Arabian Sea humpback Whales on the agenda for the CMS COP in February 2024


The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) will hold its 14th Conference of Parties  in Uzbekistan from 12-17 February, 2024 Document UNEP/CMS/COP14/Doc.32.2.3 contains a progress report on the Concerted Action for Arabian Sea humpback whales, and a proposal to extend the Action for the next three years.  Why is this important?

Context and progress

The Concerted Action for Arabian Sea humpback whales (ASHW) was first endorsed by the CMS Conference of Parties in 2017 and was extended in 2020. Since that time, considerable progress has been made in the three main categories of Action: 1) addressing knowledge gaps; 2) information sharing and awareness raising; and 3) Capacity building and implementation of threat mitigation strategies.  Highlights include:

Why an Extension is needed 

ASHW are isolated from other humpback whale populations in the Indian Ocean. However, satellite tagging, acoustic data, and photographic matches provide evidence that there is movement between Arabian Sea range countries.  Threats to this Endangered population’s continued survival also span political borders, and can only be effectively addressed through collaborative measures from government and industry decision makers.  The CMS Concerted Action, from the time of its conception in 2017 was intended to culminate in the development and implementation of a regional Conservation Management Plan, led by government stakeholders, and jointly implemented under the CMS and the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Members of the Arabian Sea Whale Network have been able to progress research and conservation measures at local and sometimes national scales, and implement many of the activities that would be included in a CMP. However, the CMP itself has not yet been established.  A recent workshop in Oman, continued involvement from the IWC and other signs indicate that this goal should be achievable in the next triennium if the extension of the Concerted Action is endorsed during COP 14.

Click here to download a Factsheet that can be used to support outeach to decision makers involved in the CMS COP and/or regional conservation measures for Arabian Sea humpback whales.

ASHW Factsheet for CMS COP 14_FINAL

Collaboration and innovation for Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales in Oman

From November 21st-December 11th, 2023, an international team of experts collaborated with the Environment Authority of Oman to conduct one of the most ambitious surveys for Arabian Sea humpback whales (ASHW) to date.  At the height of the survey, which was coordinated by Future Seas, based in Oman, three boats were working in parallel in the Gulf of Masirah, implementing photo-identification, genetic sampling, acoustic sampling, body condition measurements, deployment of long-term satellite tags, and innovative new technology using drones to deploy short-term suction cup tags.  The surveys also provided valuable opportunities for training and exchange of experience and expertise among scientists from Oman, the US, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, Kenya and Slovenia.   

Over the course of 11 full days on the water, the team documented 14 sightings of 10 individual humpback whales.  All 10 whales were identified as individuals that had been observed in previous years and registered in the Oman humpback whale photo-identification catalogue, which is curated by the Environment Society of Oman. Some individuals had sighting histories dating back 22 years to October 2001 when they were first photographed in the same general area.  Sloughed skin and biopsy samples for genetic analysis were collected from two individuals, and at least four individuals were singing when they were approached, allowing the team to record hours of high-quality song that can be compared with song collected in other parts of the Arabian Sea and the southern Indian Ocean to provide further insight into population identity and possible affiliations.

The leading objective of the survey was to begin a second phase of satellite tagging to build on the valuable data collected from the tags that were deployed in Oman between 2014 and 2017.  This proved unusually challenging, as almost all the encounters with whales involved unpredictable surfacing patterns that prevented the ideal approach and alignment required for an optimal deployment.  However, on the last day of tagging surveys, the team managed to deploy a tag on Individual OM22-001, named ‘Shamtain’, a whale first identified in the Gulf of Masirah in November 2022.  The tag is still transmitting well, and the whale’s movements from the past three weeks can be viewed in the screenshot below.


The survey team also included two scientists working with Ocean Alliance, a US-based NGO that has developed innovative technology to deploy short-term suction cup bio-logging tags (CATS & Dtags) from drones.  Five successful Dtag and two successful CATS tag deployments will yield valuable data to provide insight into the behaviour and energetics of this endangered population in order to support future conservation efforts.  Click here to view a video demonstrating this amazing new technology.

Left: Ocean Alliance Team member launches a drone armed with a suction cup tag. Right, a CATS tag, that recorded video, sound and dive behaviour on a whale known as ‘Zebra’ (OM01-013).

The survey also yielded a valuable sighting of over 20 Endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, and four sightings of Bryde’s whales, including a mother with a calf, providing insight into these species’ distribution and ecology.  However, one of the most rewarding results of the survey was the exchange of experience and expertise that took place between all of the members of the team.  Training sessions were held on data archiving and management, marine wildlife photography,  methods for individual identification of whales and dolphins,  the use of drones to film and measure body condition of whales, and satellite tagging safety protocols.






