The Dreamlike Beauty of Dolphins Captured on Camera by Red Sea Divers

Diver with dolphins
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Divers Ulf Marquardt, Angela Ziltener and Michael Stadermann surround a Hurghada dolphin.

Dolphins are intelligent, playful and social animals that are popular with holidaymakers. Around the world, tourists can enjoy experiences like dolphin watching and swimming with the loveable marine mammals. The city of Hurghada in the Red Sea Governorate of Egypt is famous for its dolphin-watching tours, which offer visitors the opportunity to observe and even interact with the local dolphins. However, while these activities may be fun for the humans involved, there are those who question the impact they have on the dolphins themselves.

Photographing dolphins
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Michael Stadermann works hard to keep up with a group of dolphins.

In October 2009, Angela Ziltener, a biologist from the University of Zurich, filmmaker Michael Stadermann, and experienced dive instructor Sandra Caramelle founded the Dolphin Watch project. Dolphin Watch aims to film and research dolphins in order to help with dolphin conservation as well as to create guidelines for tourist activities around the Hurghada area of the Red Sea.

Dolphins and diver
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Dolphin Watch’s Michael Stadermann and Angela Ziltener follow a group of dolphins.

These amazing photographs are part of a series called “Adopted by Dolphins,” by underwater photographer Natalia Pryanishnikova, who recorded Dolphin Watch divers at work. The Dolphin Watch team also plans to release a children’s television series about the dolphins that is filmed from the perspective of a female Indo-Pacific dolphin named Ferdinand. So far, they have already racked up over 200 hours of video on Ferdinand and her group. Filming dolphins underwater requires some pretty specific skills – being able to swim fast, for one.

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Smiling for the camera
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Michael Stadermann gets a close-up of two dolphins.

A lot of the dolphins around Hurghada belong to the Indo-Pacific bottlenose species, which is indigenous to the waters off the eastern coast of Africa, northern Australia, India, South China, and, of course, the Red Sea. The species is not as big as the common bottlenose dolphin and has a longer rostrum (its beak-like mouth). The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin also has spots on its side and belly.

Dolphins on ocean floor
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Dolphins swimming near the ocean floor

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Some of the more specific data being collected by project workers pertains to the population size of the dolphins in Hurghada – whose habitats they favor for activities like calving, feeding and resting – as well as more general dolphin behavioral observation. The researchers are also interested in how tourism disrupts the dolphins’ natural habitat.

Dolphins and diver
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Angela Ziltener films two dolphins interacting.

Fanus West is a well-known dive site north of Hurghada with a bustling coral reef. The reef is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins use the area for resting during the day, and they also interact with visiting divers. However, the divers don’t concern Dolphin Watch as much as tourist boats and the vessels that bring the divers to the spot.

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Pair of dolphins being photographed
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Michael Stadermann films two dolphins.

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Boats bring sightseers to the lagoon to see the dolphins and immediately hone in on any that are spotted. Little consideration is given to keeping a safe distance, and occasionally the dolphins are even hit by the approaching boats. Tour guides use food to lure the dolphins closer to the craft, where large numbers of tourists jump into the water to get a closer look.

Dolphins dancing
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
According to Pryanishnikova, dolphins love to be filmed – but they always have an eye on the camera.

One of the main problems with watching dolphins close up is noise pollution, which may play havoc with the mammals’ echolocation. Another negative is that the added stress of the boats and tourists could diminish the dolphins’ resting time, thereby negatively affecting their health. Then there’s the threat of death or injury posed by accidental boat collisions.

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Dolphins in blue sea
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Dolphins playfully outrun a group of swimmers.

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Studies in other locations have shown that dolphins alter their behavior when there are too many boats around. For example, in Japan, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins have been observed shifting their whistles to lower frequencies in areas of higher ambient noise. Meanwhile, in Jervis Bay, Australia, dolphins have been known to change their swimming direction to move away from powerboats, returning to their original course when the boats are gone.

Dolphin and baby
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Swimming lessons

The Hurghada Dolphin Watch project is sponsored by the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), which is a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting the natural environment of the Red Sea and encouraging sustainable tourism in the region. Describing Dolphin Watch, the HEPCA website states, “With film material of more than 200 hours and continuous video taping and photo identification, ‘Dolphin Watch’ will be able to investigate the social structure and the social networks of local animals for long-term studies.”

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Pair of dolphins swimming close together
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Swimming cheek to cheek

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The star of Dolphin Watch’s footage, Ferdinand, was injured in a shark attack that left her with wounds on her dorsal fin and the left side of her body. Owing to her injuries, Ferdinand became something of an outcast from her fellow dolphins. So, she turned to humans instead, swimming with them and staying close to the Dolphin Watch boat.

freediver with dolphin
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Sandra Caramelle freedives with a wild dolphin.

Fortunately, Ferdinand eventually healed and was able to rejoin her group of dolphins. Ferdinand is not the only dolphin to bond with the team, either. Divers became familiar with other individual dolphins and with the group as a whole, and this allowed them to get close enough to document the dolphins’ behavior.

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dolphins
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Wild Hurghada dolphins swim towards the surface.

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This close proximity allowed divers to document the animals’ physical health, reproductive state and gender, as well as any distinctive markings they might have. Photographs were taken of each dolphin’s dorsal fin – and identifying individual dolphins this way is crucial to studying the animals’ behavior and place within their environment and social group.

Dolphin swimming to the surface
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Light streams from the surface as this dolphin swims towards it.

Fortunately, the local government around the Red Sea has begun looking into the negative effects destructive tourism practices have on local dolphins. From May 15 to June 15, 2013, all tourist activities were banned at dive sites Shabb el Erg and Shabb Fanus in order to implement new regulations. HEPCA and other environmental protection agencies teamed up with the Egyptian Coast Guard and Egyptian Navy to monitor tourism activity in the area and make sure that no harmful activities were taking place.

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Dolphins and divers
Image: Natalia Pryanishnikova
Divers and dolphins near the surface

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We thank Natalia Pryanishnikova of Divewonders.com for sharing her photographs of this interesting and worthwhile project with us. Those keen on seeing a German preview of the Dolphin Watch series featuring Ferdinand and watch here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV_AVw0YuwE

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