watching whales and dolphins
The Natural Environment
Nature Tour of the UAE
Wildlife in the UAE
of rare breeds
Scorpions and snakes
Ornithology in the UAE
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
finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides).
Species to look out for are the enormous blue
whale (Balaenoptera musculus); the slighter
whale (Balaenopterus physalus), which has a
distinctive pattern of white pigment on its lower jaw; Brydes
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.
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