From left to right: 1) Tilen Genov, of Morigenos in Slovenia, shares his expertise on photo-identification of dolphins with members of the team from the Oman Environment Authority.  2) Chris Zadra, of Ocean Alliance, demonstrates the modified ‘snot-bot’ technology to deploy suction cup tags from drones. 3)  Team members from the Environment Society of Oman and the Oman Environment Authority enter data at the end of the day – both are graduates of ESO’s recent Cetacean Research and Conservation Training programme. 4) Every aspect of the survey required close collaboration and hard work, including loading and unloading equipment onto the boats!

Stay tuned over the coming weeks and months as the team members analyse and report on the data generated from this valuable survey.  You can follow updates on these social media platforms:

Environment Authority Oman:



Twitter/X: @eaoman

see also:

Future Seas:  



Ocean Alliance



Environment Society of Oman




Arabian Sea Whale Network




Workshop in Oman brings stakeholders together to discuss conservation management of Endangered Arabian Sea Humpback Whales

Press release issued by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO)

Muscat, 28th November 2022 – A workshop focused on the protection of Arabian Sea humpback whales was organized in a collaboration between the Environment Authority (EA) and the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), with funding provided by HSBC Oman. The event brought together local and international experts and policy makers to encourage collective responsibility and further actions that could lead to a safer habitat for the regionally endangered species. The full workshop report can be downloaded by clicking here.

The two-day workshop involved presentations by representatives from international experts, including the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cetacean Specialist Group, as well as local entities who recognize the importance of protecting Arabian Sea humpback whales, including the Environment Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Water Resources.

“The workshop first focused on the current status of the Arabian Sea humpback whale sub-population in Oman and recommendations for collaborative measures to help conserve this endangered species,” Eng. Ahmed Said Al Shukaili, Director of Marine Conservation Department at the Environment Authority, explained. “This small population could be pushed to the brink of extinction if threats are not addressed, which could result in an ecological imbalance in our marine environment. The major threats to this unique species include collisions with ships, noise pollution, whale and dolphin watching tourism and entanglement in fishing nets. There is an urgent need to collectively mitigate these risks.

The workshop included discussions on how to design and implement Conservation Management Plans (CMP), which aim to minimize the threat to Arabian Sea humpback whales and other marine life. HH Sayyida Tania Al Said, President of the Environment Society Oman, said, “Sustainable conservation measures incorporating a crosscutting approach are required to mitigate the threats to the survival of this unique species. During our workshop, we discussed how various government and industry stakeholders can work together to develop a local Conservation Management Plan considering lessons learned from a global perspective, as well as ways in which Oman can collaborate with other countries within the Arabian Sea humpback range to promote regional conservation measures.” She added, “We would like to acknowledge the support of HSBC Oman, the Environment Authority, as well as all our other partners, for helping us bring more attention to the endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale and call for collective action to help protect the species.”

“This workshop is part of a wider conservation and capacity building programme that supports the conservation of Arabian Sea humpback whales.  The programme supports the UN Sustainable Development Goal agenda, in developing capacity on climate change mitigation. We are happy to renew our established relationship with The Environment Society of Oman in this project, which will give a valuable opportunity to support the next generation of marine researchers and activists,” said Melika Betley, CEO of HSBC Oman.

Oman provides an important habitat to over 20 species of whales and dolphins, including the Arabian Sea humpback whale that has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. ESO, in cooperation with its partners, has been conducting research on whales and dolphins for nearly 20 years, and sharing findings with those responsible for conservation management. For more information on the Marine Mammals Atlas of Oman, which details past research and status of each cetacean species in Oman, visit

English language press coverage:

Oman works on conservation of endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales




Young scientists from ESO and Future Seas get a taste of humpback whale research in the Gulf of Masirah in November 2021.  Photo by Gianna Minton.

Press release shared by ASWN partner, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO):  In recent weeks, the ESO signed a two-year sponsorship agreement with HSBC Bank Oman to support its efforts towards the conservation of the Arabian Sea humpback whale. Under the partnership, ESO will carry out two new projects; a Conservation Management Plan that aims to work with local authorities to implement alternative solutions to harmful marine practices that threaten the whales’ survival, and a Capacity Building programme that focuses on developing the next generation of cetacean (whales and dolphins) researchers.

Maia Willson, Research and Conservation Manager at ESO, said, “We’ve been researching Oman’s whales for the last 20 years with the help of local and international collaborations. Whilst this work is still ongoing, we now have sufficient scientific information to inform conservation actions. As we move into 2022, our attention turns to how we tackle the issues threatening the survival of the endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales. With the valuable support of HSBC, we are able to move towards tangible action, to help implement policies for greater protection, and to prepare the next generation of local marine research and conservationists needed to continue this vital work.”

“HSBC has a longstanding commitment to support the communities in which we operate. Through our partnership with the Environment Society of Oman, this conservation and capacity building programme will give a valuable opportunity to develop the next generation of marine researchers and activists and support one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals on building human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation,” said Melika Betley, CEO of HSBC Oman.

