Acres launches dolphin research

Acres launches dolphin research

An animal welfare group here has launched a two-year study of wild dolphins in Singapore waters so as to better understand how to protect them. It is also exploring the possibility of setting up wild dolphin- watching tours here, as an alternative to seeing the animals in captivity.

The Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) yesterday announced that it will devote two full-time researchers to study the Indo- Pacific bottlenose dolphins and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, because they are the two most commonly seen dolphin species here.

The humpback dolphin is regarded as near- threatened, or almost vulnerable, by conservation groups, while there is not enough data on the bottlenose dolphin to categorise it.

The Acres researchers will focus on the Republic's southern waters, namely, the areas surrounding the Southern Islands and in the Sisters' Islands Marine Park, the country's first marine park.

The project will gather data on the dolphins' population and distribution, movement patterns and behaviour, as well as potential threats.

"We hope that, through this study, we can further increase awareness and understanding of these species," said Ms Isabelle Tan, one of the researchers, who has a degree in zoology and conservation biology from the University of Western Australia in Perth. "The data collected will be vital in developing strategies to protect the dolphins."

The other researcher, Ms Naomi Clark, has a master's degree in marine biology from Plymouth University in Britain.

Acres chief executive Louis Ng said the two researchers will head out to sea at least three times a week. Acres also wants to recruit volunteers to help with the work.

The group is not the first to attempt this task.

The National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) has been studying the dolphins intermittently for the past 20 years.

Based on sightings reported to TMSI, at least 169 dolphins were spotted between 2008 and 2011, in the waters between Singapore and Batam, near St John's Island and Pulau Semakau, and as close to shore as the Marina Barrage.

At least another 50 of the mammals were sighted in 2012 - the most recent year that proper records were kept before TMSI's work was cut short when the conservation arm of Wildlife Reserves Singapore stopped funding a three-year study. Sporadic reports of sightings have continued since then.

Dr Elizabeth Taylor, head of TMSI's Marine Mammal Research Laboratory, warned that the Acres project could be very time-consuming and expensive. "It's very difficult because there is absolutely no way to know when the dolphins are coming or where they will be, and hiring a good boat alone will cost us about $1,000 a day."

Her team has designed a special underwater listening device and a flying drone to track dolphins, and is seeking funding to produce and deploy them. As for the wild dolphin-watching tours, Mr Ng said his organisation is studying how such tours are done in other places, for example, in Hong Kong.

"We are confident that if people learn about and see dolphins living freely in the wild, they will never want to see them in captivity," he said.

But Dr Taylor noted that a tour that guarantees dolphin sightings may not be feasible, given the uncertainty of the mammals' movements. "If you offer a scenic tour with the chance of seeing a dolphin, that might be possible," she suggested.

Acres has launched an online fund-raising campaign for the project, at ACRESsavedolphins

This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
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