Coastal dolphins and marine megafauna in Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia: informing conservation management actions in an area under increasing human pressure

Kate Sprogis, Guido J. Parra

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Context: Exmouth Gulf is adjacent to the Ningaloo Marine Park, a UNESCO-listed area in Western Australia. The gulf remains largely unprotected, and is under increasing anthropogenic pressure from proposed industrial activities that pose threats to marine megafauna inhabiting the gulf. Threatened and near threatened species, such as the Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis) and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus), reside in the gulf; however, detailed information on their ecology and behaviour is lacking.

Aims: The aim was to (1) provide baseline data on the distribution, encounter rate, group size and behaviour of coastal dolphins over an area where current industrial developments are proposed, and (2) report on the occurrence of other marine megafauna within this area.

Methods: Boat-based photo-identification surveys were conducted on the western coastline of Exmouth Gulf along pre-determined line transects (150 km2) over austral autumn/winter 2021.

Key results: Across 809.35 km of surveyed waters (181 h), a total of 93 bottlenose dolphin, 15 humpback dolphin, and six interspecific dolphin groups were sighted. Bottlenose dolphin groups were encountered at a rate of 0.077/km, humpback dolphin groups at 0.015/km and interspecific dolphin groups at 0.005/km. Dolphins were predominantly recorded in shallow (mean 10 m) and warm (mean 21°C) waters, and were commonly travelling and foraging. In total, 199 individual bottlenose dolphins and 48 humpback dolphins were photo-identified (excluding calves). There were 30 bottlenose dolphin calves (including three newborns) and four humpback dolphin calves (including two newborns) identified. Other marine megafauna group sightings included humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae; n = 32), southern right whales (Eubalaena australis, n = 1), dugongs (Dugong dugon, n = 25), turtles (n = 54), sea snakes (n = 27), manta rays (Mobula alfredi, n = 13) and sharks (n = 2).

Conclusions: The presence of threatened marine species feeding, socialising, and resting highlights the importance of these waters for the identified species.

Implications: The information provided is applicable for the spatial management and conservation efforts of these species, and aids in informing environmental impact assessments of individual and cumulative pressures.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
JournalWildlife Research
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Oct 2022


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