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watching whales and dolphins

The Natural Environment
Nature Tour of the UAE
Wildlife in the UAE
Key animals
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Ornithology in the UAE
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Fossil hunting

Perhaps a third of all known species of whales and dolphins occur off the shores of the UAE. Some are common whilst others, such as the shy beaked whales, have yet to be confirmed in UAE waters, but are thought to occur here due to sightings in neighbouring Oman, or simply due to their known habitat preferences. The deep underwater canyons and cliffs on the edge of the continental shelf off UAE's east coast is where most species can be found, including deepwater cetaceans like the mighty
sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus). However, the warm, sandy shallows of the Arabian Gulf are favoured by species adapted for shallow water life, such as the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis ) and the rare finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides).

Species to look out for are the enormous
blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus); the slighter smaller fin whale (Balaenopterus physalus), which has a distinctive pattern of white pigment on its lower jaw; Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni) with subtle grey marking covering its broad back; and the humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), which arches its slate grey back in a very distinctive manner when diving.

The toothed whales and dolphins are, on average, smaller than the baleen whales, but are far more numerous. Those found off the UAE show a remarkable diversity of size, form and behaviour, from the tiny
finless porpoise, well under 2 metres in length, which finds retreat in coastal shallows, to the colossal, deepwater sperm whale that may exceed 50 tonnes and grow to 20 metres, the largest toothed whale of the UAE and indeed the world.

It is possible to view whales and dolphins in the UAE's waters throughout most of the year, although a choppy sea provides remarkably good cover for an arching back and dorsal fin of even the largest of whales. Conditions are ideal from late March to July, when the sea-surface is calm, although the humidity and temperatures in May and June can be uncomfortable. However, whale and dolphin watching can be rewarding at almost any time. Only the northerly winter winds, or shamal, of December to February are likely to create viewing difficulties.

Early mornings and evenings are usually the best times to look for whales or dolphins, as the sea is often calmer and the light better. So far, the majority of sightings of dolphins have been fairly close to the coast (e.g. off Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi), whereas whales are more often found well offshore.
Venture slowly out to sea by boat, sit back, wait, watch and listen. You can hear the blow of a whale from quite a distance, even before you can see it. Listen too, for splashes. The thunderous sound of a breaching whale can carry over a couple of kilometres and whales indulging in these activities have been sighted from as far away as 8 to 10 kilometres.

On days when the sea is calm and glassy, however, schools of dolphins and whale pods, loll peacefully on the surface, allowing boats to approach to within a few metres. On occasion whales 10 to 12 metres long have slowly swum under boatloads of onlookers, providing captivating and memorable close-up views as they surface nearby.

For other information on UAE marine life

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