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2019 Port Stephens Dolphin Census Results

Thank you to everyone who participated in the 19th Annual Port Stephens Community Dolphin Census, 16th June 2019. Overall, the day's weather made for great spotting conditions. The air felt a little chilly thanks to a light NW breeze, but the bay remained flat and there was very little swell offshore. The dark clouds overhead were threatening, but thankfully the rain stayed away.

109 dolphins were sighted throughout the morning, including some well known residents of the Port. Myall, a mature female, was appropriately sighted in the Myall River. She was first seen from a vessel at 11:15am on the northern side of the Winda Woppa Peninsula. Myall was later seen from shore locations around Tea Gardens as she continued to travel upstream. Phantom, who became a first-time mum this summer, was sighted with her 4-month-old calf from Corlette Point and Soldiers Point as the pair travelled west. The largest pod sighting of the morning was a group of more than 50 dolphins which was seen by commercial dolphin watch vessels. The group was spread out as they foraged within the eastern end of the Port. This large group sighting included Nicky, who is estimated to be over 40 years old and is thought to be the oldest dolphin living in the Port.

FIGURE 1: Census results from nineteen Port Stephens community dolphin surveys showing the number of dolphins sighted (blue columns) and the number of annual participants (red line).

Figure 1 provides an overview of dolphin sightings and community participation over the past nineteen years. This year, 85 participants were located across 49 sites around Port Stephens. The majority of participants were situated in the Eastern part of the Port (from Soliders Point to the headlands). Areas of least coverage were Tilligerry Creek/Lemon Tree Passage, the Karuah River and North Arm Cove. These areas were a focus for patrolling vessels.

The census count of 109 dolphins is higher than the average count of 91 achieved over the 19 year census period (with a range of 12 dolphins in 2011 to 194 dolphins in 2004). This was an excellent outcome for the event and is the highest count since 2010.

14 of 39 occupied shore sites recorded sightings during the census period and 7 of 10 vessels also recorded sightings. There were 227 dolphins reported, 85 of which were seen from more than one location throughout the census (bringing the number of individuals sighted to 109).

17 sites reported sightings of the same animals. This included the largest sighting of 50 dolphins, which was reported by commercial dolphin watching vessels. Sites L89, L90 and L91 situated along Bennetts Beach shared sightings of a pod as it tracked north up the beach, In the Myall river, a single dolphin (Myall) was viewed from L78, L79, L80 and from the roaming Marine Parks Association vessel. L6 (Morna Point) shared shared a sighting with L7 (One Mile Beach), while L33 (Bagnalls Beach) and L34 (Sandy Point) reported a mother and calf (Phantom) travelling west through the bay. At L43 (Diemar Point), a number of animals were seen coming and going from Cromartys Bay, including a pod of 3 animals which was later seen near Soldiers Point Marina. Perhaps the most interesting sighting was a group of 3 dolphins who were tracked across the duration of the census; first sighted from the roaming Marine Parks Association vessel at the mouth to the Myall river, then from shore at L75 (Pindimar). The pod was later seen inside Fame Cove.

Figure 2 shows dolphin counts recorded at each site during this year's census. Purple place holders represent occupied land sites, while orange markers indicate on-water locations. Counts for each site are shown in place holders as numeric values.

FIGURE 2: Distribution of sightings through 2019 Port Stephens Community Dolphin Census.

The distribution of sightings during this years census was skewed towards the Eastern half of the Port. Two factors likely contributed to these results. The first factor is the distribution of participants, with a majority in the Eastern end of the Port. Tidal flow can also affect dolphin distribution; this year the census occurred during a run out tide, as dolphins often follow the tidal flow, it is no surprise that a majority of sightings occurred offshore or closer to the mouth of the Port.

Past studies conducted by Macquarie University estimate the Port Stephens dolphin population is comprised of approximately 100 individuals, with many more visiting from other areas around the coast. Additionally, an ongoing population study by the Marine Parks Association using photo identification has observed 275 individuals since 2013, with 158 individuals sighted on a regular enough basis to develop some understanding of their pod structures. 20 individuals have been identified as regular visitors to the Port, including 5 animals have been sighted off Newcastle beaches.

I want to reiterate how much I appreciate the support of everyone who participated in the 2019 Port Stephens Community Dolphin Census, including volunteers from Marine Rescue- Port Stephens and Lemon Tree Passage branches, Imagine Cruises and Moonshadow-TQC. We are fortunate tp have such a dedicated volunteer base, including many who lend their support year after year.

The voluntary census is invaluable because it is the longest running community dolphin count in Australia, the results of which form baseline data that directly supports dolphin conservation and studies conducted by research institutes. The value of the census goes beyond the number of dolphins sighted each year as the information collected through the day helps to shape our understanding of dolphin distribution and their use of the Port.

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