Dolphin ID Project

dolphin safari Marine Savers Maldives

Spinner dolphins

During our guest dolphin cruises, we have started to take photographs of the cetaceans we encounter, to use for identification purposes. We take as many photos as possible at each encounter, especially on the calm, clear days.

We use only high quality photographs (correct angle, sharpness, lighting) for the identification process, but we do keep the lower quality images of any marked fins to use for future comparisons. Re-sightings are recorded in an excel sheet and the photos added to the individual dolphin’s collection. Periodically, we look through our archive of old photos to look for possible matches and re-sightings, and to remove any poor quality or indistinguishable images.

Guest excursion – dolphin spotting (0848)
FB – Dolphins

Taking good ID shots can be challenging under the variable conditions onboard (sun’s position, choppy sea) and it’s often not possible to angle the shot perpendicular to the dolphin’s body (to see the full outline of the dorsal fin). On average, out of 100 photographs taken, only 30 are good for analysis.

Dolphin dorsal fin ID photos Marine Savers Maldives
Dolphin identification project Marine Savers Maldives (0312)

We photograph close-ups of dolphin dorsal fins
to record and identify the unique patterns

The photographs of the dorsal fin are cropped and analysed using image-matching software (we are trialling Darwin’ at Kuda Huraa and I3S ‘Interactive Individual Identification System’ at Landaa Giraavaru).
Dolphins can be identified individually based on the notches, scars and markings present on their dorsal fin. Small wounds are known to heal within months, while large wounds caused by predation attempts or human impacts tend to persist (Lockyer & Morris, 1990 [PDF]). As missing tissue does not regenerate, dorsal fin mutilations are permanent marks that can be used for identification purposes.

Dolphin ID Bottlenose Marine Savers Maldives (IMGP1326)

Bottlenose Dolphins

We have created photographic databases for each of the four most commonly sighted Cetacean species in Maldives:

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostri) are by far the most commonly encountered Cetacean species in Maldivian waters. They are usually observed in pods of 40 to 100 individuals, exhibiting active and social behaviours including playing in the wake behind the boat and showing off their acrobatic skills (jumping, spinning, porpoising and bow-riding). They are the only species to actually spin in the air whilst jumping.
Young calves (30-90cm length) are often seen swimming alongside their protective mothers, and on some occasions even practising their jumping and spinning skills. Spinner dolphins are difficult to identify individually as most have “clean” dorsal fins with a smooth outline, lacking any distinct markings.

Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates and T.aduncus) are larger than Spinners, and often have more identifiable scars. They live and travel in much smaller family groups (even individually). Bottlenose are the most common species globally, and they have more fat so they can live in colder waters. They are sometimes seen jumping from the water, but never spin.
There are 2 different species sighted in Maldives – the ‘Common Bottlenose’ (Tursiops truncates) and the ‘Indo-Pacific Bottlenose’ (Tursiops aduncus), both very similar in appearance and difficult to tell part (‘Common’ is larger and found worldwide).

Dolphin safari – Marine Savers Maldives (2) 16×9

Baby Spinner dolphin

False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are sighted seasonally in the Maldives, and are not so common. They can reach around 6 metres in length, although cold water populations have more fat insulation making them larger and heavier. They are usually sighted in family groups of 10-20 members (occasionally in huge groups of 500+) and often have uniquely identifying scars.
The mother is head of the group (‘matrifocal’ family structure) compared to pilot whales where the father plays a more important role.

Short-finned pilot whales (Globiocephala macrorhynchus) are sighted in family groups of around 15-30 members, but they will often migrate larger distances in groups of 100+. Here in the Maldives, pilot whales are often seen travelling together with pods of dolphins. Their large size and fat insulation means they can live in colder waters, and they often have many scars which makes for easier identification of individuals.
They were named ‘pilot’ whales as they follow a leader, and sometimes if that leader becomes sick or disoriented, the whole pod can end up stranding on a beach.

Dolphin safari – Marine Savers Maldives (2) 16×9

False killer whales

Dolphin Diary 2018

JUNE

A total of 2500 Spinners (during 17 cruises at Kuda Huraa) and 450 Spinners (5 cruises at Landaa Giraavaru) were sighted, along with several small pods of Bottlenose dolphins and False killer whales. Dolphin calves were commonly seen, and the Spinners actively interacted with our boats on most of the excursions. The largest pod was an estimated 800 Spinners, whereas the smallest was a pod of 5 Bottlenose.
We were able to add 25 new Spinner dolphins into our ID database, and recorded one positive re-sighting (‘Amber’ from 22 April) bringing the total to 47 uniquely identified individuals.