The Arabian Sea humpback whale is one of one of 20 species of marine mammals found in Oman’s waters. Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species in 2008, it is estimated to be one of the smallest and potentially most vulnerable whale population in the world, numbering fewer than 100 individuals. Research supported by ESO has also proven Oman’s humpback whales to be the only known population in the world not to migrate between high and low latitudes, staying instead to breed and feed in the waters surrounding Oman.

Believed to have been isolated in the Arabian Sea region for c. 70,000 years, they are a highly distinct population with photo-identification studies resulting in no matches outside of the Arabian Sea region and acoustic studies revealing a highly distinctive song.

Since its inception in 2004, ESO has focused on developing a better understanding of the distribution and ecology of the different whales found in Oman’s waters. Among its achievements last year, the country’s only non-profit organization focusing on environmental preservation launched the Marine Mammal Atlas of Oman, a publication that is the culmination of 20 years of scientific research and serves as an important reference for studies on environmental diversity, while also raising awareness on the species.

As a non-profit organization, ESO continues to rely on the generous support of sponsors and members to deliver this work. For more information on how to support, make a donation, or to find out other ways to get involved, visit


ESO partners with HSBC Oman for Arabian Sea humpback whale conservation

ESO partners with HSBC Oman for Arabian Sea humpback whale conservation

Successful release of an entangled humpback whale in Duqm Port, Oman

The rescue team working to free the whale from gillnets. Duqm Port. Photo courtesy Port of Duqm Company.

On the evening of January 18th, 2021, staff at the Environment Authority – Oman (EA) were notified that  an Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale had been observed entangled in fishing gear inside the Port of Duqm. This information was shared with the Oman Stranding Network. The whale had apparently been trapped for days, with net and line wrapped inside its mouth and around the flippers, dorsal fin and tail stock. This situation was immediately recognised as a significant risk for both the whale and Port operations.

Recalling the entanglement response training that had been conducted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Oman in 2015, specialists from the Environment Authority, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC and Future Seas Global SPC, supported by the Environment Society (ESO) and the Port of Duqm quickly mobilised a team and equipment to drive down from Muscat to Duqm, reaching the Port on the following day.  With assistance and personnel from Oman’s Coast Guard, Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) and the Port of Duqm, as well as real time advice from members of the IWC entanglement expert panel the team spent the afternoon of the 19th initiating disentanglement.

Click here to watch a video clip of the response.  This shows the team in the day’s last light, attaching buoys to slow the whale down and the prevent it from diving during while the team was working to remove the net. During this intervention, the team noted that as the whale attempted to dive, the upwards force of the buoy helped to unwrap rope and net from the mouth, followed by more rope being dislodged from the flippers and area around the dorsal fin. By the end of the day it was apparent that the only net remaining was on the tail stock.

Video and photographs of the whale during the disentanglement allowed the research team to recognise it as one of the individual whales catalogued in a long-term photoidentification study that has been undertaken in Oman since the year 2000. The whale was identified as individual ‘OM11-016’, which was first photographed near the Port of Duqm in 2010, and then again further south near Hasik in 2011 and 2014.  Most recently this whale had been observed again just outside Duqm Port in October, 2020.

On January 20th, when the rescue team returned to the scene to continue the disentanglement, the whale was no longer in the port. Neither a search of the immediate area using port pilot vessels nor a helicopter search by the Royal Air Force of Oman detected the whale still towing the attached  buoys. However, video shared by a coastguard vessel showed a whale swimming freely in the port later on the day of the 20th. Although the video footage did not allow for definitive identification of the whale, the habitual appearance of this whale in the port over the last 3 months, the absence of any detection during the aerial search, and the observations of the net unwrapping on the previous day all lead the team to conclude that this was very likely the same whale, and that the actions taken on the 19th had enabled the whale to shed the rest of the fishing gear and swim free. In addition, no further sightings of the whale have been recorded since Jan 20th, which, if it were still entangled, might have been expected.

With fewer than 100 individual humpback whales believed to remain off the coast of Oman, the incident highlights a number of issues of critical importance to efforts to protect the species and prevent its extinction:

