeking sponsorship for this.”
Funds from the purchase of the colour book 'A Whale Song' ($19.95), produced by SCU Whale Research Centre, go towards the dolphin and whale research. See website: www.scu.edu.au/whales.
Media contact: Sara Crowe or Kath Duncan, SCU Media Unit, Ph: 6620 3144, M: 0439 858 057.