People and Places
Cataloguing for conservation
by DAVID DONNELLY – manager, Killer Whales Australia

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Images by David Donnelly

The Dolphin Research Institute has recently released a catalogue of Port Phillip common dolphins, the culmination of 15 years of painstaking work. As reported in the August edition of Mornington Peninsula Magazine, a unique community of normally oceanic common dolphins has colonised a small section of the Mornington Peninsula coast – Mornington to McCrae – in Port Phillip.   This amazing little group of dolphins has grown in numbers from a humble 13 animals in 2006 to an estimated 70-80 individuals in 2021.

With the help of local communities and businesses, the Dolphin Research Institute has been photographing dorsal fins from this common dolphin community since their discovery in 2005. Why photograph fins? Well, each dorsal fin is as unique to a dolphin as a fingerprint is to a human. Using overall fin shape combined with other features such as colouration and nicks and notches in the fin, researchers can identify individual dolphins and assign names and codes for inclusion in a fin identification catalogue.

Catalogues such as this are usually kept in-house by research organisations, but the institute decided to make this catalogue publicly accessible to reinforce the importance and vulnerability of this community of dolphins. It also provides a tangible outcome for the many who have contributed to the catalogue and supported the institute’s work over many years.

The institute deliberately made this public version of the catalogue to be discoverable, accessible and easily interpreted by any reader. Behind this are the detailed methods that were refined over the past three years and layers of data on time, location, associations, skin health, life histories, calving rates and calf survivorship.

The 70 individual common dolphins presented in the catalogue are only those dolphins that can be identified from both conspicuous and subtle markings on their dorsal fins. The researchers know that there are dolphins missing from the catalogue – especially calves, because they lack markings. With time, interactions with other dolphins and other things in the environment will make identification possible. The catalogue is a living document that will be updated as new animals are identified and/or new features appear on existing catalogued animals.

The story of Port Phillip’s common dolphins is truly a positive one that leaves no room for complacency if we are going to ensure the future of these wonderful creatures, particularly in a rapidly changing world threatened by a changing climate and human population growth, and also at a time when dolphin populations around the globe and elsewhere in Australia are being lost.

Thanks to the work of many, we now have a solid foundation to set the compass towards greater protection for these unique and important residents of the Mornington Peninsula.

The catalogue fills an important gap in the understanding of this unique community of dolphins. Stay tuned as the work continues.

NOTE: Victorian Government regulations prohibit vessels from approaching dolphins closer than 100m (300m for jetskis).

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