BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS IN ABACO WATERS (2): MOTHER & CALF


Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas 12

Sometimes things happen that completely take my breath away. Here is one of those moments, from our recent trip with Charlotte and Diane in the BMMRO research boat. As we returned from whale-watching to base in Sandy Point and moved from the deep dark ocean to the bright blue shallows, we encountered a group of bottlenose dolphins. You can see my recent post featuring some of the adults HERE. That was exciting enough, as they played around the boat. Then another participant appeared… 

 Notice the dark area behind the adult dolphin… Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

…which soon separated into a small dark splashing creature with its own fin cutting the waves…Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

…and next seen keeping pace with its parentDolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

The sharp line between the light and the dark sea is where the sandy shallows abruptly give way to the deep waters of the Grand Bahama Canyon, a massive trench up to 2.5 miles deep with almost vertical cliff walls to the depths in some places

Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

There were less active and splashy moments as the pair swam around togetherDolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, BahamasDolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

Then it was back to doing what they like best…Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, BahamasDolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

Then some more restful moments…Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

And finally the pair moved away. On the far horizon, the Massive Mickey Mouse Cruise ship moored at ‘Disney’s Castaway Cay’ (formerly the sober-sounding Gorda Cay), where you can be a Pirate of the Caribbean. Or anyway a very happy Tourist. The choice is yours. Would you like fries with that?Dolphin Mother & Calf, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas

And looking out to sea from the cheerful place that is Castaway Cay, I wonder if a small child was wondering “Ok, love Mickey and his Friends – but I’d also really love to see a wild dolphin swimming free… 

Disney Magic docked next to the Castaway Cay Family Beach copy

All photos RH (except Castaway, Wiki). Huge thanks to Charlotte, Diane and Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMRO for a truly wonderful day photo 2

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BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS IN ABACO WATERS (PART 1)


Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 7

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS IN ABACO WATERS (PART 1)

DCB GBG Cover Logo dolphin

This seems to be a excellent early Spring for dolphin and whale sightings in Abaco waters. I’ve noticed that people have been posting dolphin sightings on FB recently. In our brief window of opportunity each March, I usually reckon to see 2 or 3 dolphins at most – maybe crossing over to Hope Town on the ferry, or more probably on a fishing trip. This year we saw 2 groups of about 6 off Cherokee while fishing, including calves. On another day, 4 adults made a leisurely progress the whole length of Rolling Harbour while we watched from the balcony of the Delphi Club. I don’t think they have ever been so close to the shore there before. The best was to come.Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 3

Near the end of our trip Charlotte Dunn and Diane Claridge invited us to go out with them on the BMMRO research boat. This is equipped with a hydrophonic system that can detect the bleeps, whistles and clicks of cetaceans, and record them for comparison with previous data. This enables particular animals to be identified from their vocalisations. The other method is to note particular features of an animal – damage to a fin, markings on the flank and so on. During the day C & D happily conversed in code: “Is that 132 over there?” “No, it’s got a nick in the fluke, it must be 127…”BMMRO Research Boat, Sandy Point, Abaco

As we returned in the RHIB from an amazing day spent at close quarters with beaked whales [more on these soon], we moved from deep dark blue ocean to sandy turquoise shallows. There, just off Rocky Point (near BMMRO HQ at Sandy Point) were half a dozen bottlenose dolphins, including a mother and calf. This post contains a small batch of photos of adults – there’ll be another post shortly featuring the calf… Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 4Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 1Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 5

Here’s a taster for the next post – the calf, just visible close alongside its mother, was being given leaping practice. Watch this blog…

Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 6

All photos RH. Huge thanks to Charlotte, Diane and Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMRO for a truly wonderful day (and for my cool sweatshirt!) photo 2

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SAW FISH IN THE ABACO MARLS? NO SURPRISE. SAW A SAWFISH? AWESOME!


Pristis_pectinata _Georgia_Aquarium_ Diliff Wiki

SAW FISH IN THE ABACO MARLS? NO SURPRISE. SAW A SAWFISH? AWESOME!

Exactly a year ago, an extraordinary find was made out on the Abaco Marls. Almost disguised against the pale mud under the low water was the first sawfish reported for the Marls. This fish is not merely a rarity in the Northern Bahamas: all species of sawfishes worldwide are IUCN listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered.

