By Pippa Salmon
” WHAT ARE YOU DOING ? Have you spotted anything yet? »
Wearing bright orange vests, big binoculars and big smiles (or stares of intense concentration), Dolphin Research Institute (DRI) interns are easy to spot. I happen to be one of them.
Every week we spend a few hours by the beach straining our eyes to see dolphins. And every week, no matter what we see in the water, we hear at least one dolphin story.
“They always come when it’s quiet; I think the choppy water stresses them out.
“I was on a paddleboard once and a whole pod came up and started jumping around me.”
“Seeing dolphins has always been the highlight of my vacation in Port Phillip.”
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone from the Mornington Peninsula who didn’t have a dolphin story to tell.
Here’s another one, the story of Lucky the dolphin, and his proof that science works.
The DRI was founded in the late 1980s. Its goals were simple: to learn about local dolphin populations, to educate and engage the community, and to protect the marine ecosystems of southeast Victoria.
Despite how many people see dolphins while swimming or walking along the beach, it’s harder than you might think to turn those sightings into tangible data that can be analyzed and used for conservation work.
Yet that is exactly what the DRI has done. In 31 years, he collected more than 130,000 photographic identification images. Individual dolphins are differentiated by markings on their dorsal fin (on the top of their back), so photo IDs track them non-invasively.
Using this system, we were able to find out more about our local dolphins – how many there were, how healthy they were, how they interacted with each other.
Our story begins with a dolphin called Bud (short for “Banged Up Dolphin” – cute, isn’t it?). The dolphins can be very aggressive and injure themselves, but luckily those around Port Phillip seem to have excellent immune systems, which translates to good recovery rates.
Bud is a short-beaked common dolphin, one of two types found in the bay. Initially we thought there were only bottlenose dolphins in the area as the other types don’t tend to live in such shallow water. Yet, to the delight of DRI researchers, a small pod of common dolphins was discovered in 2005.
This small population of common dolphins grew and grew, and now there are over 80 cataloged individuals.
But back to Bud, because she has some very exciting news – she recently became a mother. Her child, Lucky, can also be identified by her damaged dorsal fin – it’s a tough life being a dolphin.
Seeing a mother-baby pair is incredibly special. But DRI researcher David Donnelly suspected there was more to the story.
He spent hours and hours sifting through fine ID photos, tracing Bud back to 2013, when she was a newborn.
And he found it, a photo of Bud with his mom, Esther, one of the first common dolphins to arrive in Port Phillip. This is the first confirmation of the third generation of these dolphins in the bay, as proven by science.
Also, in April, we found out that Lucky had a cousin, another third-generation member.
These discoveries demonstrated just how special Port Phillip is.
In Western Australia, dolphins are being attacked by sharks and viruses, and investigations are underway to determine why dolphins are dying in South Australia. Even Gippsland dolphins struggle with skin ulcers that won’t heal.
Our remarkable common dolphins and their Port Phillip home are an incredible achievement that is unusual, if not unique on a global scale.
Without dedicated volunteers and passionate researchers, we wouldn’t have the same understanding of our local dolphins and how best to protect them.
To help protect Port Phillip’s dolphins, visit dolphinresearch.org.au where you or your workplace can ‘adopt a dolphin’, supporting our research, education and leadership programs.
First published in the Chelsea Mordialloc Mentone News – 25th May 2022