Back from the Blue – the latest ASWN newsletter

Newsletter image

After a long hiatus, we are pleased to share the next edition of the Arabian Sea Whale network newsletter.  Compiling this issue was a rewarding exercise,  as it provided an opportunity to reflect on all of the great achievements that network members have made over the past year.

Please feel free to download it by clicking on the link below, and please share it widely with friends and colleagues and via social networks!  We will try to keep the momentum going with more frequent issues in the coming months and years.   Please let us know if you have content or ideas for the next issue.  In the meantime, happy reading!

ASWN 2018_10 Newsletter_Final


Oman hosts multi-stakeholder workshop on responsible whale and dolphin watching


Dr. Paul Forestell of the Pacific Whale Foundation shares nearly 40 years of international experience in the whale watching sector.

 In August 2018, Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES) and the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) collaborated to organise a two-day workshop on responsible whale and dolphin watching. The workshop was held in Muscat, Oman, and hosted by the MECA. The 26 invited participants included representatives of the ESO, 5OES, MECA, the Royal Oman Police Costal Guards, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Transport and Communication, the Port of Duqm, and Sultan Qaboos University, Marine Science and Fisheries Course.

The workshop commenced with a series of presentations on the history and context of whale and dolphin watching in Oman to date, the potential benefits of responsible whale watching, and a summary of workshops conducted for and with operators in 2013 and 2014. In presentations by ESO’s  Suaad al Harthi and 5OES’ Robert Baldwin, participants were given an overview of how the Industry in Oman was started in 1998, at which time there was a single operator in Muscat, and has grown and spread over the past 30  years to include multiple operators in several different locations in Oman (see figure below).  In 2008  the dolphin watching industry in Oman was estimated to generate roughly 1.24 million USD annually (Ponnampalam, 2011),  a figure which is sure to have increased significantly as the industry has grown.

As a natural resource that helps to attract international tourism to Oman, whales and dolphins require careful study and protection. It is vital that the whale and dolphin watching industry, and those responsible for managing it understand the animals’ distribution and conservation needs, and take active measures to prevent the negative impacts that can occur when boats approach too closely,  too quickly, or too frequently.  Collectively the ESO and 5OES have spent over 20 years studying the over 20 species of whales and dolphins that occur in Oman’s waters, contributing to current knowledge and understanding of their ecology, biology and conservation needs.  Some species targeted for tourism, such as the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and the Arabian Sea humpback whale are considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species (Braulik et al., 2017, Minton et al., 2008), and require extra conservation  measures.

Building on this body of knowledge, and keen to protect Oman’s whales and dolphins, MECA presented its plans to amend wildlife protection regulations to specifically include 20 species of whales and dolphins, and to better define the concept of ‘harm’ in these regulations to include touching, approaching too closely, or otherwise negatively impacting normal processes like feeding,  mating or resting.  MECA is also considering introducing a permitting procedure that would require whale and dolphin tourism operators to meet certain conditions and minimum standards beyond the (safety) requirements for more general marine tourism.

Oman WW map

Target species and areas of whale and dolphin watching in Oman

Dr. Paul Forestell, Director of International Activities at the Pacific Whale Foundation shared the experiences gained from nearly 40 years of whale and dolphin watching in different Pacific locations. He described a common long-term trajectory for whale watching tourism industries as they develop over time:

Stages of dolphin watching industry

Stages in development of whale watching (From Forestell and Kaufman, 1994, 1996)

Participants identified the phase of development for each of the dolphin watching areas in Oman, and discussed the roles of different stakeholders in these different phases of development.  The objective in each case, is to find ways to maximise economic and other benefits for local communities and the country as a whole, while minimising the potentially negative effects on the whales and dolphins targeted for tourism.  This balance requires some form of regulation and/or guidance from the relevant authorities.

While debating how to best achieve this balance in Oman, topics discussed included:

  • The pros and cons of voluntary versus mandatory regulations;
  • The challenges of enforcing regulations;
  • The importance of consulting stakeholders such as tour operators and fishermen in developing and implementing regulations;
  • The importance of training and awareness-raising in conjunction with, or prior to the introduction of (new) regulations;
  • the use of Apps that allow tour operators or guides to log their tracks and observations, thus allowing tourism to contribute to scientific understanding of the target species;
  • The importance of engine choice and maintenance of vessels used for whale and dolphin watching to minimise underwater noise and disturbance;

The final sessions of the workshop were dedicated to designing a road map toward more sustainable whale and dolphin watching in Oman. Participants agreed that the initial step for the development of responsible whale and dolphin watching guidelines is the formation of a national planning group/committee, most likely under the Ministry of Tourism.  In the meantime, ESO and MECA can coordinate with MoTC on developing mutual awareness raising campaigns to target boat owners and operators, as well as continue with research and monitoring activities to better inform the industry.