  • Published research as well as the sighting history of OM11-016 and many other humpback whales in the Oman photo-identification catalogue indicate that whales have a strong affinity to the habitat in the Gulf of Masirah near the Port of Duqm.
  • This highly productive area is also known to be a hotspot for intensive artisanal fishing, with some vessels (referred to locally as dhows) used to set gillnets similar to that found on the entangled whale. These nets are regularly set within the core feeding grounds of humpback whales and are intended to catch large fin-fish that feed on smaller fish like sardines, which are a prey species for the whales. .
  • A recent study presented to the IWC Scientific committee found that 67% of humpback whales photographed off the coast of Oman have scars on their tail stocks consistent with entanglement in fishing gear. Whales can become entangled in both active and abandoned gear. ESO conducted a behaviour change study to address marine wildlife entanglement in fishing nets on Masirah in 2018/2019. The study revealed a low rate of change, highlighting a pressing need to further engage with the fishing community and increase their knowledge of socio-economic and environmental impacts of fisheries. Two awareness-raising videos were created to support the project- a short animated piece and a 5-minute-long feature on the project.
  • Similar gillnets are used throughout the Arabian Sea by registered legal fishing fleets as well as illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fleets. Scientists in the Arabian Sea Whale Network have shared incidents of entanglements occurring off the coasts of Oman, Pakistan, Iran and Somalia. In some of these incidents fishing crews have attempted disentanglements that are extremely dangerous, such as hanging from ropes and entering the water with whales, highlighting the need for more training and guidance throughout the region.
  • Finally, the incident also highlights the persistent threat of ship strikes to Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale species in the region. Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC spent 3 years working with the Port of Duqm to develop and implement a Whale Management and Mitigation Plan, a programme that could be further strengthened at the Port of Duqm as well as adapted for implementation at other ports in the region. Click here to see one of the key outreach tools used in this plan.

A photo shared on social media of a fisherman from an Iranian vessel operating of the coast of Somalia, attempting an extremely dangerous rescue of a female humpback whale as a calf swims nearby.

New population of blue whales discovered in the western Indian Ocean!

Several ASWN members have been involved in the discovery and description of a new blue whale song, that defines a unique population of blue whales in the Arabian Sea and Western Indian Ocean.  The official press release is copied here below, and a link to the newly published paper in Endangered Species Research can be found here .

Blue whale off the coast of Oman. Copyright Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman.Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet, and they are found around the globe in all oceans. All blue whales sing very low-pitched and recognizable songs, and conveniently for researchers, every population has its own unique song. In a recently published paper in the journal Endangered Species Research, the researchers describe a new blue whale song that is heard from the Arabian Sea coast of Oman across to the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean and as far south as Madagascar in the southwest Indian Ocean.

Dr. Salvatore Cerchio, Director of the African Aquatic Conservation Fund’s Cetacean Program and Visiting Scientist at the New England Aquarium, led the analysis of recordings of the whale from three locations in the western Indian Ocean. Dr. Cerchio first recorded the novel song in 2017, during research focused on Omura’s whales in the Mozambique Channel off Madagascar, and he recognized it as a blue whale song that had never been described. Cerchio was also working with a team of scientists collecting acoustic recordings off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. This is part of a research effort focused on the highly endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale, an ongoing collaboration between the Environment Society of Oman, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, Oman’s Environment Authority and Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Water Resources.

While analyzing the Oman acoustic data, the team recognized the same unusual song. This novel blue whale song was recorded even more prevalently off Oman than Madagascar, and it became clear to the researchers that they had found what was likely a previously unrecognized population of blue whales in the western Indian Ocean.

“It was quite remarkable,” said Cerchio, “to find a whale song in your data that was completely unique, never before reported, and recognize it as a blue whale.” Blue whale song has been extensively studied globally, and several blue whale populations have been identified based on their distinct songs throughout the Indian Ocean.

“With all that work on blue whale songs, to think there was a population out there that no one knew about until 2017, well, it kind of blows your mind,” Cerchio said.

In 2018, the team reported their findings to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which was in the process of evaluating the status of blue whale populations in the Indian Ocean. The finding created quite a bit of excitement at the meeting, and raised many new questions about blue whale population movements and structure in the Indian Ocean.  Emmanuelle Leroy and Tracey Rogers of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, were also conducting acoustic research on blue whales in the Indian Ocean. Upon reading the IWC report on the new song, Leroy recognized that they also had recorded the same song off the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean.

“Shortly after we made the first report at IWC,” said Cerchio, “I received an email from Emmanuelle saying, ‘Hey Sal, I think we have that Oman song off the Chagos!’”

The collaborative team grew, and analysis of data from all three sites suggested that the population may spend most of its time in the northwestern Indian Ocean, in the Arabian Sea and to the west of the Chagos. It has long been recognized that a unique population of blue whales resides in the Northern Indian Ocean, but it was assumed that whales in the Arabian Sea belonged to the same population that has been studied off Sri Lanka and ranges into the southcentral Indian Ocean. However, the songs tell a different story.

“Before our recording effort off Oman, there were no acoustic data from the Arabian Sea, and so the identity of that population of blue whales was initially just a guess,” said Andrew Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, who led the deployment of the recording units. “Our work shows that there is a lot more to learn about these animals, and this is an urgent requirement in light of the wide range of threats to large whales related to expanding maritime industries in the region.”

Blue whales were hunted to near extinction around the globe during the 20th century, and populations have only started to recover very slowly over the past several decades following the global moratorium on commercial whaling. The Arabian Sea was targeted by illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960’s, an activity that nearly eradicated what were already likely to be small populations of humpback whales, blue whales, sperm whales, and Bryde’s whales.

