Dolphin Watch

Reporter: Jasmine Homer

These are the city slickers of the dolphin world.Hugh Finn says "It's a small community of dolphins, they're resident so they've spent their whole lives here, they go between the river and the estuary so they're quite a unique group of animals."

They share the Swan River with us, and sometimes, they come off second best. Dr Hugh Finn - yes, his surname is finn - heads up a team of researchers studying the relationship between the river and the dolphins' health. "The best thing we can do for them is to make their lives as easy as possible, in other words reduce our effect on them."

We're out on the research boat. A new calf has been spotted, we're hoping to catch a glimpse.Hugh, do you still get a buzz out of seeing each one come up? "Yeah they're like little miracles. The fact that there's this amazing intelligence that's lived out on the water for several decades some of them are older than I am."

When six dolphins were found dead two years ago - sick and diseased - alarm bells started ringing about the state of the river.

"The virus that affected the dolphins in 2009 and ultimately caused those deaths makes their immune systems more vulnerable to a whole range of pathogens." Dr Kelly Traylor is chief scientist at the Swan River Trust. "The river system is under an element of stress. It's an urban estuary draining a large agricultural catchment and so there are inherant water quality issues associated with a river like this and that can then affect the wildlife living within the system."

Dr Finn and his team are still trying to work out if the dolphin population has recovered, or if it ever will. This is how they identify and track each dolphin.

"As they grow up they get a set of nicks and cuts and scrapes mostly from other dolphins but sometimes from sharks. We'll use names like highnitch or two rakes, the markings they have on their fins. But they're like a fin print, you can tell who they are." Dr Finn has published his research on the Internet so anyone can be an expert. This is "Fin Book".

"It's an instrument where people can get to know their local dolphins and I think that's what we'd all like to do is have people look at them as neighbours."It's exhilarating, but now dolphin watching is more important than ever. Every one of these sightings is helping researchers to gradually piece together a picture of how the remaining population is holding up.

Jenny's a "Dolphin Watch" volunteer - one of 200 pairs of eyes out on the water when researchers can't be there. "What kind of information do you store in your head to pass on to the researchers Jenny? It's important to know the time that I see them, I like to keep the closest landmark so that I can say to them I saw them just close to this marina for instance.Particularly they're looking for the behaviour of the dolphins, they're looking to see whether the dolphins are feeding or whether they're just socialising with each other, whether they're perhaps leaping out of the water."

"We have a huge amount of data that's come through from dolphin watch, we have over a thousand observations now." Murdoch University's Dr Chandra Salgado. "We're building these statistical models that will tell us where the dolphins occur, and how that changes over the seasons so we'll be able to predict that."

Now, back to our dolphin watching and we're told that somewhere in amongst this writhing mass of playing dolphins, is the new calf. Here's a better look. He or she is probably around three weeks old. The newest addition to river dolphin family. Kelly Traylor says "It's fantastic to see those females with new calves bringing those calves in to the system

teaching those calves about the system but we've got to remember that those calves are the most vulnerable of all because they won't have the long term immunity to things like the morbillivirus and so they're going to be susceptible to stresses in the system."

Hugh Finn says "What we learnt from the deaths in 2009 is that it's actually changes in human behaviours and activities and the way we interact with dolphins that is really the most important thing and working towards having a healthy swan river for the long term so that our kids can enjoy dolphins I think that's the most important thing."

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