WATCH: Suction cup cameras have recorded the secret life of wild dolphins

A wild dusky dolphin off the coast of New Zealand with a new non-invasive underwater camera attached. Image: University of Sydney

Cameras attached to wild dolphins off New Zealand in a world-first study has given researchers a unique view into their hidden marine world.

Experts from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and the University of Alaska Southeast trialled the custom-made non-invasive cameras with suction cups to capture and analyse more than 535 minutes of footage.

The rarely-seen activities include mother-calf interaction, playing with kelp, and intimate social behaviours such as flipper-rubbing.

The results of the study are published in the latest issue of the journal Marine Biology.

Here’s some of the footage:

“For the first time, these cameras have given us the opportunity to see what dolphins do on their own terms,” says Gabriel Machovsky-Capuska from the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science and Charles Perkins Centre.

“There were no wildlife crews, no invasive underwater housings — and the dolphins remained largely unaffected by our cameras.

“This research opens up a whole new approach for capturing wild animal behaviour, which will ultimately help us to not only advance conservation efforts but also come closer to understanding wild predators’ and human nutrition too.”

The cameras were attached via suction cups to eight wild dusky dolphins, using a long pole with the aid of Velcro pads.

The footage was captured off the coast of New Zealand from December 2015 to January 2016, with each camera system loaded with memory boards, very high frequency and satellite transmitters, time depth recorders and a battery life of six hours.

“One challenge of doing this research on small and fast animals like dusky dolphins is that there is limited surface area on the dolphin’s body for tag attachment, so there’s only a small window of time to actually deploy the tag as the dolphin swims past,” says Dr Peter Jones from the University of Sydney’s School of Electrical and Information Engineering.

“We have much to learn about animal behaviour and systems such as this are a great way to observe their activity in a natural environment with the least likely influence on that behaviour.”

The researchers now hope to further develop the cameras to test with marine predators including other cetacean species and sharks.

The research was funded by the National Geographic Society Waitt Grant Fund and the Encounter Foundation (Kaikoura, New Zealand) and included the New Zealand Department of Conservation, Massey University (New Zealand) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US) as project partners.

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