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On the Lookout for Dolphins in Langkawi

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Join conservationist Jennifer Cantlay as she joins a research team and takes to the sea in search of the sometimes-elusive marine mammals populating the waters around Langkawi’s cluster of islands.

Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah, is well-known for the white-bellied fish eagles soaring through its skies and the hornbills climbing through the remaining rainforest canopies. Whilst tourists enjoy boat cruises to explore the stunning coastline, they are probably unaware that they may encounter porpoises, dolphins, or even a whale on their daytrip. Yet, these marine mammals feed, breed, and migrate through this area and are regularly seen by the local fishermen. Despite their relatively common occurrence in Langkawi, there had been little investigation into the populations inhabiting these waters until 2010, when Dr Louisa Ponnampalam and her team at the University of Malaya-established Langkawi Dolphin Research. They realised that this island’s seas are an important habitat for certain marine mammal species, such as Indo-Pacific finless porpoises and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. Between 2010 and 2011, they surveyed over 400 fishermen and nature guides to obtain information on local sightings and conservation perception. Since then, the research team has regularly traversed the island’s coastline in a small boat to search for these animals and observe their behaviour. By 2014, their aim is to have collected sufficient data that will be analysed to give a deeper understanding of the populations’ ecology and lives. Ultimately this will assist in future planning of conservation initiatives to further protect these charismatic marine animals.

See Also: 10 Nature Sights You Should See in Malaysia

I first heard about Langkawi Dolphin Research when I attended a public lecture in Selangor, given by Dr Louisa in September 2013. I was impressed by her dedication and enthusiasm to educate people about Malaysia’s marine mammals in order to inspire them to care about the aquatic environment. I asked her why Malaysians weren’t already aware of dolphins and porpoises living in the seas of Langkawi. She replied, “Most conservation organisations here inform people about the coral reefs and marine turtles, but none have focused on cetaceans (that is whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Also, there are few published studies on these species in the Southeast Asian region and so there is less information to assist conservation efforts. Hopefully, the data collected over four years by the Langkawi Dolphin Research team will help change this situation.”

When asked how she intended to encourage the public to become interested in marine mammals, Dr Louisa answered, “My colleague, Fairul, and I created the non-profit, non-governmental organisation called MareCet in 2012 to help promote public awareness about the marine environment and the mammals that swim in its seas. As well as conducting scientific research, we also engage with people through our workshops, exhibitions, lectures, and activities.” She continued, “Our big plan for 2014 is to have a floating exhibition on a pontoon in Langkawi that will provide the general public with information on identification of marine mammal species, their unique biology, and how we can protect them. The set-up will be innovative and interactive, all designed to stimulate people’s interest. We are very excited about this upcoming event and will publicise its launch date nearer to the time.”

As a veterinary surgeon interested in wildlife, this was all of particular interest to me, so I asked how I might be able to help. Dr Louisa suggested that I might like to join their fieldwork team in Langkawi on an upcoming trip in December. Excited by the opportunity to gain some valuable first-hand conservation experience, I booked my flight.

Out To Sea

On the first day at sea, I clung, like the proverbial limpet, onto the side of a speeding boat whilst clutching a datasheet and hoped that I would not embarrass myself by falling overboard. I had always thought that I was accustomed to boats, having grown up enjoying many boat rides along the Dorset coastline in the South coast of England, but that day the sizeable swell made me feel rather queasy and I regretted not having taken any seasickness tablets. My vision of traversing calm seas was not the reality of the unexpectedly wet and windy weather conditions and it felt more like being in the UK than tropical Malaysia. However, being British, I put on my waterproof clothing, braced my body against the rough ride and consoled myself with the thought that I would not get sunburnt! The turbulent waters also meant that trying to spot cetaceans would be more difficult as our visibility was limited. Two of the researchers sat at the top of special high seats would have to work hard, scanning the ocean with their binoculars looking for a dorsal fin or tail fluke emerging from the steely grey seas.

