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Dolphins of Namibian Waters

Why Dolphins and Whales are such special animals, how Namibia has a species of Dolphin found no where else in the world, what we know about them and how they are protected here in Namibia was what was discussed on MYD Earth this week when 99FM’s Kirsty Watermeyer chatted to Morgan Martin, a PHD Candidate at the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria and a member of the Namibian Dolphin Project here in Namibia.

It takes a village

In August last year a group of bottlenose dolphins got stranded on the Walvis Bay beach. When Morgan’s co-worker arrived on the scene, “it became apparent that he and the young female interns that were with him were not going to be strong enough to get these 4 meter dolphins back in the water,”

“They needed help, so he phoned the local tour boat company in Walvis to get help, and within a few minutes a number of people had shown up including a couple of gigantic guys from a refrigerator business. The refrigerator guys actually shut down their business for a while to lend a hand to the cause. With everyone’s help the seven dolphins got re-floated successfully.”
The saved dolphins survived their ordeal and a few months later one mother and calf pair from the stranding were spotted during a boat survey. “We believe that all seven individuals survived, which for such a small population is great news.”

A unique Namibian Dolphin species: the Heaviside Dolphin

HeavisideThe ecosystem along Namibia’s coast is unique enough to support a special species of dolphin. Occurring nowhere else in the world except along our seas is the Heaviside Dolphin. The Heaviside is in good company with the Bottlenose dolphin as well as the gigantic Humpbacked Whale.

The Bottlenose Dolphin is perhaps one of the most well-known dolphin species – famous for its perpetual smiling face. Not only do they look like they’re smiling, but they make anyone that sees them want to smile as well.  Morgan lists dolphins’ ability to make us happy as one of the reasons she finds them so special, “They just make you feel better! They have this innate ability to lighten your mood. They always look like they’re smiling and they do seem to have therapeutic abilities.”

What exactly is so special about Dolphins and Whales?

Dolphins and whales are currently receiving a lot of attention for the increased research about their behaviour and intelligence. “They are super smart, they recognise faces and they are curious. When you’re watching them, they will watch you right back.” Morgan believes that there exists a relationship between dolphins and humankind. Recently they’ve begun to approach humans more often for help, “They are learning that we are out to help them, not to hurt them.”

It’s been found that dolphin species display not only cooperative behaviour, but moreover that different pods actually develop their own “cultures”, if you can believe it. The songs that dolphin and whales make underwater have been likened to “Pop Songs” that catch on and spread with their popularity. It’s interesting that humans are not the only ones who suffer from earworms in this regard.

Whale 2Whales are highly social animals, and recent studies have proven the existence of cells in the brains of certain whale species that only occur in humans, other large primates and elephants.  These neurons, called “Spindle Cells” are an important feature in social and intelligent animals, and could play a role in emotions such as empathy.

It’s no surprise that our oceanic counterparts are more intelligent that we may have supposed. In fact, the most famous study done with dolphins involved teaching them sign language! And the craziest part is that the dolphins not only learnt sign language, but that they also displayed an understanding of sentence structure, which is a highly sophisticated concept.

The more we find out about dolphins and whales, the more they seem like our lost brothers and sisters at sea. Except for their social behaviour and language abilities, Dolphins are known to use objects in their environment to forage for food – scientists call this “Tool Use”, and it’s a behaviour that you won’t find in just any animal.

Protecting our oceanic occupants

With all the evidence about dolphin and whale intelligence, we hardly need more convincing that conservation of our seas is a good idea. But if you need another reason, how about the benefits of increased tourism? Morgan notes that the existence of the Heaviside dolphin in Namibia’s waters and nowhere else has the potential to draw large numbers of tourists and increase revenue from sea excursions.

bottle nose 3The biggest challenge with conservation of dolphins and whales in Namibia has so far been the lack of information and research on these animals. That is why efforts by the Namibian Dolphin Project are so important. Previous studies on the ecosystems along our coast where done during a time when our dolphin and whale numbers were quite low, “so essentially an ecosystem without them”.

In the last couple of years there has been a steady increase in their numbers, and Morgan is optimistic that in the future we will be able to enjoy whale spotting locally like South Africans have been during their Whale Festival. “We think they are nearing their original population sizes and they’re also rediscovering their original habitats, including here along Namibia” notes Morgan.

With increased numbers of whales and dolphins, we will likely see more beached animals along our beaches. What’s the best thing to do to help out beached dolphins or whales? Is it better to leave them alone and call for help or must one try to help the animal yourself? According to Morgan, “the best thing is to call the hotline and describe the situation. If the animal is entangled in fishing gear, or if birds or worms are bothering it, it’s OK to approach it to try and help it out but it’s always best to get professional advice or help first.

Call the Namibia Dolphin Project on : 0816876461 if you see a stranded or beached whale or dolphin.

Always approach the animal with caution, you don’t want it to get scared and trash around. If at all possible, cover the animal with a wet towel, so that their skin doesn’t dry out. But remember to leave their blowhole open or else they may suffocate according to Morgan, and keep any water from splashing into the blowhole. If possible keep talking to a minimum, because they have very sensitive hearing, so may be disturbed by loud noise.

Who and what is the Namibian Dolphin Project?

The Namibian Dolphin Project is a research and conservation organisation run by several independent scientists in association with the University of Pretoria and the Namibia Nature Foundation.  It works on developing population estimates and researching coastal whale and dolphin species in Namibia. The data they generate through research can then be used for conservation and sustainable management.

Since 2008 the Namibian Dolphin Project has generated a lot of new information on the abundance and ecological relationships and conservation status of whales and dolphins in Namibian waters. We currently work with the community and policy makers and Namibian NGOs and the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, people from UNAM and students and marine industry, all to increase awareness and knowledge of Namibian marine life.

If you’d like to get in touch with the Namibian Dolphin Project, get in touch with them through their website here : Namibian Dolphin Project
Or  like the Namibian Dolphin Project Facebook page.

To report a beached whale or dolphin, please phone the hotline: 0816876461.

And if you see any dolphins or whales, please take a picture with the gps location and post it on their facebook page. The Namibian Dolphin Project relies on the public for added information on population whereabouts and movements.

Take a listen to the MYD Earth show with Morgan Martin from the Namibian Dolphin Project here :



Article written by Nina van Schalkwyk