Sawfish, Abaco Marls Feb 2014 (Photo: Jacque Cannon)

Sawfish, Abaco Marls Feb 2014 (Photo: Jacque Cannon)

Here is an account of the discovery reported by FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT: “On a recent fishing trip in the Marls with local guide Justin Sands, Sam and Jacque Cannon had an exciting encounter. As Justin was poling the flats, with Sam on the bow searching for bonefish, Jacque spotted a Sawfish! Jacque and Justin quickly forgot about Sam and his efforts to catch a bonefish and turned their focus to the Sawfish. This is a very rare sighting and one we are happy there was a camera available to document it…” A couple of weeks later I was lucky enough to sit next to Jacque at dinner at the Delphi Club, so I was able to hear at first hand the story of this amazing find. It also turned out to be the perfect time to sign an early copy of “The Birds of Abaco” for Jacque and Sam… 1900063_10152069487394482_984358031_n

Sawfish Book Plate (1884)

Sawfish Book Plate (1884)

 10 ESSENTIAL SAWFISH FACTS

  • Sawfishes are also known as Carpenter Sharks; their ‘saw’ is called a ROSTRUM
  • There are 7 species in oceans and seas worldwide, including the Mediterranean
  • All populations have declined drastically due to habitat loss, overfishing & pollution
  • The rostrum is used to feel, to dig, to slash & impale or stun its prey, and for defence
  • Sawfishes are nocturnal creatures and spend a lot of time face down on the sea floor
  • Like sharks, their skeleton is made of cartilage and not bone.
  • Some species can grow up to 7m long
  • They are generally unaggressive unless provoked but fight strongly when caught
  • Sawfishes are slow breeders, making population recovery more difficult
  • Babies are called ‘pups’. Their rostrum is flexible and sheathed until after birth
Sawfish seen from Underwater Tunnel - Atlantis, Nassau Bahamas (Fred Hsu)

Sawfish seen from below – Atlantis, Nassau, Bahamas (Fred Hsu)

Other sawfish have been seen recently in the Northern Bahamas, though not in Abaco waters. Last summer the Bahamas National Trust posted 2 great images of a Smalltooth Sawfish, saying “BNT was excited to receive these photographs of a Smalltooth Sawfish photographed in the proposed East Grand Bahama National Park – Bersus Cay Area. The sawfish was 12 to 13 feet long and was seen in water that was 2 -3 feet deep. Thank you to Buzz Cox, Island Manager at Deep water Cay for sending us these photos”. Sawfish, Grand Bahama Sawfish, Grand Bahama

CONSERVATION ISSUES

POPULATION DECLINE As noted above, Sawfish populations have declined to less than 10% of historical levels. The Smalltooth Sawfish – seen above – was once prolific in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean, Black Sea and Indo-Pacific. Population numbers of this species are now estimated at less than 5% to perhaps as low as 1% of their historic levels.

THREAT TO SURVIVAL The threats to their existence are many: habitat loss, overfishing, accidental bycatch, rostrum souvenir hunters (good prices can be obtained), taking them for fins (as a delicacy) or oil from their liver (medicinal).

LEGAL PROTECTION Capturing a sawfish is illegal in certain countries, including the United States. The sale of smalltooth sawfish rostra is prohibited in the United States under the Endangered Species Act.  The import for sale of that of any sawfish species is also prohibited. The international trade of sawfish was banned by the CITES convention in June 2007.
For those that want to find out  a bit more detail about these issues, there’s plenty on interesting information in a scientific (but readable) paper from NOAA – click the link below

A very recent Bahamas smalltooth sawfish sighting on Bimini – Jan 2015Pristis_pectinata_(smalltooth_sawfish)_(Bimini,_western_Bahamas) Lee & Mary Ellen St John Jan 2015 Wiki

Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) Bimini, Bahamas – Lee & Mary Ellen St John Jan 2015

Time for some footage of these rare and wonderful creatures in the Bahamas. The first is from John Flanagan and was taken during a dive off Bimini in early 2014. He was so surprised by the sight that he nearly forgot to turn on his camera to take a short video… The second is a longer 5 min video taken off Andros by Grant Johnson of “wild footage of the critically endangered Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata). The west side of Andros, Bahamas is one of the last places on Earth that still provides vast refuge for this incredible animal”.