Some researchers consider both the northern Indian Ocean blue whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales to comprise unique subspecies, not simply populations, making them particularly special and important to biodiversity.

“These populations appear to be unique among baleen whales, in the case of the Arabian Sea humpback whales because of their year-round residency in the region without the same long-range migration of other populations,” Willson points out.

“For 20 years we have focused work on the highly endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale, for which we believe only about 100 animals remain off the coast of Oman,” says Suaad Al Harthi, Executive Director of the Environment Society of Oman. “Now, we are just beginning to learn more about another equally special, and likely equally endangered, population of blue whale.”

Additional coauthors of the paper include Robert Baldwin of Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, Danielle Cholewiak of NOAA Fisheries, Tim Collins of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Gianna Minton of Megaptera Marine Conservation, Charles Muirhead of Duke University, Tahina Rasoloarijao of the Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines, Madagascar, and Maïa Sarrouf Willson of the Environment Society of Oman.

The work was supported by the International Whaling Commission, Renaissance Services S.A.O.G., Shell Development Oman LLC (SDO), and NOAA Fisheries.

New resources related to Important Marine Mammal Areas in the Arabian Sea

The IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task force has recently updated and upgraded several features on the IMMA e-Atlas.  The e-Atlas includes a number of sites in the Arabian Sea, but now also includes a host of new Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), candidate IMMAS (cIMMAs), and Areas of Interest (AOIs) in the Extended Southern Ocean and the waters around Australia and New Zealand.  Further more, the map-based interface is now complemented by a user-friendly menu that facilitates filtering by IMMA category or region, as well as targeted searches for specific Areas.



A searchable database also allows more targeted searching by country (EEZ) or species:

The MMPATF site also features a new report that is the result of collaboration between WWF, the IUCN MMPATF, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and Oceanmind.  The report features an analysis of vessel traffic in 114 IMMAs around the world, including IMMAs identified primarily on the basis of their importance for Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale species. For every IMMA, a table has been generated with statistics of unique vessels transiting the IMMA each month, as well as heat maps and graphs depicting categories of vessel traffic by month. The report also features a ranking of the sites where the overlap between vessel traffic and whale populations indicates possible risk of ship strikes, and two case studies examining the patterns of vessel traffic in relation to cetaceans in greater detail.   The report highlights two IMMAs in the Arabian Sea as potential hotspots for interactions between ships and whales.

The report can be accessed and downloaded in different formats on this page of the IUCN MMPATF website:

Arabian Sea whales at the 2020 virtual IWC Scientific Committee Meeting

Arabian Sea whales once again featured prominently in discussions of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, which was held between May 11th and 24th, 2020.  The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in Cambridge, UK, but for obvious reasons had to shift to a virtual format instead.  In order to accommodate different time zones around the globe, live discussions were limited to two-hour time slots each day, during which parallel Zoom sessions were conducted for different subcommittees.  Many members of the ASWN were able to participate in this virtual format, and some of the key documents and outcomes are highlighted below:

  • As most of you are aware, network members collaborated to produce the annual ASWN Progress report (SC_68b_CMP_11_Rev1). This report summarised ASWN activities over the past year, highlighting progress of individual projects within the network (Oman, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka), and the extension of the CMS Concerted Action for Arabian Sea humpback whales.  This was complemented by a report submitted by the IWC’s Standing Working Group on Conservation Management Plans (CMP), which included an update on progress toward a joint IWC-CMS CMP for Arabian Sea humpback whales (SC_68B_CMP_17).
  • WWF Pakistan prepared an annual update of the whale sightings reported by the crew-based observers working on the tuna gillnet fleets operating out of Karachi.  This report is available as SC_68B_CMP_08 .
Compiled Megaptera sightings

Map showing all Arabian Sea humpback whale sightings reported by the WWF Pakistan Crew-based observer programme between 2015 and 2019.

  • The team from Oman submitted a report on the visual health assessment of ASHW off the coast of Oman, a project that was funded through the IWC SC in 2018.  This report (SC_68B_CMP_16_rev1) highlighted a relatively high prevalence of tattoo-like skin disease in the population, as well as evidence of ship strikes and entanglement scarring.
  • The Oman team also shared the results of a preliminary study using unoccupied aerial systems (drones) to assess the body condition of ASHW in Oman.  This work was conducted with Fredrick Christiansen of Aarhus university and was presented as SC_68B_CMP_23_rev1.
  • Sal Cerchio and colleagues shared a paper that has been submitted to a peer reviewed journal, providing evidence for a new blue whale song in the Indian Ocean termed the ‘Oman song’.  It was submitted to the meeting as SC_68B_INFO_28.
  • The Flukebook team submitted a paper that includes updates on features being added through collaboration with the Indocet and ASWN teams.  This also includes information about multiple new species for which ‘computer vision’ matching algorithms are now available (SC_68B_PH_06). The Flukebook team also collaborated with Happy-whale to provide a side-by-side comparison of the two photo-ID platforms, which is very helpful (SC_68B_PH_01).
  • A group of researchers working on Sousa plumbea (Indian Ocean humpback dolphins) have collaborated to provide a training dataset of photos that the Flukebook team will now use to develop computer-vision matching algorithms for this species (SC_68B_SM_05).
body condition figure

Aerial photograph (video still frame) of an adult ASHW, showing the location of the body length (purple line) and body width (yellow lines) measurement sites. The picture was extracted from the custom-programmed Graphical User Interface developed by Dawson et al. (2017). Note that this individual also has extensive lesions associated with tattoo-like skin disease.

