Citizen science

A little citizen science has helped identify rarely seen male dolphins in the Gippsland Lakes.

Dr Kate Charlton-Robb and her team from the Marine Mammal Foundation (MMF) visit the area every season as part of ongoing research and monitoring of the dolphin population in the Lakes system.

“The Gippsland Lakes support a resident population of 63 Burrunan dolphins, but an annual winter influx temporarily doubles the population size,” explained Dr Charlton-Robb.

This winter, some eagle-eyed local enthusiasts alerted the scientists to the presence of a pair of visiting dolphins.

“It’s a maternal based population, which means the majority of the population is female. This only changes during the winter breeding season when a large number of males enter the lakes.

“The two dolphins photographed by local community members were identified as transient males and had not been seen since 2015. Being able to catch up with them has strengthened our research on the strong bonds of male alliances in dolphins. This really highlights how important these community sightings can be.

“Thanks to citizen science, we were also able to identify that our ‘regular’ transient males, which are observed each winter, entered the Lakes in early June and have remained in the system until our spring surveys. Unfortunately, we can’t be on the water all the time, so these reports are so important in helping us identify individuals and movement patterns.”

Community members can become actively involved as MMF volunteers or one of the organisation’s Citizen Scientists.

“We are about to start a ‘Lakes Champions’ programs for the general community to become a part of the Foundation, to be active in creating a cleaner environment, assisting us with our various community activities and land-based research program,” said Dr Charlton-Robb.

“We also have fantastic new program for young people, aged 10-18 years. Our ‘Marine Champions’ program is largely run during the school holidays and gives budding marine biologists hands-on opportunities and learning experiences in all things marine and sustainability. You can also request a community, school or workplace presentation or simply become a member of the MMF and help make sure Australia’s marine mammals are protected and conserved into the future.”

While the team is very appreciative of the contribution the community makes to understanding and protecting these beautiful mammals, Dr Charlton-Robb stressed the importance of keeping clear of the dolphins.

Despite rules about how close boats and jet skis could get to the dolphins, data showed that 69 per cent of vessels were in breach of these regulations.

“There are government regulations in place that clearly state powered or unpowered vessels cannot approach within 100m of the dolphins, and jetskis need to remain at a 300m distance. Unfortunately, we saw breaches to those regulations and in some cases, deliberate and repeated approaches.”

Anyone who sights dolphins in the Gippsland Lakes can visit fill out the TrakMM sighting info form. This allows the community using the waterways to log sightings of marine mammals, helping out the researchers, who can’t be on the water at all times.

Burrunan dolphin research in the Gippsland Lakes is funded by the Victorian State Government for the health of the Gippsland Lakes.