Northern Red Sea Islands IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

2 125 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin – Tursiops aduncus

Criterion B (1); C (3); D (1)

Indian Ocean humpback dolphin – Sousa plumbea

Criterion A; B (1)

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Dugong dugon, Grampus griseus, Megaptera novaeangliae, Pseudorca crassidens, Sousa plumbea, Stenella attenuata, Stenella longirostris, Tursiops truncatus, Tursiops aduncus

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The Northern Red Sea Islands are located off the coast of Egypt adjacent to the coastal areas of El Gouna and Hurghada. The area includes a complex network of islands, coral reefs, shallow bays and lagoons, seagrass beds and open waters. The area hosts a year-round resident population of at least 200 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), and a smaller group of Endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea). Both species are regularly encountered nearshore and around the coastal reefs. The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins feed in the open waters among islands and reefs and rest, mate, socialize and nurse their calves in proximity of several reefs, in particular Shaab El Fanous, Shaab El Erg, Shaab Abu Nugar and around Gubal island. They are increasingly subjected to intense ‘swimming-with-dolphin’ tourist activities that are considered unsustainable for their long-term conservation and welfare.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability

The Indian Ocean humpback dolphin Sousa plumbea is found in shallow coastal waters from the northern Red Sea to the tip of South Africa and the tip of India (Braulik et al. 2017). The abundance of the species in the Red Sea is presently unknown, however S. plumbea occurs throughout the region in small groups in shallow waters, with the exclusion of the Gulf of Aqaba. The species is regularly observed in the area, in particular along the coast and coastal reefs in small groups of maximum three individuals (Angela Ziltener unpublished data). These shallow, sheltered habitats of the Northern Red Sea Islands host a small group of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List (Braulik et al. 2017).

Criterion B: Distribution and Abundance

Sub-criterion B1: Small and Resident Populations 

Photo-identification data collected by the Dolphin Watch Research project since 2009 recorded 189 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins using the area year-round (Ziltener & Kreicker 2014). Ongoing research shows that there are a total number of 318 individuals in the area but not regularly sighted during the years. Studies on site fidelity and occurrence at these, and neighbouring sites, are in progress. The Northern Red Sea Islands area is an important reproductive site for Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins as mating, newborns, and calves have been regularly observed year-round with a peak in spring and summer (Orbach et al. 2019, Ziltener & Kreicker 2014). Over the years, several females were observed with calves. Pregnant females and mothers with newborns are regularly observed during underwater observations, although births could never be witnessed. The area with its complex system of islands and coral reefs, that include delicate ecosystems such as sea grass beds, small mangrove forests, shallow bays and lagoons, fringing reefs, and coral patches is unique along the coast of northern Egypt, and creates the conditions for the presence of a conspicuous aggregation of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Although there is no precise information on the abundance S. plumbea in the area, dedicated observations carried out since 2009 by Dolphin Watch Research project suggest that the number of dolphins in the area is constant based on encounter rates, in particular if compared to other areas along the Egyptian Red Sea coast where dedicated surveys have been carried out (Costa 2015). Repeated sightings of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins are reported in particular around El Gouna, including El Gouna harbour (i.e. Abydos Marina) and Shaab el Dir reef located just off El Gouna.

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C3: Migration Routes

The diurnal activity pattern of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in the Northern Red Sea Islands was studied from 2012 and 2017 from vessel and/or underwater during SCUBA dives or snorkels. The study suggests that dolphins use the Northern Islands area to rest (60%), socialize (27%), travel (10%), and forage (3%) underlying the importance of the area for the population (Kreicker & Ziltener 2017). After socializing and foraging activities in the early morning, resting activity was most prominent until the afternoon, with a peak from 09:00 to 12:00, followed by an increase in socializing, travelling and foraging in the late afternoon. Resting and socializing occurs more at reefs, while foraging and travelling was more frequent in open waters among reefs and islands. The low rate of foraging (3%) suggests that foraging mainly occurs at night (Kreicker & Ziltener 2017). This activity budget is in striking contrast to other previously described diurnal activity budgets of bottlenose dolphins in which travelling or foraging were the most frequently reported activities and resting the least frequent (Steiner, A. 2011, Karniski, C., et al. 2015). Furthermore, the structured diurnal activity pattern seems to be comparable to that of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) in the Southern Egyptian Red Sea (Fumagalli, M. 2016) and elsewhere e.g. 61.7% daytime resting in sheltered bays off Hawaii (Tyne, J. 2015). Moreover, the study also revealed that some offshore reefs are particularly important for resting including Erg Kebir, Shaab El Bayout, Gotta Bayout, Shaab El Dir, Gotta El Dir, and Umm Usk. In the latter, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins were observed swimming with a dugong (Hanafy, et al. 2006; Nasr et al. 2019).