Although time for discussion was limited, the papers presented raised some interesting questions and a number draft recommendations.  These are taken from the draft report, which is not yet final, and thus wording could be changed:

The Committee reiterates that Arabian Sea humpback whales are a priority candidate for a CMP (IWC, 2019a, p.31) and recommends that the IWC Secretariat and SWG-CMP continue efforts with Oman and India towards development of a CMP in partnership with CMS, which already hosts a Concerted Action for the population. It commends the efforts of scientists within the region and especially the Arabian Sea Whale Network to develop a strong scientific basis to guide the development of a CMP and recommends continuation of research presented at this meeting and the network’s regional collaboration.

Furthermore, the Committee:

(1) welcomes the measures put in place by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, India and the coastal State Governments in India along with local research teams, to promote research, awareness-raising, capacity building and bycatch reduction, and offers technical and scientific support for these efforts where appropriate;
(2) recommends that the work of the crew-based observer programme in Pakistan (SC/68B/CMP/08) continue, if possible mapping fishing effort as well as sightings, and that it be replicated throughout the region where possible, especially in areas where systematic cetacean surveys are not feasible;
(3) encourages continued collaboration between the Pakistan observer programme and the IWC Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (BMI), and also encourages broader collaboration between relevant national governments, researchers and the BMI including through pilot projects on bycatch management, knowledge exchange or requests for capacity building initiatives.
(4) recommends that the use of passive acoustic monitoring to document whale presence and to analyse song be continued in Oman and on the west coast of India and commences off the Sindh and Balochistan coasts of Pakistan, making every effort to ensure simultaneous recordings in all three counties, so that song comparisons can be made across the Arabian Sea;
(5) recommends the continued use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and other photographic methods (systematic assessment of images for evidence of disease, epizoites and anthropogenic scarring) to assess body condition and health of ASHW off the coast of Oman with the objective of adopting these metrics as proxy indicators of some of the key ecological attributes related to on-going population trend assessment and conservation planning for ASHWs;
(6) recommends that fishing effort and location of gear that may cause entanglements of ASHW are more accurately mapped throughout ASHW range, especially in the most dense and critical habitat, to assess co-occurrence and risk, in order to better inform mitigation measures;
(7) recommends that a comparative study be conducted between the Oman ASHW catalogue and other Southern Hemisphere Indian Ocean catalogues to assess prevalence and coverage of barnacle scarring and colonization, to determine whether this can be used as a proxy measure for distinguishing ASHW from SH whales.

Three funding proposals were submitted to continue acoustic monitoring for humpback and blue whales off the coasts of Oman and India, and to map human activity as well as carry out more UAS work to assess ASWH body condition off the coast of Oman. These proposals were supported by the Scientific Committee and will be sent to the Commission for endorsement by ‘post’ in the coming weeks.

Due to COVID 19, there will no Commission meeting in the autumn as originally planned. Urgent decisions will be dealt with by ‘postal votes’, and the meeting will take place in September/October 2021 instead. As such, the next IWC Scientific Committee meeting in spring 2021 will be labelled IWC/SC 68C.  We hope that meeting will be able to be held in person in Bled, Slovenia, as planned, and that it will provide an opportunity to assess progress within the network, and make more valuable connections with researchers around the world.

New evidence for movement of Arabian Sea humpback whales between Oman and India

Whale resight

Locations where a highly distinctive humpback whale was photographed in the Gulf Of Masirah, Oman in 2011, and filmed by divers near Netrani Island, Karnataka, India in December 2019.

On December 21st, 2019, scuba divers near Netrani Island off the west coast of India (State of Karnataka) encountered something  extraordinary while travelling to their dive site:  a humpback whale.  The dive masters from Dive Goa, Absolute SCUBA India and West Coast Adventures knew this sighting was special, because they had all been in contact with Dipani Sutaria, who had travelled along India’s west coast from 2016 onward raising awareness of the Endangered status of Arabian Sea humpback whales, and the value of documenting their presence. Seemant Saxena from Absolute SCUBA India and Paritosh Agarwal from Dive Goa entered the water, free-diving through the murky depths to capture a few seconds of underwater footage of the whale to share with Dipani.

