Oceanic Cetacean


Oceanic Whale and Dolphin Research in Remote Indonesian Waters


Indonesia Oceanic Cetacean Program 

Program Objectives 

Sulawesi Sperm Whale Ecology 

Education and Environmental Awareness Initiatives 

Dive Operator and Community Involvement 

Ocean Conservation Initiatives 

Cetacean Species Sighted in the Research Area 

Significance of cetacean research in Indonesia

Threats of special relevance to Indonesia's cetaceans

Indonesia Oceanic Cetacean Program

The waters of Indonesia include numerous coastal and marine habitats, and are characterised by strong currents and complex bottom topography such as deep sea trenches, sea mounts and volcanic islands result in productive localised upwellings and an impressive array of rare marine life.  Indonesia has exceptional tropical marine bio-diversity and recent coral reef and fish surveys have identified this region as the most bio-diverse marine area worldwide. 

No detailed long-term studies have been done in these waters on cetacean species diversity, abundance and distribution.  A review of cetaceans sighted in Indonesian waters lists 29 species. The occurrence of two species is still unconfirmed (Indonesia Cetacean Species List). 

For marine mammals such as cetaceans, Indonesia is unique as the only low latitude region that is influenced by both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Global and oceanic circulation exchanges are channelled through deep-sea trenches and deflected by oceanic islands, producing a complex and dynamic oceanic environment.

This, in turn, has important ramifications for the lives of cetaceans, as the mixing of two tropical oceans influences their breeding and feeding ecology, as well as the migration corridors of numerous highly migratory species - some rare and endangered - that inhabit this region only part-time. The effects of large scale biological oceanographical events on the Indonesian seas, combined with the relatively high marine biodiversity and high population pressures make this ocean realm a challenging research area.

APEX Environmental has been conducting a research program on oceanic cetaceans inhabiting the waters of Indonesia for numerous years.  The Indonesia Oceanic Cetacean Program (IOCP) is associated with the Cetacean Society International, Dalhousie University-Biology Department, the Lembeh Strait Preservation Society and The Nature Conservancy - Indonesia Coastal and Marine Program, amongst others.
The IOCP is presently conducted in northern Sulawesi, the Sangihe-Talaud Archipelago,  as well as Komodo National Park and World Heritage Area, located between the islands of Flores and Sumbawa  (Map of Research Areas). 

The benign, non-intrusive research techniques are based on passive acoustic tracking and telephotographic identifications of individual whales and dolphins. This allows us to conduct detailed ecological studies while minimising any adverse effects of our research presence. 

The IOCP consists of a multi-faceted research approach: 
  1. The Program conducts visual and acoustic surveys of oceanic cetaceans to examine distribution and abundance patterns of all species encountered, and to identify sensitive marine areas of special significance to cetaceans and other oceanics. 
  2. Concurrently, the Program has established a detailed ecological study of a highly specialised, deep diving oceanic cetacean - the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). 
  3. An active participation community cetacean monitoring program involving the dive industry, environmental organisations and other interest groups.
  4. Ocean conservation initiatives and environmental awareness activities. 
The Program adds to the scant ecological data that currently exists for cetaceans inhabiting these remote waters. It provides species specific information for marine resources management and conservation programs on: Cetacean diversity, distribution and abundance, local movement patterns, population dynamics, feeding ecology, calving rates, social organisation, behaviours, fisheries interactions and environmental impacts.

This information on Indonesia's oceanic cetaceans will be used to identify sensitive marine areas (SMAs) and to earmark these areas for increased protection and management responses where necessary.   SMAs are defined as essential habitats for oceanic cetaceans including preferred feeding areas, mating and calving grounds, as well as migration corridors such as inter-island passages. 

The research also examines the magnitude of environmental impacts that threaten Indonesian cetaceans and works to identify realistic conservation measures to minimise these. 

In addition, the program outreach activities include an active participation cetacean monitoring program for nature-based tourism operators, educational and environmental awareness seminars, media releases, and ocean conservation initiatives. 

The research at sea includes non-intrusive techniques, such as photographic identifications of individual cetaceans and passive acoustic tracking. These techniques are designed to allow for close observations while causing minimal disturbance and to obtain data discretely.

To date the program has obtained detailed information on over 15 different kinds of oceanic cetaceans in these waters, including several rare and endangered species (Sulawesi and Komodo Cetacean Species Lists).


Indonesia Oceanic Cetacean Program Objectives

  1. Identify which cetacean species occur in the two research areas by conducting acoustic and visual cetacean surveys in three different Indonesian habitat types:
    • Coastal habitats of the research areas to monitor the presence of vulnerable coastal cetaceans.
    • Inter-island straits and deep channels to examine their significance as migration corridors for wide-ranging migratory cetaceans occurring in eastern Indonesian waters.
    • Oceanic areas in the vicinity of migratory cooridors to monitor the presence of oceanic cetaceans.
  2. Monitor seasonal patterns in Indonesia's cetacean diversity, distribution and abundance.
  3. Identify sensitive marine areas for cetaceans, including preferred feeding grounds, mating locations and migration corridors.
  4. Identify and quantify the regional marine environmental impacts affecting cetaceans. 
  5. Provide site- and species-specific information on cetaceans for marine resource, park management purposes.
  6. Provide site- and species-specific information on cetaceans for marine educational and environmental awareness programs.
  7. Initiate regional volunteer cetacean monitoring and reporting programs with support from the dive industry, NGOs and management authorities.

The programs in Northern Sulawesi and Komodo National Park are part of an integrated approach to the region's marine resources management strategy.  This strategy aims to develop regional industries - such as sustainable coastal and pelagic fisheries and appropriate nature-based tourism activities - while at the same time protecting the long-term viability of this most bio-diverse marine ecosystem.


Sulawesi Sperm Whale Ecology

The Sulawesi sperm whale data provide us with a case study to obtain important ecological insights into how this specialised, deep diving cetacean uses this complex oceanic habitat of trenches, sea mounts, steep rising volcanic islands and inter-oceanic exchange currents.  Sperm whale movement patterns and habitat use are examined in relation to population dynamics, social organisation as well as indicators of feeding and mating success. 

Since 1997, over 100 photographic identifications (IDs) of individual sperm whales have been made. The results to date have established that the waters of north Sulawesi are an important feeding and mating/nursing ground for a substantial resident population of adult females and immatures of both sexes.  Large (14-18m) socially mature males, called bulls, are seasonal visitors to these tropical waters. Long-term studies relating to sperm whale ecology are conducted each year and findings published.

For more information please select from the following links:

Education and Environmental Awareness Initiative
Dive & Community Involvement
Ocean Conservation Initiatives   Cetacean Species Sighted in the Research Areas

Significance of cetacean research in Indonesia

Threats of special relevance to Indonesia's cetaceans

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