The GPS device around my neck beeped and we had arrived at the point to start our first transect line, which I marked on the sheet. We would travel a predetermined distance along the line, recording the seawater parameters, weather conditions, sea state, and GPS coordinates of any human activities and marine mammals that we sighted. On encountering any dolphins or porpoises, we would carefully approach to observe their behaviour, activity, direction of movement, group composition, and size, without disturbing them. This data would be vital in providing information about the animal’s abundance, distribution, and habitat preferences.

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Two days rolled by without me seeing any of the supposedly common porpoises or dolphins. Other team members with sharper eyes did see a small group of finless porpoises, but I missed them because I was wrestling with my waterproof clothing at the time. By this time, my skin was already exfoliated by seawater and my hair had a permanently windswept look that made me feel like a salty old seadog.

Turning Tide

By day three, I wondered if the dolphins had all gone to Thailand on holiday and resigned myself to the fact that this was fieldwork and I could not be guaranteed sightings of wild animals. Our luck finally changed after a day of relentless rain at sea. We were returning back to Kuah harbour when suddenly several dark, glistening shapes surfaced offshore only 50 metres from a hotel’s beach. Our sodden spirits were lifted as we identified a mother and calf in a small group of finless porpoises swimming in the shallows. I remained mesmerised by their elegant, sinuous movements and temporarily forgot that I was meant to be recording information until Dr Louisa reminded me. We stayed with them for around 20 minutes as they traversed the shoreline, probably feeding. Some tourists had also spotted them from the beach and were excitedly taking photos of them as their almost black backs rose from the waves. They did not seem bothered by our presence, continuing their own routine until the light faded and we headed back to Kuah harbour. Later that evening, still elated with our success, we rewarded ourselves with a fantastic meal in a local restaurant because, of course, makan makan is an important part of any Malaysian fieldwork!

I sensed this was the start of the good news for our cetacean survey and sure enough, the weather improved so that we sighted this species several times during my eight days at sea. We often noticed that the porpoises would be relatively close to human activities, such as fishing boats and fish farms, so maybe they provide them with better feeding opportunities or perhaps these creatures are simply curious. As yet, we do not know the reason but the Langkawi Dolphin Research team hope to discover why and it’s possible that their habitat preferences are more closely linked to humankind than we first thought. The downside of spending so much time close to humans is that these species have to carefully navigate the island’s shores to avoid such threats as being trapped in fishing nets or injured by speeding boats. Dr Louisa also told me that another significant threat to marine mammals is their ingestion of or entanglement in discarded plastic rubbish washed into the sea from beaches. She hopes that MareCet can encourage people to act responsibly to enjoy the coastline and keep it clean.

Questions Unanswered

There is limited scientific data on the ecology of the finless porpoises in this region of the world, although they can be found from Iran to Japan. Their lack of dorsal fins makes spotting them even more challenging because you can often only see their slender, tuberculed backs when they emerge from the waves. The calves often appear to ride on their mother’s backs as they travel and this close association means that you may mistake their movements for rolling waves. This species also has a characteristic melon-shaped head and rounded face, quite unlike dolphins, and they are its identifying features. It is known that they may live up to 23 years in the wild and grow to over a metre and a half in length. Some aspects of their life stages remain a mystery and hopefully this research will be able to enlighten us.

Unfortunately, I never did see any of the distinctly pink coloured humpback dolphins during my time with the Langkawi Dolphin Research team. A member of the team did see a solitary dolphin very far away through the binoculars on day six, but it only made a single brief appearance before disappearing again in the choppy waters and I missed spotting the only one. However, I can now recognise a finless porpoise and can probably navigate the entire circumference of Langkawi.

“Our survey,” so Dr Louisa informed me that while the survey may not have been as successful with cetacean sightings as previous trips had been, it has still provided useful data for analysis in the long-term project. She noted that if I were to join our fieldwork in the Matang mangrove coastline of Perak, I would be highly likely to see humpback and Irrawaddy dolphins there. So watch this space, as I may yet extend my travels to find dolphins in another area of Malaysian waters.

If you would like to obtain further information about MareCet’s conservation work, please visit www.marecet.org, or find the Langkawi Dolphin Research on Facebook.

Source: Senses of Malaysia May/June 2014

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