Participants to the workshop included representatives of different branches of government, law enforcement, NGOs and universities.

The workshop paid tribute to Dr. Carole Carson, and Greg Kaufman, both of whom were involved in the initiation of responsible whale and dolphin watching in Oman, but sadly passed away in recent years.



Braulik, G., K. Findlay, S. Cerchio, R. Baldwin and W. Perrin, 2017: Sousa plumbea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. e.T82031633A82031644. Downloaded on 10 December 2017.,

Minton, G., T. J. Q. Collins, C. Pomilla, K. P. Findlay, H. C. Rosenbaum, R. Baldwin and R. L. Brownell Jr, 2008: Megaptera novaeangliae, Arabian Sea subpopulation. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,

Ponnampalam, L. S., 2011: Dolphin Watching in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman: Tourist Perceptions and Actual Current Practice. Tourism in Marine Environments, 7, 81-93.

Arabian Sea humpback whales listed under India’s Recovery Programme for Critically Endangered Species

Good news from India! The Arabian Sea Humpback whale has been added to the Central Government’s Recovery Programme for Critically Endangered SpeciesThe programme, which falls under the Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change, India (MoEFCC), is a component of a Centrally sponsored scheme titled ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’. 

Whale Photo - 05 Oct 05 017

Humpback whale tail fluke photographed by the Indian Coast Guard in 2005-2006
Coast guards aboard the vessel Tarabai, 30 nautical miles from
the shore of Jakhau spent more than three hours  in their efforts to
photograph these wonderful marine mammals.

In June 2018, Arabian Sea humpback whales were one of four species to be added to the Recovery programme during the 49th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife held in New Delhi.  Seventeen species (including the Ganges River dolphin) had been previously identified, bringing the new total up to 21.  The MoEFCC has requested the Chief Wildlife Wardens of coastal States in India to initiate  ASHW research and conservation activities for the next 5 years in collaboration with Scientific Institutions and Universities, with the aim of producing an Action Plan for the future.


News links:

Marine mammal training symposium and survey completed in India

Cruise report photo

NOAA affiliated trainer, Suzanne Yin discusses how to identify different species with Christopher Roy (L) and Chandru
Krishnamoorthy (R), while other trainees use the big eye binoculars to search for cetaceans.


In December 2017,  India hosted a two-part workshop and training course, aimed to build capacity for marine mammal research and conservation throughout the country.  The first part of the workshop involved marine mammal scientists from the US, India and beyond. The second component the Marine Mammal Research in India Symposium was hosted by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. A multispecies cetacean systematic survey training was conducted on the 70 m FORV Sagar Sampada from December 15 to 18th, 2017, off Kochi, India. This first-of-its-kind broad-scale, line-transect survey training provided 10 trainees from various institutions across India with the skills to systematically collect, record, and report cetacean visual data.

This initiative is an example of a successful Indo-US collaboration involving NOAA Fisheries, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE), Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), India,  and the University of Washington, USA.

During the pre-survey classroom lectures on 14 December 2017, participants learned about the basics of species identification, data collection and abundance estimation, and the importance of conducting systematic marine mammal surveys for marine resources management and species conservation. During the nearly three days at sea, trainees received instructions on the methods used to detect and record marine mammal observations at sea, following methods that are widely used globally to determine abundance estimates of marine mammal populations.

Despite poor weather and visibility,  12 marine mammal observations were made during the cruise, including several dolphin species and one whale sighting (a Bryde’s whale).  The full report of the cruise can be accessed here.

This marks an important step forward in awareness raising and capacity building for marine mammal research and conservation in India.  It is hoped that similar capacity building be conducted throughout ASWN member countries.

ASWN at the 2018 International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee meeting

Lake and castle 2017

Lake Bled – and the view from the meeting rooms at the IWC’s Scientific Committee meetings in 2018

The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) met from April 25th- May 7th in Bled, Slovenia.  The ASWN was well represented at this meeting with invited participants from Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, the Environment Society of Oman, Five Oceans Environmental Services, the Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF, and various international scientists who have been involved in research and conservation of whales in the Arabian Sea.  Despite being unable to attend in person,  invited ASWN members from  Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India submitted valuable documents to the meeting.  As such,  ASWN members presented multiple papers with updates and information about whale research and conservation efforts in the Arabian Sea.  Most of these were presented to the sub-committee that focused on conservation management plans (CMP), although aspects of Arabian Sea whale work were also discussed in the Southern Hemisphere (SH) subcommittee, the subcommittee looking at environment and health issues for  whales (E), and the subcommittee focusing on photo-identification databases for whale research (PH).  Links to download the papers that were presented and discussed can be found blow.

