Monday, December 14, 2009

Rare Snubfin Dolphins sighted at Ella Bay

After recently talking to Blanche Danastas from Marine Wildlife Australia I made a mental note to keep an eye out for more coastal dolphins at Ella Bay on my next walk. Little did I know that I would see and photograph a listed rare species of dolphin whose presence at Ella Bay had previously only been verbal evidence provided by commercial fishermen.

On Saturday 12.12.2009 I went for a beach walk at Ella Bay and was greeted with a magnificent sunrise and birdsong.
I enjoyed a morning full of excitement. I saw White Breasted sea eagles, Cassowary scat and tracks, Brahminy kites, Ospreys, Beach thick knees and a host of other interesting plants and animals.

The day was the stuff of postcards, with a sea breeze and blue skies.
I was winding down on my return journey from the northern end of the bay when I noticed a small pod of four dolphins travelling north.

Two of the dolphins were Indo-pacific humpback dolphins Sousa chinensis which are pretty easy to identify as they have a very distinctive broad triangular fin.
The pod was not coming to the surface often as they were actively hunting in the shallows but I did manage to get a couple of fin shots for identification purposes and here they are.
I have photographed and filmed Indo-pacific humpback dolphins at Ella Bay many times and they are a listed rare species within the Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992.

I already have six stories about them on the blog which you can check out by clicking here. My favourite has some neat photos of the dolphins playing and leaping out of the water.

Ok I’m getting off track here so back to the bay!

The other two dolphins in the pod were another species all together and my jaw dropped when I realised they were another listed rare species the Australian snubfin dolphin Orcaella heinsohni. This was the very first time I have seen this species of dolphin and up until that moment its presence in this area was based on a single report from a commercial fisherman at nearby Flying Fish Point.

They travelled much lower in the water than the Indo-pacific humpback dolphins and were extremely hard to photograph as I was always trying to guess where they would surface.

Snubfin dolphins have a distinct fin as can be seen in the photos below which were taken by Australian coastal dolphin Expert Dr Guido Parra.
Of course the second photograph by Dr Parra compares the dorsal fins of the two species quite nicely. These two dolphin species are known to travel together as they both live and hunt in similar shallow coastal habitats.

Here are some photos of the pair of Snubfin dolphins I saw at Ella Bay.
As I said the photos were difficult as the Snubfin dolphins seemed shy and travelled very low in the water.

I marked the location using my GPS unit as all my dolphin sightings are recorded and sent to Marine Wildlife Australia. MWA President, Blanche Danastas has a very strong interest in both of these coastal dolphins and also in Ella Bay.

Marine biologist Blanche Danastes says “The food rich shallow waters of Ella Bay and the bay’s close proximity to the Johnstone River make Ella Bay an optimum habitat for these two rare dolphin species.”

Before I forget here is a map showing where I spotted the dolphins!
Click on image for a larger view.

Finding Snubfin dolphins at Ella Bay is very exciting as they were only described by scientists as a distinct new Australian species in 2005 less than 5 years ago!

The World Wildlife Fund state in their fact sheet on this species
“Coastal and river dolphins are among the most threatened species of mammal in the world.”


“Recent research in North Queensland by Dr Guido Parra has shown that coastal dolphins are vulnerable to human activities in and around coastal areas. Bycatch, marine debris, habitat alteration, pollution and climate change may threaten our coastal dolphins.

Bycatch is the accidental capture of non-target fish and other marine animals. It has been revealed as one of the greatest global threats facing dolphins, porpoises, and whales. For coastal and estuarine species such as the Australian snubfin, coastal net fisheries are likely to pose a particular threat of entanglement and drowning.

Loss of habitat and damage of remaining habitat is linked to increased human activity in marine and coastal environments. Poorly planned coastal development, and a significant increase in the number of users of coastal areas, may drive away the dolphins that would normally live in the coastal waters of northern Australia.”
That last sentence really hits it on the head for me with regards to Ella Bay and Coastal dolphin species.

Let’s look at that again!
“Poorly planned coastal development, and a significant increase in the number of users of coastal areas, may drive away the dolphins that would normally live in the coastal waters of northern Australia.”
5000 people pushed into Ella Bay with associated increased marine traffic, stinger nets and potential pollution/silt/fertiliser runoff from the development and its golf course certainly couldn’t make this place better for this listed rare species. The WWF have made it pretty clear that massive coastal property developments are something this species does not need.
Marine Wildlife Australia have put together some terrific information on this species that can be downloaded here.

Marine Biologist Blanche Danastas has put in many hours of hard work to raise the profile of Coastal dolphin species and a visit to The Marine Wildlife Australia website is worthwhile if you want to learn a little about coastal dolphins!

It is interesting to note that the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) have also said similar thing about Snubfin dolphins on their web site. DERM have stated
“Known threats to the Australian snubfin dolphin are incidental capture from netting, especially gill nets and the nets set as part of the Queensland Shark Control Program. Suspected threats in Queensland include prey depletion due to over fishing, inshore pollution and habitat destruction arising from coastal development. Noise, interference and collisions from boat and jet ski activity may also injure these dolphins or interfere with their natural behaviour.”
Innisfail in North Queensland is very lucky to be home to both of these rare and special coastal dolphin species. From what I’m reading on the internet it would appear that known snubfin dolphin populations further north around the Cairns Inlet are probably ecologically extinct.

The future for these two rare dolphin species will most likely not be very pretty if Ella Bay Pty Ltd obtains approval to build their resort complex/massive urban development in this bay.

I’m sure Ella Bay’s rare coastal dolphins will not be lining up on the beach to greet 5000 new residents in this bay.

Before I go here is a video of these magnificent dolphins for you to watch while you ponder their future in the shallow waters of Ella Bay.

Cheers Russ


  1. How exciting to see two rare dolphin species. It's interesting that they're traveling together. Sounds like you face some threats to this beautiful place. Good luck with that.

  2. 2 listed rare coastal dolphin species in one day was a bonus!Both of these coastal dolphin species feed in shallow coastal waters near major river mouths which makes Ella Bay ideal habitat and obviously they know how to share!Worldwide, coastal and river dolphins are in trouble due to the fact that their coastal habitat is used and abused so extensively by our species. Thanks for your comments Liz!

  3. Russell, about a week ago we saw a pod of about 6 or more Indo-Pacific dolphins swim past our place. They were headed to the Ella Bay area. What a joy!! We were so excited to have seen them. There even appeared to be a baby amongst them.

    I will be on the look-out now for the other variety you mentioned. Unusual little fin like that will make them easier to identfy.

    Thanks for a very informative post.


  4. Hey that's great Amanda.
    Indo-pacific humpback dolphins are usually found within 20 km of river mouths so Flying Fish Point and Ella Bay are perfectly situated.
    I once saw a single snubfin fin surface at the esplanade along the rockwall at FFP but was not 100% satisfied with the sighting and got no photographs.
    I'm glad that the post is helping you with identifying these dolphins!


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