Who doesn’t love dolphins? They’re a damn delight. But dolphins are way more diverse and complex than we give them credit for. And Australia is home to some of the most unique dolphins in the world.
Picture a Dolphin…
Most likely an image of Flipper just swam into your head. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a memory of sharing a wave with a dolphin, or even spotting them under the sea. It’s a well-known fact that dolphins are awesome and everyone loves them.
So it’s pretty crazy to think that most of us don’t realise that Australia is home to not one, not two, but three endemic dolphin species (meaning they’re only found in the place they’re native to – pretty special!). We share our coastline and our ocean playground with them, yet we know hardly anything about them. With so much of their lives impacted by our activities, it’s time for us to learn a little more about our salty neighbours.
Australia’s Cetacean Nation
Our island continent is special, bordered by the Southern, Indian, and Pacific Oceans and home to around 45 species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).
Some of them, like the Bottlenose dolphin (think Flipper) and the Humpback whale are pretty iconic, but many of them are largely unknown.
The Southern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii) for example is found all around southern Australia, but if you ever spotted one you might mistake it for a large penguin.
Since the late 1800s, there’ve only been four new dolphin species discovered worldwide – three of these have been in Australia in the past 20 years. Who are our ‘new’ residents? And where have they been this whole time?
Let’s start with the Burrunan dolphin, you might have met this guy if you live around south-eastern Australia, although there are only around 200 documented individuals.
They’ve been spotted in Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia but the only resident (year-round) groups are in Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes – they love enclosed bays and estuaries.
This species (Tursiops australis) was only recognised ten years ago, as they look a lot like other Bottlenose dolphins. The Boonwurrung people have had a relationship with them for potentially thousands of years, and are responsible for their name which means ‘large sea fish of the porpoise kin’ in local Boonwurrung, Woiwurrung, and Taungurung languages.
While there’s still some debate in the scientific community about if they’re a completely unique species, recent DNA studies have provided more evidence and also revealed that the Burrunan dolphin may be the most ancestral form of Bottlenose dolphin.
That could mean that all Bottlenose dolphins in the world (there are at least three different types, found almost everywhere on earth) evolved from ancestors right here in Australia.
But wait, there’s more! The adorable Snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni) was recognised in 2005 and is found all along the north coast of Australia from Broome in WA to the Brisbane River.
This one is the Pokémon of dolphins, with a round, squishy looking head and the ability to squirt jets of water to herd fish while hunting.
Despite their tiny and cute appearance, their closest relatives are killer whales (Orcinus orca) which are actually not whales but large and mis-named dolphins.
Another dolphin with a confusing name is the Australian Humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis) – a hump-less dolphin found in tropical coastal waters from Shark Bay in WA right round the top of Australia and down to Byron Bay.
Discovered in 2014, they’re a long skinny dolphin with a long skinny beak, identifiable by their low triangular dorsal fin. They also have pretty unique ways of feeding, chasing prey all the way out of the water and on to mudflats in a risky move known as ‘strand feeding’.
Where have they been this whole time?
No, these dolphins haven’t been hiding away like little aquatic ninjas this whole time. But like many oceanic species, there’s just a whole lot we didn’t know about them.
As technology improves it allows us more of an insight not just into the lives and behaviours of these animals but also into their genetics.
Many of them come from tiny populations, so physical samples are pretty rare, but increasing access to skeletons and DNA gives us an insight into their morphology and evolution.
Why Tiny Dolphins Are Hugely Important
Take three deep breaths. Two of those were produced in the ocean, and no matter where we live we’re connected to and dependent on it.
Globally we’re causing a lot of harm to ocean ecosystems and since we all love to live on the coast, these areas have more human impacts. As a result, the dolphins who call these coastlines home are at risk.
According to Dr Liz Hawkins, the founding director of Dolphin Research Australia, there’s a range of issues that vary depending on locations however she says that ‘all coastal dolphins face a variety of threats that can cumulatively have a major impact on their health and survival.
Some of the major threats include coastal development, habitat degradation and loss, pollution, boating, fishing, tourism, climate change, and illegal feeding.’
The same is true all over the world for coastal dolphins. In Mexico, there are maybe 15 Vaquitas left (the tiny anime panda dolphins who recently starred in National Geographic’s film Sea of Shadows) while in New Zealand the Māui dolphin is down to less than 65 individuals.
All dolphins are protected in Australia under the EPBC Act, but unfortunately this legal protection isn’t enough to keep them safe from wide-ranging negative impacts.
Six Burrunan dolphins were found dead in December last year as a result of increased freshwater in their normally salty environment. This disease has been seen in Perth and other global locations and scientists say it’s linked to climate change and the resulting extreme weather events.
This environmental change is just one of a suite of threats, from shark nets, (which have killed hundreds of dolphins in NSW and QLD) to plastic pollution, to commercial fishing operations, to oil and gas mining exploration, all of which are putting pressure on often small and isolated populations.
How can I help these amazing dolphins?
There are lots of things that you can do to help coastal dolphins (and create better coastlines for us all). Dr. Hawkins suggests an easy place to start is by choosing environmentally friendly cleaning products, which reduces harmful pollutants in the sea. Here’s a few more things you can do:
- If you choose to eat sea life, choose wisely – buy only from sustainable fisheries and know how and where your fish was caught
- Support marine protected areas – proven to create safe havens for all sorts of animals, these sanctuaries create more resilient ecosystems
- Keep the ocean clean – avoid single use plastics and support legislation that leads to cleaner coasts and seas
We’re a saltwater nation, surrounded by an ocean playground which we share with some seriously amazing creatures. So whether it’s the surfing Bottlenose dolphins of Byron Bay or the unique Burrunan Dolphin, by better understanding our neighbours and our impacts on them, we can all be better custodians for our coastlines.
Feature photo by @angelgrimaldiphotography