The papers were well received and generated valuable discussion and feedback. The scientific committee commended the work that had been done, and encouraged the continuation of the various research and conservation efforts underway including:

  • regional collaboration for research and capacity building;
  • work toward a joint CMS-IWC conservation management plan;
  • collection of data on whale distribution through Pakistan’s crew-based observer programme;
  • satellite tagging and threat- and health assessments of humpback whales off the coast of Oman;
  • collection of data on whale strandings, sightings, and song off the coast of India;
  • more extensive comparison of humpback whale song recorded off the coasts of Oman and India as well as other Indian Ocean regions.

Three modest funding proposals were submitted to the IWC SC with an aim toward achieving some of these recommendations. The outcome of these proposals will be known after the IWC Commissioners’ meeting takes place in Brazil in September.  The IWC SC report is still undergoing final editing and revisions. We will disseminate the report as soon as it is publicly available. In the meantime, here are the links to the papers presented by ASWN members at the meeting:

Oman team in Slovenia

The Oman team, meeting between sessions to discuss research and conservation priorities

Two new papers reveal important insights into whales in the Northern Indian Ocean

Last week two new papers were published revealing important information about feeding and parasites in blue whales off Sri Lanka and humpback whale song off the Goan coast of India.  Read the full abstracts of these papers below:

de Vos A, Faux CE, Marthick J, Dickinson J, Jarman SN. 2018. New Determination of Prey and Parasite Species for Northern Indian Ocean Blue Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5.

Press release: A study on the diet of Northern Indian Ocean blue whales has just been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. The study revealed that while globally blue whale populations feed predominantly on Euphausiidae (krill), Northern Indian Ocean blue whales feed predominantly on Sergestid shrimps. This demonstrates that blue whales can locate and feed on dense swarms of other types of prey when they occur. Within the Indian Ocean, sergestids are present in the top 300 m of the water column, which correlates with the deep scattering layer in the area. This need to dive deeper in search of prey likely explains the prevalence of fluke up diving amongst blue whales in Sri Lankan waters relative to other parts of the world.

This study also found the presence of Acanthocephalan parasites in the stomach and intestines of the Northern Indian Ocean blue whales. While these parasites have previously been recorded in other ocean basins, this is the first record for this region. This finding highlights the need for further studies on parasitic flora and long-term monitoring of health of these cetaceans for their proper management and conservation.

The lead author, Dr. Asha de Vos, founder of The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project the flagship project of Oceanswell was particularly excited about the implications of this finding. She said, “These findings highlight the need to continue long-term research efforts, study and evaluate species within their habitat ranges, understand their behavioural adaptations, and tailor-make management and conservation decisions based on their needs”. Co-author Dr. Simon Jarman from Curtin University and CSIRO further added, “Analysis of DNA from environmental samples can generate a lot of new ecological knowledge. This is a nice example of the sorts of information we can uncover with molecular analyses.”    To learn more about this research please contact Dr. Asha de Vos; Founder, Oceanswell:

Shyam Kumar Madhusudhana, Bishwajit Chakraborty & G. Latha (2018):
Humpback whale singing activity off the Goan coast in the Eastern Arabian Sea, Bioacoustics, DOI: 10.1080/09524622.2018.1458248

This paper also discusses the relevance of this study in relation to the wider Arabian Sea humpback whale population:  “Formal collaborative studies in the Arabian Sea region are in their early stages. Cursory comparison of vocalizations from this study with those collected off Oman from the same year provides some indication of shared themes (2017 email exchanges between S Madhusudhana and researchers S Cerchio, AJ Willson and MS Willson studying humpback whales along the coast of Oman; unreferenced, personal communication); however, this requires further dedicated analysis. These preliminary findings concur with comparison of historical song samples between Hallaniyat Bay in Oman and Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar that were found to have ‘virtually the same content’ (Whitehead 1985). Understanding regional transmission of song patterns is considered as a gateway to evaluating the connectivity between humpback whales in the Arabian Sea, and considered a priority for conservation management measures (Minton et al. 2015). Further collaboration on evaluation of song structure between these data-sets is warranted.”
Watch this space for the next steps in this exciting story that started with the recording of humpback whale song on both sides of the Arabian Sea in the early 1980s!

ASWN Data Platform Workshop Report now available

Composit photos

In January 2018, a number of ASWN members gathered in Muscat for a workshop focusing on the final stages of development and capacity building for the creation of the ASWN regional data platform. The platform is being developed with Wild Me/Flukebook, and should be ready for wider use throughout the network within the next few weeks.

A full (illustrated!) report of the workshop is available for download here.   The report includes:

  • summaries of research  updates from several ASWN range states;
  • descriptions of the new data platform and its evolving features;
  • summaries of discussions on how to incorporate fisheries stakeholders in data collection efforts for cetacean conservation in the region.

The report will be shared as a ‘For Information’ paper at the upcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, as well as with the Scientific Council of the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), which is following the progress of conservation efforts in relation to the CMS Concerted Action on Arabian Sea humpback whales.