Humpback whale mother and calf observed off the coast of the United Arab Emirates

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22406376_10159357834115696_3676908839031920028_n-e1509266195178.jpg Humpback whale mother and calf observed off the coast of the United Arab Emirates

On October 9th 2017 a number of sightings of a mother and calf humpback whale were reported off the coast of Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to the UAE Dolphin Project (www.uaedolphinproject.org) and were shared with regional researchers and the general public (http://tinyurl.com/yb99vxtm). These sightings represent the first recent record of live humpback whales in the Gulf and are of great scientific interest for the conservation of the Arabian Humpback whale population. They support the hypothesis that the Gulf may be part of their natural home range and reconfirms the importance of regional collaboration on conservation efforts.
The Arabian Sea humpback whale population is considered Endangered according to the IUCN Red List (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/132835/0). Unlike other humpback whale populations in the world, it does not undertake seasonal migrations, and recent genetic studies proved that it has been isolated from other populations in the Indian Ocean for an estimated 70,000 years. Its numbers are dwindling, with fewer than 100 individuals estimated to be present off the coast of Oman.  As such, conservation efforts are urgently needed.

Most of what we know about the population today is based on dedicated research on whales and dolphins off the Arabian Sea coast of Oman that has been conducted by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO). However, the home range of this population is still poorly defined. A number of sightings have been recently reported off the coast of Pakistan but little is known about the presence of this species in the Gulf . A recent publication examined 8 records of whales reported in the Gulf since the 19th Century and confirmed them to be humpback whales (link). The authors proposed that humpback whales may potentially be a regular occurrence in the Gulf, rather than just strays from the Arabian Sea.

Photographs of the mother whale’s dorsal fin were compared with photographs held in Oman Humpback Whale Photo-ID Catalogue which is curated by the ESO.  The mother was not matched to any of the whales identified off the coast of Oman, but researchers hope to find better quality photographs of the sighting that might show more detail and allow a more accurate match to be conducted.

The recent sightings of humpback whales in Dubai are of enormous interest and value, as they provide additional insight into humpback whale distribution in the Northern Indian Ocean and raise further questions about the importance of the Gulf region for this extremely rare population. It is also one of the very few occasions that a mother and a calf of this species have been observed in the region in the past 20 years.  Other sightings recently shared with researchers include that of a breaching Bryde’s whale in the Gulf.  These sightings which have been made available to researchers and government agencies through social media and photos and video gathered by interested members of the public demonstrate how important the Gulf may be for whales and dolphins, and how urgent it is that more dedicated and systematic research is conducted to describe their distribution and habitat needs in light of the many human activities in the region that may affect their well-being.

A number of initiatives have recently revealed valuable information on the distribution of cetaceans in UAE. These include the UAE Dolphin Project (www.uaedolphinproject.org), the  Fujairah Whale Research Project (www.fujairahwhales.com), which has documented sightings of species never before recorded in the UAE, such as striped dolphins and pantropical spotted dolphins, and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (Link).  However, more information is still needed to assess the status and identity of the local populations to support their conservation.
Text contributed by Ada Natoli and Marina Antonopoulou