First trans-oceanic crossing record for Arabian Sea Humpback Whale

“Luban” an Arabian Sea Humpback Whale tagged in the Gulf of Masirah last month, has made the first recorded trans-oceanic crossing across the Arabian Sea. “Luban” is one of 14 whales that have been tagged by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) under the Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project, and the first tagged female.

Dedicated studies in Oman since 2000have established that humpback whales found off the Sultanate are the only population of humpback whales in the world that do not make an annual migration between tropical and polar regions. The Environment Society of Oman started deploying satellites on the endangered species in 2014 to monitor the movements of this isolated population, to understand their movements given that no other lines of scientific investigation had linked animals observed off Oman with those sighted elsewhere in the Arabian Sea, including, Iran, Pakistan and India.. Until last week all of the tracks generated by the satellite tagging project only showed the whales moving along the Southern Coastline of Oman. However “Luban” a female tagged in the Gulf of Masirah this November started heading east across the Indian Ocean on the 12th and appeared on the Indian coast on the 21st of December.

Andrew Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES) in Muscat said: “The implications of this first trans-oceanic crossing reported by the tag represents a significant break-through for regional scientists whom until this last week have been challenged to understand if the humpback whales observed in the Arabian sea are connected – or reside in their own discrete areas”. Willson continues “The population observed from studies off Oman since 2000 is thought to number less than 100 animals and resulted in their endangered population

status under the IUCN Red list process. The fact that one female has now moved outside Omani waters during the known breeding season now makes this theory concerning connectively across the region more likely and a first step towards considering humpbacks in the region as a single population unit. In the long term this question may be more fully investigated through genetic studies. It also raises the question as to whether there are more whales out there than have been only observed in Omani waters and most importantly where other important habitats may lie. These results provide some hope for the conservation agenda of these whales which will now certainly require regional cooperation to support further scientific investigations and their management.”

“The challenge is now on to connect multiple lines of evidence using the satellite tracking, photo identification and humpback song analysis from acoustic recording units from across the region to produce population estimates, understand connectivity in greater detail and identify important habitats. Threats throughout the range of these whales is increasing, especially with proliferation of coastal fishing and a threefold increase in shipping traffic in the Arabian sea over the last 10 years – all of which provide risks of mortality from entanglement and ship strikes. Close coordination with government and private sector stakeholders is imperative for their continued survival”, comments Suaad Al Harthi, Program Director at the Environment Society of Oman.

The whale arrived off Goa after a journey of over 1500km. Over the last few days it has been heading steadily south at 5km/hr and its last known location was off the town of Mangaluru in Indian state of Karnataka. The importance of Luban’s journey has taken the interest of marine mammal researchers working off the west coast of India who have embarked on a campaign to try and locate the whale and understand how it may be using habitat off this coastline.
As part of its mission to represent Omani society in conserving the country’s natural resources, ESO remains committed to continuing its world-renowned whale and dolphin programme applying an evidence-based conservation approach to ensure research is used to identify on-going threats that may arise from human activities.

“This is very exciting news as it takes years of research for us to start unveiling the mysteries of this population. It’s very clear that conservation of this population will need to involve both local and regional efforts. We look forward to further implications that will be revealed through this research.” said Suaad Al Harthi, Program Director at the Environment Society.

The Environment Society of Oman (ESO) through sponsorship from Renaissance and in partnership with Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, has been tagging the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale since whale tagging was initiated in 2014. The initiative is in collaboration with local entities including Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, additionally international partners this year have included Smithsonian Institution, Blue Planet Marine Ltd of New Zealand and the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society. ESO has been recognized as research pioneers within the region and is a part of the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) a group of scientists and NGOs that have formed a network which aims to address knowledge gaps in the region, share information, raise awareness and develop strategies to help to protect whales.


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