The Australian snubfin dolphin or Orcaella heinsohni is a curious creature indeed. According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, this dolphin used to be considered an irrawady dolphin, but after much analysis and noticeable differences in color, skull shapes and body shapes scientists determined that the Australian snubfin dolphin is a separate species and was officially declared so in 2005.
This dolphin is found along the northern coast of Australia and has been spotted near Papua New Guinea. Australian snubfin dolphins are very coastal and actually prefer to hang out in creeks, rivers, estuaries and especially enjoy sea grass beds. This is another distinction that separates the snubfin from the irrawady dolphin. Geographically speaking, irrawady dolphins are found along the coast of South and Southeast Asia, which is separated from Northern Australia by deep ocean waters. Even during the Pleistocene Ice Ages when water was much shallower, these areas remained separated. Another indication that the two dolphins are most likely separate species.
Australian snubfin dolphins have an interesting look with a rounded head, similar in shape to the beluga whale’s. Females reach about 7.5 feet in length, while males average closer to nine feet. A few dolphins that have been weighed ranged from 250 to close to 300 pounds. The snubfins have a distinct coloring with darker brown backs, light brown sides and white bellies. In the photo above, the snubfin looks pink, but this isn’t explained in the encyclopedia article, which also has a photo of a pink snubfin. Maybe there was some crazy lighting the day the photo was taken.
These dolphins tend to eat whatever may cross their path including cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish, octopus), shrimp and several species of fish. Beyond eating, not much is known about other aspects of their lives. According to the encyclopedia article, “an estimate of about 1,000 animals was calculated in 1989 based on aerial survey records.” But this could be a bit high, based on coastal surveys.
Today, Australian snubfin dolphins face dangers from gillnet’s that are set-up in their favorite habitats along the coast. The Australian government lists the dolphins’ conservation status as “insufficiently known.” While the IUCN has the snubfin dolphin listed as “near threatened” on their Red List of Threatened Species.
Either way, it’s time to find out more about the snubfin dolphin to make sure future Australians and visitors have a chance to see this very cool and interesting animal.