Dipani immediately shared this footage with her colleagues working with humpback whales on the other side of the Arabian Sea. She hoped that they would be able to discern some features of the whale in the video that would allow them to identify and match it to one of the individual whales catalogued through 20 years of photo-identification work in Oman. Had it been any other whale, the matching exercise would have been futile, as the water was filled with plankton, and the whale’s features were not very clearly visible. What was visible was a large, white U-shaped scar over the top of the whale’s back, another white scar on the tail fluke where it joined the whale’s trunk, and, as the team peered more closely through the milky water in the video, it seemed that this whale was missing most of the left side of its tail fluke.

Only one whale in the Oman catalogue fit this description – Individual OM11-010, a whale observed and photographed on two consecutive days in October 2011 in the Gulf of Masirah.  Careful comparison of all the available photos of this whale with the whale in the Netrani video revealed more similarities, including more scars and the distinctive notches on the trailing edge of the tail fluke.  The international team of five experienced researchers concluded with certainty that that this must be the same whale.


View of the severely injured dorsal fin photographed in Oman in 2011


Image isolated from video from December 2019

‘This is a hugely exciting finding.’ says Andy Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services, lead scientist on whale surveys conducted on behalf of the Environment Society of Oman. ‘Firstly it confirms that OM11-010 is still alive, despite the severe injuries we first documented over 8 years ago. Secondly, it provides further evidence that Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales are moving between Oman and India’.  Trans-Arabian-Sea movement was first documented in November 2017 when a female whale that was satellite tagged off the coast of Oman journeyed to the Southern tip of India and back to Oman again.

However, the sighting is also a sobering reminder of the threats that Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale and dolphin species face in the Arabian Sea and around the world. Arabian Sea humpback whales are distinct in that they don’t migrate long distances between tropical breeding grounds and polar or temperate feeding grounds.  Instead they remain in the Arabian Sea year-round.  Genetic, acoustic, and photographic evidence shows that the population is isolated from neighbouring populations in the Southern Hemisphere, and that fewer than 100 whales are present off the coast of Oman.

Expert analysis of high resolution images of OM11-010’s injuries indicate that they were caused by entanglement in fishing gear. The phenomenon has been documented in other humpback whale populations as well, and leaves tell-tale signs. The scars on the remaining half of OM11-010’s tail show where a rope or net was tightly wrapped around the fluke in a pattern symmetrical to the line of amputation of the missing fluke.  Scars on the whale’s back and flank show where a rope was so tightly wrapped over the dorsal fin that it cut into the whale’s skin and muscle and left a deep and lasting deformity.  Studies of different humpback whale populations around the world indicate that the proportion of whales bearing signs of fisheries entanglement can range from 25%  in Iceland2, to 65% in the Gulf of Maine2, and as high as 70% off the coast of Alaska3.  These statistics only represent the whales that survive their entanglements.  Bycatch in fishing gear is known to be the biggest threat to marine mammals around the globe, causing an estimated 600,000 deaths annually4.


OM11-010’s damaged tail, photographed in Oman in October 2011. The scars on the remaining half of OM11-010’s tail show where a rope or net was tightly wrapped around the fluke in a pattern symmetrical to the line of amputation of the missing fluke.

Teams on both sides of the Arabian Sea are working hard to protect whales from entanglement and other threats by studying their distribution and behaviour and working with relevant authorities to put protection measures in place.  As part of a long-term study funded by the International Whaling Commission, Sutaria and her colleagues have recently deployed two passive acoustic recorders that will record humpback whale and other marine mammal vocalizations off the west coast of India and provide more insight into when and where whales are present there.  The Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has listed Arabian Sea Humpback Whales as a priority endangered species for Recovery, has endorsed a Concerted Action under the Convention on Migratory Species, supported the proposal for a Conservation Management Plan under the International Whaling Commission, and has provided funding to the Karnataka State Forest Department for an Arabian Sea Humpback whale research and recovery program.

Willson and colleagues from the Environment Society of Oman and other organisations around the world are adding new and exciting techniques to their 20-year-long study of humpback whales off the coast of Oman, including the use of drones to measure body condition and health.

This recent finding is an excellent example of the need for continued and increased regional collaboration to better understand and protect this Endangered population of whales.

Additional information can be found on the following websites:

Arabian Sea Whale Network website:

IUCN Red List Assessment for Arabian Sea humpback whales:

The Environment Society of Oman’s Website:

Five Oceans Environmental Services:

Marine Mammals of India Website:

For more information contact:


Dipani Sutaria:



2             Basran, C. J. et al. First estimates of entanglement rate of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae observed in coastal Icelandic waters. Endangered Species Research 38, 67-77 (2019).

1           Robbins, J., and D. K. Mattila. 2000. Gulf of Maine humpback whale entanglement scar monitoring results 1997-1999, Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA.

3             Neilson, J. L., Straley, J. M., Gabriele, C. M. & Hills, S. Non‐lethal entanglement of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in fishing gear in northern Southeast Alaska. Journal of Biogeography 36, 452-464 (2009).

