Dolphin watching in Dubai

How the UAE Dolphin Project is helping investigate the UAE's marine mammals

Dolphin watching in Dubai
Dolphin watching in Dubai Image #2

As The UAE Dolphin Project grows thanks to the donation of a new boat, Kelly Crane catches up with the woman who started it all.

For many years, dolphins have been spotted off the coast of the UAE, something multiple ventures and initiatives have cashed in on. The UAE Dolphin Project is entering fresh water, going where no man (woman or child for that matter) has gone before – dolphin spotting, solely for the benefit of the mammals themselves.

Italian Ada Natoli, 42, came up with the non-profit project, having discovered a huge school-of-dolphin-sized hole in the local and regional research and information sector.

‘A survey is the number one priority,’ says Natoli, a professor of marine biology. ‘To include species occurrence, habitat use, population estimates and whether they live here or pass by depending on the season.’

A dedicated survey focusing on investigating coastal dolphins has never been conducted in the UAE or in any area of the Gulf. More than ten species have been reported but the Gulf is considered as ‘data deficient’. In the UAE, the only information available on small cetaceans comes from two aerial surveys conducted in the Abu Dhabi area in 1986 and 1999.

The information is crucial if the country ever wants to provide baseline information on the status of the species in the UAE to support conservation plans.

‘Dolphins are apex predators, sitting at the top of the marine food chain, with tuna, sharks and us,’ explains Natoli, who launched the project in December last year. ‘Assessing dolphins’ status gives an insight into the general status of the sea. If a marine system can sustain a healthy dolphin population it means it is in good shape all round.’

The UAE Dolphin Project was born with a simple aim to create a platform to raise awareness about dolphins and steps to gather scientific information naturally followed.

Driven by a passion for the wild, Natoli started working with dolphins by chance at university. While others challenged mind and body by partying at the Student Union bar menu or missing final exam day, Natoli challenged herself to spend days on end at sea, notepad in hand, carrying out surveys. ‘It just went from there,’ she recalls.

Based on occasional records at least three species of dolphins are reported in Dubai’s coastal waters: the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the rare finless porpoise.

For those who aren’t aware, the words ‘non-profit’ loosely translate (very loosely) to ‘help please’.

A public-awareness programme, which includes education on keeping our seas clean and plastic-free, as well as a scientific survey, both rely heavily on UAE residents and tourists.

‘Public help is invaluable,’ insists Natoli. ‘When the public see a dolphin they need to report it. This takes five minutes but it’s the only way to track the dolphins.’

More than 100 sightings have been reported and recorded in just seven months through the website. But Natoli is looking for more.

A 30ft Duretti Sportfisher, courtesy of Duretti Boat Manufacturing plus a free berth at Dubai Marina Yacht Club – have catapulted the project to new heights, meaning Natoli has more resources for the dolphins. ‘We just need a petrol sponsor,’ she quips, half joking, half completely serious.
Visit or email to report a sighting.

Other organisations

Abu Dhabi Marine Conservation Society
Strives to conserve Abu Dhabi’s marine life.

Emirates Diving Association
The team here ise known for environmental work in Dubai seas. Turtle projects are among the most famous operations.

Nautica Environmental Associates (NEA)
Abu Dhabi-based environmental consultancy provides services and studies into marine, coastal and terrestrial environments in the Gulf.

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