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How close can I get to dolphins? What if they swim up to me?

If dolphins swim up to you, relax and enjoy the experience. Do not be tempted to follow them; there are regulations about the ‘approach distances’ for people and any wild animal, including dolphins. These have been designed for the safety of both the animal and you.

In Victoria, if you are on a boat – stay 100m away. If you are swimming or surfing, keep 30 metres away. To all our jetskiers – remember to keep 300m from dolphins. If you are using a drone, the minimum approach distances for drones ​is 500m (same as for helicopters). For more details click here.

Again, if dolphins swim up to you, that’s great; if they are riding on your bow, swimming around you, enjoy them and do not follow/chase them.

What is the State of the Bays report?

Beginning with Port Phillip and Western Port, the State of the Bays 2016 is the start of an ongoing process to document the environmental health of the bays. It looks at how the bays were made, how they work, and the wonders in the bays, including mammals. Topics covered in detail are water quality, mangroves/saltmarsh, seagrass, reefs, fish and birds. The DRI highly recommends the report as a valuable reference tool. Find it here.

Where are the best places to see dolphins in Port Phillip?

There are three dolphin swim boats operating in Port Phillip. These are MoonrakerPolperro and Sea All. Two tour boats also run in the bay, South Bay Eco Tours from Queenscliff and Bronze Wing from Sorrento through Moonraker.

The Sea Road ferry between Queenscliff and Sorrento can also be a great place to see dolphins, as they often ‘bow ride’ alongside.

From the land, the resident dolphins can be seen from Schnapper Point and Mills Beach, both in Mornington.

Dolphins are a protected species – keep your distance. See below for the regulations.

What do the dolphins in Port Phillip eat?

The bottlenose dolphins tend to eat small snapper, squid, trevally, garfish, flathead etc. The common dolphins tend to eat schooling fish such as anchovies and pilchards, mackerel, garfish, squid etc.

What are foetal folds?

These are the result of the blubber of the calf being compacted in-utero, a little like a piano accordion. Foetal folds usually fade as the calf fills out and grows. Occasionally they can remain – this is a useful means of identification for researchers.

What does DRI think about dolphins in captivity?

The question of zoos and captive animals can polarise people; some passionately supportive, some violently opposed, with most of us in the middle. Zoos today must be able to adequately provide for their species and contribute to research, education and conservation.  Without solid wildlife rescue or conservation goals, it is not justifiable to take species from the wild.

At DRI our people have a range of ideological views about zoos, including those with captive cetaceans.  However, we are committed to taking an evidence-based approach to this, as we do on all issues. If a dolphin has been bred in captivity, or rescued and is unable to be released back to the wild, and if the facility can adequately care for the dolphin, then in these circumstances, DRI is not opposed to bottlenose dolphins being kept in captivity.

DRI works with Seaworld in Queensland and the Melbourne Zoo on dolphin health matters and support for emergency responses.

Any legitimate concerns about the welfare of dolphins must be thoroughly investigated and actions based on solid evidence implemented. Exploitative training and inappropriate interaction with people is never acceptable. The welfare of the animals must be paramount and evaluated on the basis of evidence over opinion.

How long do dolphins live?

Thirty years for a dolphin is probably similar to an 80 year old person. Some can live longer.

Do we see porpoises in Port Phillip?

Thirty years for a dolphin is probably similar to an 80 year old person. Some can live longer.

Did channel deepening affect our Port Phillip Dolphins?

It’s now more than five years since it finished, and there is no evidence that the dredging has had any effects on the bay’s resident dolphins.

How many dolphins live in our bays?

Approximately 100-120 bottlenose dolphins and 18-30 common dolphins are resident in Port Phillip. There are a small number (3-5) resident bottlenose dolphins living in Western Port.  Both bays have regular visits from dolphins that live in Bass Strait, including the largest of the dolphin species, killer whales.

What about the new species of dolphin in Port Phillip?

The Dolphin Research Institute was formed to achieve the protection of dolphins in our region. We have addressed this over three decades, by conducting and supporting science to create a better understanding of our dolphins.

A PhD project we supported led to the publication of a paper by Dr Charlton-Robb et al. in 2011 which describes the Burrunan dolphin (Tursiops australis) as a new species resident in Port Phillip and the Gippsland Lakes.

This seemed to add important knowledge that we hoped would support greater protection of our local bottlenose dolphins.

On-going peer-review is a critical part of science. In this light, the International Committee for Taxonomy for marine mammals has rejected the Burrunan dolphin as a species in every annual review of the scientific status of all marine mammal species since 2011.

It’s important to reinforce that taxonomic classifications of animal and plant groups is an on-going part of science and it is not unusual to have major revisions of species and name changes based on research findings.

The most recent paper regarding the species status  (Jedensjo et al. (2020)) is mentioned by the Taxonomic Committee and can be downloaded HERE.

The conclusion is that the resident bottlenose dolphins in Port Phillip and the Gippsland Lakes are Tursiops truncatus, the ‘common bottlenose dolphin’.

Based on the understanding in 2011, the Burrunan dolphin was listed under the Victorian Fauna and Flora Guarantee Act. This is under review and the possibility of the species being de-listed concerns some who see it could undermine the protection of these bottlenose dolphins.

The Institute views that the best available science should always inform decision making otherwise the system is at risk of breaking down by providing legal loop-holes or by omitting species or communities.

The Institute would support the listing of the communities of the resident bottlenose and common dolphins in Port Phillip and the resident bottlenose dolphins in the Gippsland Lakes, on the basis of their small and isolated populations.

In Victoria, dolphins are also afforded high levels of protection by the Marine Mammals Section of the Wildlife Act, so have effective legislated protection.

The International Committee for Taxonomy is composed of eminent specialists in marine mammal taxonomy and is a committee of the International Society for Marine Mammalogy (publishers of the prestigious journal “Marine Mammal Science”). Their entry about the species is included below and it is linked to the SMM site.  (Updated May 2020)

The Burrunan dolphin Tursiops australis, described by Charlton-Robb et al. (2011), is not included here; its basis is questionable because of several potential problems: 1) the specimens were compared morphologically only with bottlenose dolphins from Australia; 2) despite the small sample sizes, the series overlapped in all metric characters and separation was possible only with multivariate analysis (which commonly resolves geographical forms within a species, e.g., see Perrin et al. (1999) and Perrin et al. (2011) for Stenella longirostris and Tursiops truncatus, respectively); 3) comparisons of external morphology and non-metric characters were made only with T. truncatus, to the exclusion of T. aduncus; and 4) support for important nodes in molecular trees suggesting phylogenetic separation was low. A rigorous re-evaluation of the relevant data and arguments is needed. Recently, Jedensjö et al. (2020) conducted a broader morphological comparison of Tursiops skulls from around Australia, including skulls of both T. truncatus and T. aduncus and their respective holotypes, and did not find support for the Burrunan bottlenose dolphin, T. australis, proposed by Charlton-Robb et al. (2011). Skulls previously classified as T. australis all fell well within the T. truncatus group. In contrast, Moura et al. (2020) placed T. australis within a T. aduncus clade based on a nuclear genetic phylogeny.

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