Sometimes to see some of the oceans most elusive animals, you need to take to the skies.
Off the coast of Fujairah, a team of scientists conducting an aerial survey were surprised to spot a species never before recorded in the country’s waters: the rough-toothed dolphin.
The marine mammals are one of the larger species of dolphins typically found in deep tropical waters and are identified by their conical heads and slender noses.
They were spotted some 40 miles east of Fujairah Port just under a month ago.
“The discovery of rough-toothed dolphins adds to the list of new records for the country, with striped dolphins and spotted dolphins having been discovered during boat surveys last year,” said Robert Baldwin, a marine scientist and managing director of Five Oceans.
The organisation is working with Al Mayya Sanctuary in co-operation with Fujairah Port to map marine diversity in the East-coast emirate.
A helicopter was employed to fly systematic aerial survey lines across Fujairah’s offshore waters for three days. The data – which includes population numbers, behaviour and diversity - forms part of the Fujairah Whale and Dolphin Research Project.
“The team encountered groups of marine mammals on 18 separate occasions over the three days of surveys, including several species of dolphins,” said Mr Baldwin.
“The most numerous were active pods of bottlenose dolphins and long-beaked common dolphins which were mostly seen offshore, but were also found in shallower waters closer to shore.”
The rough-toothed dolphins were spotted among a pod of bottlenose dolphins.
“We saw 10 or 20 in a mixed group with bottlenose dolphins,” said Andrew Willson, a marine scientist from Five Oceans. “I think they are rarely seen mostly because very few people are looking for them, they tend to live in deep waters far from shore.”
Mr Willson said that one of the primary drivers of habitat preference for all these species is food availability.
“Like other species, they are probably in Fujairah to take advantage of the relatively rich and productive waters here where they find their prey,” he said.
Pods of up to 200 individuals were recorded during the survey including the largest species to be called “dolphin”, the Risso’s dolphin – which can weigh between 300 and 500kgs.
But the Risso’s dolphins weren’t the largest marine animal the team has spotted.
On Wednesday, they sighted a large group of sperm whales in Dibba.
Live sperm whales were documented off the coast of the Emirate over twenty years ago when both solitary males and a pod of females were sighted due east of the Port of Fujairah.
The sightings are significant because they can be used as a valuable metric of measuring the seas health.
The stranding of an adult sperm whale in 2012, and more recent video footage shared on social media of juvenile sperms whales off the Emirate confirms their continued presence in the area.
The sperm whale is by far the largest of the toothed cetaceans, comparable in size to some of the baleen whales.
Male sperm whales reach a length of at least 16 metres and are considerably larger than females, which average under 10 metres in length.
Last June, a sperm whale measuring 20 metres was found dead off the coast of Fujairah but was too decomposed to identify the cause of death.
Aerial surveys, coupled with other research techniques, will allow for an informed estimation of population parameters and offers the potential for monitoring the status and long-term trends in marine mammals.
“Other methods that the team will be using include vessel-based surveys to collect photographic and acoustic data, including for use in photo-identification studies, as well as the collection of tissue samples for future analysis of DNA to build a genetic profile of the marine mammals of Fujairah,” said Mr Baldwin
The research project aims to build a picture that will help the team evaluate not just the scientific status and conservation needs of marine mammals but also their potential value to the tourism industry and the education of current and future generations.
“Research projects established in areas where tours exist often provide a good platform to help promote responsible practices within the industry and ultimately provide tourists with a more rewarding interesting educational experience,” Mr Balwin said.
The project is being funded by the office of Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Sharqi, Crown Prince of Fujairah. The team's activities can be followed via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter social media channels.