Dolphin database in the works

Last updated 12:56 27/02/2013
Jody Weir
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Valuable research Jody Weir of Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute identifies Hector dolphins in the area

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A project under way since the start of the year to find out more about Kaikoura's hector's dolphin population has been a great success so far.

It has been full steam ahead for the project, co-ordinated by Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute (KORI), with some fantastic summer weather enabling plenty of time on the water to monitor and document the dolphins.

Project manager Jody Weir says it is an exciting little mystery about which more was being learned every day.

Through dedicated surveys she and a team of volunteers were trying to find out more about the local species, including the number around Kaikoura, their preferred areas, size of their groups and their behaviour patterns.

During the boat-based surveys the team travels north and south of Kaikoura along pre-determined survey routes.

Each encounter with a marine mammal is recorded, says Jody.

"When we find hectors dolphins, we record their location using a GPS unit, as well as the sea state, the water clarity and other environmental variables.

"We also take photographs of each dolphin so that we can analyse the photos for individual markings.

"One person on board is responsible for operating an underwater HD camera affixed on a pole, so that we can obtain video of their behaviour underwater and also to check and see if individuals are males or females."

Determining gender is surprisingly easy for the hector's, as the male has a clearly defined dark patch on his underside, and other markings are also recorded including notches on their dorsal fins, which are rounder in appearance than the fin of the dusky.

"Many of them have little nicks or notches in their dorsal fin, and some just have a very unique shape.

"One of the dolphins we have photographed this month appears to have scoliosis and this makes it easily distinguishable from the other individuals."

The importance of this research cannot be underestimated, says Jody, as hector's dolphins have a relatively small range of about 30 kilometres.

Maintaining each population is therefore important to ensure continuity of the species up and down the coastline and to make sure the populations do not become isolated.

There has been no local research carried out on the hectors dolphin since 1990 so Jody is excited about putting together a comprehensive database where sightings and individual markings can be recorded.

She hopes to have a website up and running soon which will allow for others to access the database and record their own sightings.

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The research work is timely as a threat management plan is being written up this year for the hector's species through a collaboration between the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

If you are interested in this project and would like to find out more, a presentation is planned for this Sunday, March 2 at Encounter Kaikoura at 5pm. Researchers from KORI will be presenting a short summary of their research and their findings so far and everyone is invited to attend.

Hector's dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) are the two species of dolphins usually seen in Kaikoura waters. Dusky dolphins are longer (1.7 metres) than the hector's (maximum 1.45m).

Dusky dolphins around Kaikoura are often found in large groups of a few hundred individuals, whereas hector's dolphins are usually found in small groups of two to 12 individuals.

The Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute is a network of researchers and educators.

The Hector's Dolphin Project is supported by the Encounter Foundation and the volunteer time of many people. Subscribe to the KORI FaceBook NewsFeed if you would like to get updates on the hector's dolphins of Kaikoura and other KORI projects.

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- Kaikoura Star

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