Humpback dolphins: Researchers track vulnerable species in Moreton Bay off Brisbane

Humpback dolphins: Researchers track vulnerable species in Moreton Bay off Brisbane

Humpback dolphins: Researchers track vulnerable species in Moreton Bay off Brisbane

Updated 9 July 2017, 13:25 AEST

A team of researchers is snapping photos in Moreton Bay of one of Australia's little-known mammals, the humpback dolphin, in order to find out more about the animal amid a $1.3 billion harbour development proposal.

A team of researchers is tracking one of Australia's most vulnerable dolphin species off Brisbane's coast to find out more about the animal, amid plans for a $1.3 billion development proposal to build Toondah Harbour at the southern end of Moreton Bay.

In the pristine waters of Moreton Bay on Brisbane's doorstep, Dr Liz Hawkins is monitoring the Australian humpback dolphin population.

It is not long before a small pod is spotted just off North Stradbroke Island.

"They actually look like they might change their behaviour at this point," Dr Hawkins yells out to her fellow researcher.

She takes photos of the dolphins, identifying them by markings on their dorsal fins, as part of a large survey of the area.

"We had about two mothers with their young calves, which were probably just under six months old, and we have just finished following two adult males," Dr Hawkins said.

The species is one of Australia's most little-known and vulnerable mammals.

Dolphin Research Australia (DRA) is trying to get a clearer picture of just how healthy the population is in Moreton Bay and the impact human activity is having on it.

Project relies heavily on volunteers

Now in its fourth year, the project started when there was an increase in dolphin deaths following the Brisbane floods.

The project relies heavily on volunteers and citizen science.

Nineteen-year-old volunteer Lila Szweda, who is from America, is taking part in the research for a second year.

She said she truly believed the population could be helped.

"I think this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and I am so lucky and fortunate to get to go out on expeditions," Ms Szweda said.

"You get an immense feeling of respect for these animals and the communities they engage with."

The Moreton Bay humpback dolphin population is estimated to be about 130 — a small size for mammals.

There are concerns coastal development, human activity and increased pollutant loads put the dolphins at risk.

Volunteer boating officer Glenn Sanders said he believed the conservation aspect of the project was extremely important.

As a skipper, he wants people to be aware of what marine life is in the water.

"We do have a lot of wildlife in the water, so maintaining a safe speed and a good look to take evasive action when necessary when these guys are around is really important," Mr Sanders said.

Dr Hawkins said she was particularly worried about the health status of Australia's humpback dolphin.

In northern waters around Australia there are thought to be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals.

"They are actually under quite a lot of pressure from many different human activities and anthropogenic effects in this region." Dr Hawkins said.

It is a concern shared by researchers in Western Australia, where scientists are still trying to map the distribution of humpback dolphins.

In May, a team at the Dampier Archipelago off WA's Pilbara coast used drones to count pods and record their behaviour.

Plan for $1.3 billion Toondah Harbour development

In Brisbane, a $1.3 billion proposal to build Toondah Harbour at the southern end of Moreton Bay would see mudflats reclaimed to make way for residential buildings to cater for up to 6,000 people.

It also includes a new port facility and a 200-berth marina at the southern end of Moreton Bay.

Dr Hawkins said it was too early to know the impact the project would have on the population.

"When we only really have a small population, those impacts can be exemplified and we don't know truly what it will do to our population, if we do end up with large-scale coastal developments in this area," Dr Hawkins said.

"If you do see an animal in the bay, you are looking at a dolphin that calls this place home.

"They'll have a little bedroom, kitchen, and it is really important for us to protect this area and make sure that our dolphins here remain healthy and strong for many future generations to come."

Toondah Harbour's developer, Walker Group Holdings (WGH), said it was currently waiting to receive the terms of reference for the environmental impact assessment, after Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg decided last month the project would proceed to the next stage.

WGH general manager of Queensland development Peter Saba said he looked forward to working with groups like Dolphin Research Australia throughout that process.

"The project must proceed through several stages before development can commence," Mr Saba said.

The dolphin study is being conducted in collaboration with the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.