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Dolphin census 2015 finds healthy population in Port Stephens

Article as Published in the NEWCASTLE HERALD, June 29. P19.

The dolphin 'Pop' a bottlenose male resident of Port Stephens, seen during Sunday's census. Picture supplied by Lisa Skelton, of the Marine Parks Association.

DOLPHIN spotters have identified a healthy population of the animals in Port Stephens, after a census of the region’s mascot mammals confirmed at least 50 are swimming in surrounding waters.

Whale and dolphin expert Frank Future of Imagine Cruises oversaw the Sunday census with the Marine Parks Association.

Mr Future said NSW National Parks and Wildlife had been counting dolphin numbers for 12 years, but this was the first time the public had helped to count the number of bottlenose dolphins they saw between 11am and noon.

‘‘We had 50 people around the edges of the bay and out on boats in various parts of the bay,’’ Mr Future told The Newcastle Herald on Sunday afternoon.

‘‘We were on a research boat and counted 18 dolphins.

‘‘We’re just starting to get community reports in and have so far concluded there are 24 individual animals, but we expect that to be up to between 50 and 70 by Monday.

‘‘We already know there’s between 80 and 95 dolphins in the bay.’’

Mr Future urged volunteers to take photos of the dolphins’ dorsal fins and enter the pictures into a database that will identify the population in that area.

Four of the photos will be randomly picked and the person behind those shots will win a dolphin or whale-watch cruise.

‘‘Dolphins tend to travel in big pods headed by great grandmothers – it’s all about the older females, they run the show,’’ Mr Future said.

‘‘We’re hoping the photos will show the fins of some newborns.’’

One of the dolphins spotted on Sunday during the census was 'Pop', a resident male of Port Stephens.

"Our dolphins live in gender separate societies; females stay together for life. Males leave their mothers around the age of three, forming an 'alliance' with other males usually 2-4 males to a group," said Lisa Skelton, of the Marine Parks Association.

"Pop is in an alliance with a dolphin known as Ziggy. Last month we saw Ziggy alone in Shoal Bay- these two dolphins are pretty much inseparable so we had concerns for Pop.

"As such we were excited to see Pop today around Salamander Bay and looking healthy. Ziggy was seen later this afternoon in Shoal Bay, so we suspect that maybe they've had a falling out."

Dophins can be differentiated by looking at the dorsal fin.

Each dolphin has different nicks, cuts and scarring down the back edge of the dorsal that acts as a unique identifier for that individual, like a finger print. Photo identification allows researchers to track dolphins through their lives and learn more about their movements within the Port and social structures.

"Census events are a great way of involving the community in the process, giving them some ownership and hence, hopefully encouraging people to better care for the dolphins and their marine environment," Ms Skelton said.

"We have about 90 dolphins that are residential to Port Stephens and probably another 100 to 200 that visit the area regularly from Newcastle, Forster and other areas of the coast."

The initiative was part of the first Naturefest to be held in Port Stephens, which aims to showcase the region’s scenery and wildlife.

The event was created by cruise operators and is supported by d’Albora Marina, Destination Port Stephens, and Port Stephens council.

Naturefest will culminate with the formation of large human whale on Shoal Bay Beach at noon on June 29, to celebrate the region’s passing parade of humpbacks over winter.

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