25 Sep Dugong, Whale or Dolphin? Learning About Marine Mammal Hotspots in Maluku, North Maluku, and West Papua

The word cetacean is used to describe a subset of marine mammals, specifically whales, dolphins and porpoises. Many people have never heard the word cetacean before. But, when it comes to whale or dolphin watching, most of us imagine majestic creatures, smart dolphins, whales logging or breaching beautifully and magical photos and stories to take home of pristine scenery. 

However, cetaceans are challenging to study since they are tricky to find, difficult to follow, and they spend most of their lifetime below the water’s surface. As one of the top ocean predators, cetaceans play an essential role in maintaining ecosystems, their presence often indicating a healthy marine environment. Due to their importance, cetaceans and their habitat are protected under the National Action Plan to Conserve Cetaceans.

To support the national policy, through USAID SEA Project, Coral Triangle Center (CTC) and APEX Environmental conducted a Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) for cetaceans in the Banda and Ceram Seas during three field campaigns, in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The REA confirmed that the Banda and Ceram Seas are critical habitats for cetacean species. The outcomes of this assessment can be used as input for the government to manage and integrate cetacean conservation in MPAs. 

However, most MPA stakeholders in Maluku, North Maluku and West Papua provinces do not have adequate information about cetaceans in their area, and do not have the capacity to conduct REAs. Therefore, CTC together with APEX Environmental and support from USAID SEA Project conducted a Cetacean Conservation Workshop on 23-25 September 2019 to raise awareness and build skills in cetacean monitoring for MPA stakeholders in Maluku, North Maluku and West Papua Provinces.

Thirty-one people participated, with representatives from 26 different institutions from the local community level to the provincial and national government. Participants expressed their keen interest in learning and were actively involved in the learning process. La Nafsahu Idrus, member of the community-based marine and fisheries surveillance group (Pokmaswas) from Waisum, North Maluku, pointed out locations on the map and told a story about the dolphins coming back to that area every morning. He asked “why such an event happens, is this area defined as cetacean corridor?” Benjamin Kahn, a cetacean expert from APEX Environmental, explained that these locations can be critical habitats for dolphins, as nursery and feeding areas.

Early the next day all participants gathered in the field, ready for fieldwork at sea. Participatory fieldwork and at-sea training were conducted to build capacity and skills for team members, through materials on how to find cetaceans at sea, boat handling skills for minimal disturbance observations, species identification, as well as survey methods and photo identification were explained. During the fieldwork, participants were able to practice information gained in the training, as well as hands-on experience on conducting REAs. 

The survey was started from Tulehu port to Nusa Laut, Saparua, and Haruku. It was quite a cloudy day when the boat set out. However, around 30 minutes later, the sun came up and was shining brightly. Soon one of the participants with binoculars shouted out to the others, spotting a whale breaching about 300m from our boat. The captain adjusted the speed, and we observed the whale and went through observation lists to identify species, i.e. size, dorsal fin, beak/nose/head shape, colour pattern/colouration, group size and behaviour, and took photos for our records.

By the end of the day, a total of five individuals from two cetacean species, blue whale and pygmy blue whale, were positively identified during six sightings. These species have never before been studied in this area. Through this workshop, we built on the field training techniques and skills for marine monitoring teams and trained at least two MPA stakeholders in Maluku, North Maluku and West Papua in REAs. A significant outcome from this training is an increase in support to protect marine biodiversity, specifically cetacean species as well as to assist the Maluku, North Maluku, and West Papua governments with the integration of critical marine habitats within a provincial network of MPAs.

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