Red Sea Dolphin Project, Marsa Alam, Egypt

After finishing my B.Sc. Marine Biology I wasn’t quite sure of my next step. I moved to Hamata, Southern Egypt, yearning to satisfy my desire to be underwater, to educate, and to revisit Egypt. I knew I loved science but at the time, just after the Arab Spring, there was very little funding for scientific employment in Egypt. Consequently, I started working in Lahami Bay Diving Centre. My original job was as a dive guide. However, I was increasingly relied upon to conduct the office duties and manage the day-to-day running of the centre. Whilst I learnt a lot about communication, delegation, problem solving, and accountancy, I missed the sea. More specifically, I missed marine biology.

So, how to incorporate science into tourism based industry?

During my office days I still worked as a private dive guide for those divers requiring extra assistance or those who simply wanted to go at their own pace. I would also often guide day boat trips to Sha’ab Sataya.

Sha'ab Sataya

Sha’ab Sataya

Sha’ab Sataya is a crescent shaped reef offshore Hamata that creates a shallow, sheltered lagoon. Often, nocturnal spinner dolphins (Stellena longirostris – check) enter this lagoon to rest and nurture their calves during the daytime. This behaviour has created a popular tourist attraction. The opportunity to snorkel with these wild dolphins cost 55 € (in 2013) and with sometimes over 200 people* at this reef in one day, presents a significant revenue to local businesses.

This should have sounded some alarm bells. A site where dolphins come to rest infiltrated by hundreds of squealing snorkelers desperate to catch a selfie with a spinner.

There are guidelines from the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA). These offer best practice advice from the more (hopefully) obvious “do not touch the dolphins” to perhaps the less obvious “do not get closer to than 50 meters to the dolphins with a motor boat”. However, as this is an unregulated site, these guidelines are just that, guidelines. There is no official enforcement.

Responding to opposition 

Driven by my personal ideologies, I always strived to uphold these recommendations. I would give detailed briefings to my guests stressing the importance of these guidelines and explaining why they should adhere to them. This was not always an easy task. I once had a man (seriously) demand a refund when I told him he was not allowed to ride the dorsal fin of a dolphin. Upon entering the water, my group would often notice that snorkelers from other boats were not following the same rules. Whilst I’m happy to say this behaviour was mostly met with revulsion at their fellow tourists, I also observed that ingrained human trait that asks “if they can do that, why can’t I?” I discovered it would only take a single person who disagreed with my reasoning and ignore the guidelines to lead the whole group astray.

Wanting to decisively respond to these issues, I delved into the literature to research dolphin biology, ecology, and behaviour so that I could better educate my guests. I also contacted Ph.D. students researching this population in collaboration with HEPCA. As I studied, I spent more time in the water with these animals. I found that strict adherence to the guidelines and a few more which I discovered myself, actually gave my group much closer, longer, and more relaxed encounters with the pods.

Delivering a lecture on board

Delivering a lecture on board

As a result, my confidence in my in-water protocols soared. Soon after I began running short lectures on board during the lunch break. I mostly taught dolphin life history. However,  my lectures sold with the revelation of my top tips for the best dolphin encounters whilst reducing the likelihood inflicting stress.

Red Sea Dolphin Project Cruise

Through my contact with HEPCA, I was invited as a research assistant and water guide on their 10- day research cruises that zig-zag the Egyptian Red Sea coastline scouting for cetaceans. These cruises formed part of the Red Sea Dolphin Project. The project is aimed at cataloging species’ populations through photo-ID, hydrophone recordings, and tissue samples. Of most relevance to me at the time, the team also observe and record dolphin behaviour inside Sha’ab Sataya in the presence and absence of boats and snorkelers. The results contributed to the Ph.D. theses of three wonderful Italian women.

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Underwater photo ID

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Spinner dolphins bow riding

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Sexing and ID sometimes requires underwater acrobatics

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Attempting to photograph every individual

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Surface look out shift

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Hydrophone deployment

For me, these cruises formed my first research vessel experiences and returned me to the scientific realm I craved. I learnt what it means to work efficiently as a team, to rely on each other, and how to maintain camaraderie within a confined space. I gained experience conducting mentally and physically demanding tasks under extreme environmental conditions. And most importantly, soon after returning to shore I applied for a Masters degree at Southampton. I was sure I wanted to return to research.

*An estimation based on personal observations of sometimes more than ten boats moored in the lagoon. Each boat is likely to have been carrying between 12 and 30 people aboard.