One of South Africa's least known but most endangered dolphin species, the humpback dolphin, is the focus of a short documentary film that was released online by Homebrew Films on World Wildlife Day (3 March 2021).
The film “The Sound of Hope" will showcase the rich and diverse South African coastline, whilst highlighting the plight of the humpback dolphin. According to recent estimates there are fewer than 500 individuals left in South African waters.
Sasha Dines, a PhD-student in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, worked with filmmaker Claudio Velasquez from Homebrew Films in 2020 to highlight the plight of South Africa's humpback dolphins.
“This region is known for its abundant marine wildlife, but little is known about this enigmatic coastal dolphin. With fewer than 500 of them left in South Africa, I wanted the film to go from the wonder of this coastline to the stark threats and problems these dolphins currently face within the same region," she explains.
Sasha is pursuing a PhD at Stellenbosch University under the supervision of Dr Tess Gridley and Dr John Measey. As part of her research, she works with Sea Search, a scientific organisation based in Muizenberg directed by Dr Gridley and Dr Simon Elwen, specialising in marine conservation in the southern African sub-region.
The film also focuses on Sea Search' development of novel acoustic monitoring methods to help protect endangered dolphin species. Sea Search is developing this method, termed Signature Whistle for Occurrence, Recapture and Density (SWORD), to understand dolphin behaviour in Namibia and South Africa
Sasha's says the decision to focus on humpback dolphins was because they are South Africa's most endangered marine mammal yet most people have never even heard of the species. While humpback dolphins live close to the shore in waters up to about 20 metres deep, they are very shy and only swim in small groups, making them hard to spot.
Being so close to shore unfortunately makes them highly vulnerable to pollution, overfishing, shark net entanglement, coastal construction, and boat strikes.
The film contains footage from Claudio's work along the coast, as well as underwater footage of humpback dolphins that Sasha collected in February last year while conducting fieldwork in Mozambique.
“We had plans to go out together and film more but the lockdown regulations meant that this never materialised, and so we had to work with what we had. I wrote the script with input from Claudio and my supervisors, while Claudio and the team from Homebrew collated and edited the footage. I had to channel my best David Attenborough when I was brought in to do the voice over at the end of production!"
The film premiered online on 3 March 2021 at 19:00 on the Sea Search Research YouTube channel. Afterwards the Sea Search team have put together an expert panel for a live Q and A, where they discussed humpback dolphins in South Africa and answered questions from the public.
Sasha's research for her PhD is part of a larger project, managed by Sea Search, to develop novel acoustic methods to monitor these dolphins using a passive listening system: “As these dolphins have individually unique whistles, a bit like names in human societies, we can use these whistles to identify and study individual dolphins as they move between a series of underwater listening stations. As these devices work 24 hours a day for weeks at a time, they will allow us to collect far more information than we can using boat-surveys," she explains.
Click here to watch the documentary.
Images: Tess Gridley and Bridget James