4             Read, A., Drinker, P. & Northridge, S. P. Bycatch of Marine Mammals in U.S. and Global Fisheries. Conservation Biology 20, 163-169 (2006).


37 Important Marine Mammal Areas identified in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas

CaptureIn early December 2019, scientists announced the approval of 37 new Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in one of the more ecologically rich, yet conservation challenged areas of the worlds oceans—the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. The new IMMAs highlight key habitats for various threatened marine mammal species, including endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, and the threatened dugong. IMMAs are an important first step toward


An image from the IUCN MMPA Task Force eAtlas showing the new Important Marine Mammal Areas and Areas of Interest in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabiean Seas Region

greater protection efforts, including in some cases, the establishment of marine protected areas.

IMMAs are defined as discrete portions of habitat, important for one or several marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation.  IMMAs are identified through a carefully planned process in which experts are convened in regional workshops to collate and assess all the information about marine mammal habitat in that region. The process draws from published and unpublished sources, often precipitating the most comprehensive review of marine mammal distribution and habitat use in the chosen region.  Each proposed area of interest is assessed based purely on biocentric criteria , that fall into four main categories: (1) Species or Population Vulnerability, (2) Distribution and Abundance (small resident population, Large aggregation),  (3) Life Cycle Activities (Breeding habitat, Feeding habitat, migration routes) (4) Special Attributes (distinctiveness, diversity). 

Once submitted, each IMMA proposal undergoes a critical scientific review by at least two independent reviewers, much like the submission process of peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Only proposed areas that can fully demonstrate fulfillment of at least one criteria attain full IMMA status, after which point they are published on the  eAtlas, and can be used in conservation planning by a variety of stakeholders.  It is hoped, for example, that industry can use this information to either avoid IMMAs or effectively  mitigate the impact of any of their planned activities in them, and that governments can use IMMAs to help guide their deliberations on where to place marine protected areas or other coastal zone management efforts.

 The IMMA process for the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas was launched in 2019.  A regional workshop took place on March 4th-8th 2019, in Salalah, Oman, and involved 38 marine mammal scientists and observers from 15 countries, with several more scientists contributing to assessments and proposals remotely. The IMMAs identified as a result of these workshops and subsequent independent review can now be viewed on an IMMA eAtlas.  Efforts to use these IMMAs to guide effective conservation measures are already underway, with the example of a recent implementation visit to Bazaruto Archipelago to Inhambane Bay Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA), Mozambique in November 2019.

The 37 IMMAs in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas were identified for the Arabian Sea humpback whales, Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, high cetacean species diversity, dugong aggregations, concentrations of Omura’s whale, as well as three different populations of blue whales.

Follow the links below to find more information on each of the 37 new IMMAs:

  1. Aldabra Atoll IMMA
  2. Bazaruto Archipelago and Inhambane Bay IMMA
  3. Cape Coastal Waters IMMA
  4. Comoros Island Chain and Adjacent Reef Banks IMMA
  5. Dhofar IMMA
  6. Farasan Archipelago IMMA
  7. Greater Pemba Channel IMMA
  8. Gulf of Kutch IMMA
  9. Gulf of Masirah and Offshore Waters IMMA
  10. Gulf of Salwa IMMA
  11. Indus Estuary and Creeks IMMA
  12. Kisite-Shimoni IMMA
  13. Lakshadweep Archipelago IMMA
  14. Lamu Offshore IMMA
  15. Madagascar Central East Coast IMMA
  16. Maldives Archipelago and Adjacent Oceanic Waters IMMA
  17. Mascarene Islands and Associated Oceanic Features IMMA
  18. Menai Bay IMMA
  19. Miani Hor IMMA
  20. Mozambique Coastal Breeding Grounds IMMA
  21. Muscat Coastal and Shelf Waters IMMA
  22. Nakhiloo Coastal Waters IMMA
  23. North East Arabian Sea IMMA
  24. Northern Gulf and Confluence of the Tigris, Euphrates and Kuran IMMA
  25. Northern Red Sea Islands IMMA
  26. North West Madagascar and North East Mozambique Channel IMMA
  27. Oman Arabian Sea IMMA
  28. Seychelles Plateau and Adjacent Oceanic Waters IMMA
  29. Shelf Waters of Southern Madagascar IMMA
  30. Sindhudurg-Karwar IMMA
  31. South East African Coastal Migration Corridor IMMA
  32.  South West Madagascar and Mozambique Channel IMMA
  33. Southern Coastal Shelf Waters of South Africa IMMA
  34. Southern Egyptian Red Sea Bays, Offshore Reefs and Islands IMMA
  35. Southern Gulf and Coastal Waters IMMA
  36. Toliara, St. Augustine Canyon and Anakao IMMA
  37. Watamu-Malindi and Watamu Banks IMMA