JULY

Over the 13 dolphin cruises at Landaa this month, we recorded 480 Spinners (10 to 200 per pod) and 100 Bottlenose (4 to 40 per pod). This yielded the positive identification of two new Bottlenose dolphins, and the possible re-sightings of two Bottlenose and one Spinner.

At Kuda Huraa, we arranged 14 cruises and were able to record 1685 Spinners (20 to 250 per pod) but zero Bottlenose dolphins. We now have a total of 99 uniquely identified Spinner dolphins.

Dolphin identification project Marine Savers Maldives (0125)

Spinner dolphin

AUGUST

During August, we recorded 830 Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostri) around Kuda Huraa, plus 250 Spinners and 33 Bottlenose dolphins at Landaa Giraavaru. This resulted in six Spinners and five Bottlenose being uniquely identified and newly added to our database, plus possible re-sightings of a further 12 individuals.

SEPTEMBER

September was a good month for cetacean sightings, with encounters lasting 10-50 minutes and comprising:
– 2000 Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostri) in pods of 10-300, usually with calves,
– 22 Bottlenose Dolphins (1-10 individuals),
– 50 Pilot Whales.

34 new Spinner dolphins were successfully identified as unique individuals due to their characteristic fin shapes.

We also have successfully re-sighted over 40 individuals, including:
– ‘Becky’ – re-sighted three times in the past month, and
– ‘Snow’ – multiple re-sightings, and easy to ID due to a condition called leucism, the loss of skin pigmentation. (Not to be confused with albinism, the complete absence of pigmentation causing white skin and pink/red eyes).

OCTOBER

At Kuda Huraa, we recorded 1870 Spinners in pods of 20-300 individuals, plus a single pod of 25 Bottlenose. Calves were sighted during all the trips.
A total of 21 new Spinner dolphins were uniquely identified and added to our Dolphin ID database, and we made successful re-sightings of two individuals.

At Landaa Giraavaru, we recorded 525 cetaceans, comprising:
– 475 Spinners (pods of 10-150 individuals),
– 9 Bottlenose,
– 10 Pilot whales,
– and amazingly, 22 Sperm whales near Reethi Beach!

A total of 3 new Bottlenose and 4 new Spinner dolphins were individually identified and added to our database, along with confirmed re-sightings of 1 Bottlenose and 7 individual Spinners.

Dolphin 'Snow' with leucism Marine Savers Maldives

‘Snow’

NOVEMBER

 At Kuda Huraa, 1280 Spinners were sighted in total, plus 1 pod of approximately 50 Short-fin pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) that were travelling with a pod of 100 Spinners. From our collection of photographs, we were able to uniquely identify 35 new Spinners and confirm 22 re-sightings.

At Landaa, 380 dolphins were recorded – 250 Spinners (in pods of 10 – 150 individuals) and 130 Bottlenose (10 – 60 individuals). 4 new Bottlenose and 3 new Spinners were uniquely identified, plus 1 Bottlenose was confirmed as a re-sighting.

DECEMBER

At Kuda Huraa, 860 Spinners were recorded for the month, in pods of between 20 to 150 individuals, with encounters lasting from 21 to 41 minutes. From our photographs, 14 new Spinners were uniquely identified (current database total now 137 individuals) with a further 20 dolphins confirmed as resightings this month (now totalling 247).

At Landaa, we conducted 11 dolphin cruises plus one private excursion, with an estimated 778 dolphins recorded, comprising 755 Spinners (pods of 30 to 150 individuals) and 23 Bottlenose (pods of 3 to 20). From our photographs, we were able to uniquely identify 1 new Bottlenose, and confirm a resighting of 1 Spinner.

During 2018, we conducted a total of 175 dolphin cruises (82% success rate) at Landaa, recording a total of 6,800 Cetaceans (mostly Spinners, with frequent Bottlenose and occasional Pilot whales, Risso dolphins and Sperm whales).

Spinner dolphins leaping Marine Savers Maldives

Spinners (above) and Bottlenose (below)

Spinner dolphins leaping Marine Savers Maldives

Dolphin Diary 2019

JANUARY

At Landaa Giraavaru, we sighted 525 Spinner dolphins (in pods of 20 – 140 individuals) and 45 Bottlenose (15-30 individuals) across 9 dolphin cruises.

At Kuda Huraa, we recorded 905 Spinners (in pods of up to 200 individuals) and one pod of short-finned pilot whales across 16 dolphin cruises.

From the photographs we took on the excursions, we were unable to positively identify any new individuals, however 7 dolphins were confirmed as re-sightings.

