What is an Australian snubfin dolphin? This strange looking (but exceptionally cute) dolphin was only recognised as a new species in 2005. It was previously thought to be the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), however, DNA profiles and skull measurements by scientists have shown that the Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni), which has a short stubby dorsal fin and a round melon-like head, is a distinct species endemic to northern Australia and Papau New Guinea. 

What does it look like? The snubfin dolphin is highly variable in colour, ranging from creamy coloured to dark brown. It has a rounded forehead with no beak, unlike most other dolphin species in Australia. It has a particularly small dorsal fin (the reason for its common name) and a distinct crease around the neck, which is quite mobile. The average length of this animal is about two metres.

Snubfin Dolphin

Photo:  Copyright Kimberley Inshore Dolphin Conservation Project

Graphic : Location Map of Australian snubfin dolphins in Western Australia Where does it live? The Australian snubfin dolphin has been recorded across northern Australia, from WA to Queensland, where it inhabits rivers, estuaries and coastal waters. In Western Australia the species is mainly found in the Kimberley but occasionally sighted in the Pilbara in Exmouth Gulf and inshore of Barrow Island.

What does it eat and how? Australian snubfin dolphins feed on fish, squid and crustaceans. They use a technique known as 'spitting' to catch fish: as the water splashes it diverts the fish in different directions. 

Behaviour: This species is found in groups of up to six and sometimes up to 15 when socialising with each other. Australian snubfin dolphins are not acrobatic dolphins and rarely leap from the water. They are generally shy and have a low profile, exposing little of their body when surfacing to breathe.

Breeding and caring for young: The calves are born tail first.

Protecting the Australian snubfin dolphin: Research is underway to identify critical habitat for the Australian snubfin dolphin along the Kimberley and Pilbara coast and its genetic status (to see how connected snubfin dolphin populations are across northern Australia). The snubfin dolphins sighted in the Pilbara may be vagrants from the Kimberley as the closest known population resides in Yawuru Nagulagun / Roebuck Bay Marine Park. They have been repeatedly sighted in Exmouth Gulf in low numbers and this has generated interest and an investigation to confirm whether a small remnant population resides there or if they are travelling down from the Kimberley and colonising new areas. Their habitat is protected in Yawuru Nagulagun / Roebuck Bay, Lalang-garram / Horizontal Falls, North Lalang-garram, Lalang-garram / Camden Sound and North Kimberley marine parks.