Criterion D: Special Attributes

Sub-criterion D1: Distinctiveness

Self-rubbing, also known as object rubbing, involves an individual physically touching and rubbing on the substrate (e.g. sand, pebble stones, seagrass, or rocks), objects, or other, non-conspecific organisms, possibly for hygiene (e.g. ectoparasite removal), social and sensual functions (Ford et al., 2000; Dudzinski et al., 2012), play (Kuczaj et al., 2006), and/or to facilitate moulting (O’Corry-Crowe, 2009). The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin population inhabiting the IMMA displays an unusual rubbing behaviour into sand, seagrass and different coral species (Ziltener & Kreicker, 2013; Ziltener et al. 2015a). Event sampling from underwater video recordings conducted while scuba diving showed dolphins rubbing their whole body into sand, seagrass and gorgonians (Rumphella aggregata). Leather corals (Sarcophyton sp.) and sponges (Callyspongia sp.) are mostly used by dolphins to rub their head region, ventral side and fluke. Finally, hard corals (Favia sp.) are used to rub the edges of the pectoral fins (Ziltener et al. 2015a). Such selective self-rubbing behaviour for certain corals has not been observed in other dolphins worldwide (Ziltener et al. 2015a) and may represent a cultural trait of the specific population, as already hypothesised for the behaviour of rubbing on pebbles beaches observed in killer whales (Whitehead et al., 2004).

Supporting Information

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Braulik, G.T., Findlay, K., Cerchio, S., Baldwin, R. & Perrin, W. 2017. Sousa plumbea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T82031633A82031644. Downloaded on 05 August 2019.

Cesar, H. 2003. Economic Valuation of the Egyptian Red Sea Coral Reefs. The Egyptian Environmental Policy Program – Executive Committee (USAID/Egypt), pp. 1-76.

Costa, M. 2015. Abundance and distribution of Delphinids in the Red Sea (Egypt). PhD dissertation, University of St. Andrews (United Kingdom).

Dudzinski, K. M., Gregg, J., Melillo-Sweeting, K., Seay, B., Levengood, A., Kuczaj, I. I., & Stan, A. 2012. Tactile contact exchanges between dolphins: self-rubbing versus inter-individual contact in three species from three geographies. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 25(1): 21-43.

Feingold D. 2007. Cetacean conservation in the northern Red Sea: a preliminary ecotourism oriented project. MSc dissertation, University of Haifa (Israel).

Ford, J. K. B., Ellis, G. M., & Balcomb, K. C. 2000. Killer whales: The natural history and genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia and Washington state (2nd ed.). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Fumagalli, M. 2016. Conservation of the spinner dolphin in the Egyptian Red Sea. PhD dissertation, University of Otago (New Zealand).

Fumagalli, M., Cesario, A., & Costa, M. 2019. Where Dolphins Sleep: Resting Areas in the Red Sea. In: Rasul N., Stewart I. (eds) Oceanographic and Biological Aspects of the Red Sea, pp. 305–326. Springer Oceanography. Springer, Cham

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Hilmi, N., Safa, A., Reynaud, S. and Allemand, D. 2012. Coral Reefs and Tourism in Egypt’s Red Sea. Topics in Middle Eastern and African Economies, 14, 416-434.

Karniski, C., Patterson, E. M., Krzyszczyk, E., Foroughirad, V., Stanton, M. A. and Mann, J. 2015. A comparison of survey and focal follow methods for estimating individual activity budgets of cetaceans. Marine Mammal Science, 31(3), 839-852.

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Kleinertz S., Hermosilla C., Ziltener A., Kreicker S., Hirzmann J., Abdel-Ghaffar F., Taubert A. 2014. Gastrointestinal parasites of free-living Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in the Northern Red Sea, Egypt. Parasitology Research 113(4): 1405–1415.

Kotb, M., Abdulaziz, M., Al-Agwan, Z., Alshaikh, K., Al-Yami, H., Banajah, A., Devantier, L., Eisinger, M., Eltayeb, M. & Hassan, M. 2004. Status of coral reefs in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in 2004. Wilkinson, op. cit. note, 70: 137-39.

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Nasr D., Shawky A.M., Vine P. 2019. Status of Red Sea Dugongs. In: Rasul N., Stewart I. (eds) Oceanographic and Biological Aspects of the Red Sea, pp. 327-354. Springer Oceanography. Springer, Cham.

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Orbach, D.N., Keener, W., Ziltener, A., Packard, J., Würsig, B. 2019. Testes size, vaginal complexity, and behavior in toothed whales (odontocete): Arms race or tradeoff model for dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.)? Journal of Comparative Psychology:

Perrin, W.F., Robertson, K.M., van Bree, P.J.H., & Mead, J.G. 2007. Cranial description and genetic identity of the holotype specimen of Tursiops aduncus (Ehrenberg, 1832). Marine Mammal Science 23(2): 343-357.

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Whitehead, H., Rendell, L., Osborne, R. W., & Würsig, B. 2004. Culture and conservation of non-humans with  reference to whales and dolphins: Review and new directions. Biological  Conservation, 118: 205-218.

Ziltener, A. & Kreicker S. 2013. Self-rubbing behaviour on gorgonians (Rumphella sp.) in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) off Hurghada, Northern Red Sea, Egypt. 27th Annual Conference, European Cetacean Society, Setúbal, Portugal, 8-10 April.

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Ziltener A., Kreicker S., and Gross S. 2015a. Selective self-rubbing behaviour in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins off Hurghada, Northern Red Sea, Egypt. In: 21st Biennial Conference on the biology of marine mammals. The Society for Marine Mammalogy, San Francisco, California, 13-18 December.

Ziltener, A., Wright, A. J., Kreicker, S. 2015b. Sleeping behaviour in Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) off Hurghada, Northern Red Sea, Egypt. 29th Annual Conference, European Cetacean Society, Malta, 23-25 March.


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