FEBRUARY

At Landaa, we conducted 11 cruises during the month, and recorded an estimated 500 dolphins in total (30 Bottlenose and 470 Spinners).

At Kuda Huraa, we conducted 15 cruises and sighted 450 individual Spinners (pods of 3 to 70 individuals), during encounters that lasted from 9 to 41 minutes in duration.

No new individuals were uniquely identified, but we will keep the monthly photographs for future referencing.

MARCH

At Landaa Giraavaru, we conducted 12 dolphin cruises during the month, and cetaceans were successfully spotted on each trip. We estimated the numbers to be approximately 870 Spinners (in pods of 50-150 individuals) and 55 Bottlenose dolphins (25-30 individuals) in encounters lasting 30-45 minutes.

After trialling i3s software, we have started to switch over to Darwin cetacean ID software for better accuracy and easier comparisons with Kuda Huraa. We are working through our database, tidying up the data and images over the next few months.

At Kuda Huraa this month, we conducted 17 cruises and recorded sightings of 575 Spinner dolphins (in pods of 25-50 individuals) with encounters lasting 20-53 minutes. On 24 March, we were excited to spot a pod of around 25 Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus), which are rarely seen (our last recorded sighting was May 2016).

From our ID photographs, we positively identified 7 new Spinner dolphin individuals, and confirmed re-sightings of 20 individuals already entered in our database. Additionally, 5 of the Risso’s dolphins displayed sufficiently marked dorsal fin patterns to be uniquely entered as the first Risso’s in our database.

Dolphin ID - SL135 'Circle' re-sighted Marine Savers Maldives

‘Circle’ [SL135] re-sighting, January 2019

Dolphin ID - SL135 'Circle' re-sighted Marine Savers Maldives

Dorsal fins for our database, February 2019

Dolphin ID - SL135 'Circle' re-sighted Marine Savers Maldives

Spinner dolphin, close to Kuda Huraa, February 2019

Dolphin ID - SL135 'Circle' re-sighted Marine Savers Maldives

A rare sight in the Maldives ! Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) spotted near Kuda Huraa, March 2019

APRIL

At Landaa, we conducted 11 dolphin excursions this month, sighting 460 Spinners (with encounters lasting between 2 and 60 minutes) plus 60 Bottlenose (5 to 45 minute encounters).

At Kuda Huraa, we recorded 710 Spinners over 16 excursions, in pods ranging from 15 to 100 individuals, and during encounters lasting from 10 to 40 minutes. We experienced very calm seas with good visibility this month, meaning the smaller calves were easily sighted on 15 of the 16 trips.

From our photographs, we were able to positively identify 5 new Spinner dolphin individuals this month, and confirmed a further 13 positive re-sightings of dolphins already in our database.

MAY

At Landaa, we held 9 dolphin excursions and sighted 325 Spinners, during encounter times of 5 to 45 minutes (lower than average). On one trip, we also sighted a pod of 10 Pilot whales.

Analysing our sightings data from the past 12 months, we have determined that cetaceans are more commonly sighted during the morning cruises than around sunset.

We have now completed importing all the sightings and photographic data into our Darwin ID software database. Recorded sightings of uniquely identified individual dolphins now totals 79 Spinners (100 sightings) and 68 Bottlenose (92 sightings).

At Kuda Huraa, we held 16 dolphin excursions and recorded a total of 915 dolphins, in pods of between 10 to 100 individuals, and usually with calves. Unusually (and excitingly!) we had 3 separate encounters with pods of Risso’s dolphins, which are rarely seen. We snapped plenty of shots of the Risso’s and hope to be able to identify individuals within the pods in the future.

From our ID photographs, we were able to uniquely identify 9 new Spinner dolphins, plus confirmed resightings of 27 individuals. Our current database now totals 162 Spinners (with 343 recorded sightings in total).

Dolphin ID – resighting of Bella (SL091) [KH 2019.04]
Dolphin ID project dorsal fin analysis and database [LG 2019.03]
Dolphin ID – resighting of Bella (SL091) [KH 2019.04]

Above: Resighting of Bella (SL091)
Below: shots of Risso’s dolphins

Dolphin ID – resighting of Bella (SL091) [KH 2019.04]
Dolphin ID – resighting of Bella (SL091) [KH 2019.04]
Dolphin ID - SL135 'Circle' re-sighted Marine Savers Maldives

Database software for our Dolphin identification project (Maldives)

Cetacean Sightings Around the Maldives

Big thanks to our fellow Cetacean fans, for posting these rare and exciting sightings to social media for us all to enjoy ! 🙂

Spinner dolphin 'Ekko'

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