Finally, you may be wondering how exactly the sawfish uses its rostrum to stun fish, as mentioned earlier. Watch this short video – see how quickly it moves, for such an apparently cumbersome and dozy creature…
Credits as shown above, with particular mention of Jacque Cannon for probably the first known sighting and anyway photo of an Abaco sawfish…; header pic in aquarium Diliff (Wiki)

PEACOCK FLOUNDER: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (21)


  Peacock Flounder ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

PEACOCK FLOUNDER: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (21)

PEACOCK FLOUNDER or PLATE FISH Bothus lunatus

I have briefly featured this fish before in the context of its extraordinary camouflage abilities; and also its interesting ocular arrangements. Time to give it another swim around, I think, with some additional photos that I have collected.

Peacock Flounder

Bothus lunatus is the Atlantic / Caribbean version of a species also found in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Adults may grow up to 18 inches long. The species is a ‘lefteye’ flounder, with both eyes on its left (top) side & its right side underneath.  However a baby flounder looks & swims like normal fish, with bilateral eyes. As it grows, the right eye gradually ‘moves’ round to the topside, and it becomes a flatfish.

Peacock Flounder

A flounder’s eyes can move independently of each other. One may look forwards, the other backwardsPeacock Flounder Eye ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

‘NOW YOU SEE IT…’ CAMO-FISH

The Peacock Flounder has extraordinary  colour-changing powers, and can rapidly vary its background colour to make it closely resemble that of its surroundings. This enables it camouflage itself as it lies on the seabed. It can change coloration completely in between two to eight seconds.  

Four frames of the same fish taken a few minutes apart showing the ability of flounders to change colors to match the surroundings (Wiki)Peacock Flounder Brocken Inaglory

Check out these imitative patterns in Bahamas waters…Peacock Flounder (f) ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba

Flower_flounder_in_Kona_wiki

There are two advantages to the ability to camouflage (‘cryptic coloration). One is obviously to avoid detection by predators. The other is to enable the flounder to ambush its meals. They feed primarily on small fishes, crabs and shrimps, lying concealed on the seabed and grabbing any unwary prey that ventures too close. They will even partially bury themselves in the sand, leaving just their eye-stalks keeping watch…Peacock Flounder ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba

HOW CAN THEY POSSIBLY CHANGE COLOUR SO QUICKLY?

Scientists are still puzzling this out. In a conch shell, it seems the flounder can coordinate its amazing all-round vision with its hormones, instantly releasing certain pigments to its skin cells and suppressing other pigments to make the colour match. Not convinced? Then watch this short video and prepare to be impressed. 

Fred Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba, who kindly keeps a benign eye on my reef fish posts (he’s the expert), adds a third excellent reason for coloration changes: sex… “the male peacock flounder can, and does greatly intensify his colors, presumably to declare territory and attract females to his person. When doing this the males will also signal with the left pectoral fin, sticking it straight up and waving it around.” Maybe that is what is going on in the photo below – intensified, non-camouflage colours, and a raised fin…Peacock Flounder ©Melinda Riger@ G B Scuba

Peacock Flounder on a plate – Kim Rody Art983829_10154948988290716_6633206689277673329_n

Credits: Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba for almost all photos; wiki for 2 illustrative images

MAKING A SPLASH: SPERM WHALES & MANATEES IN ABACO WATERS


Sperm Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

MAKING A SPLASH: SPERM WHALES & MANATEES IN ABACO WATERS

After a quiet spell on the cetacean and sirenian front, there is exciting news to report. First, the BMMRO encountered two sperm whales just off Sandy Point.  I don’t know how close to the shore they actually were, but it was very friendly of them to come so near to the BMMRO HQ.Sperm Whale, Sandy Point, Abaco BMMRO3

When whales are sighted from the research vessel, one of the tasks is to collect feces. This job is often undertaken by interns, and is a good way to learn that serious research may well involve unattractive work… They practise with… er… coffee grounds and a net. For more on this important yet unappealing aspect of whale research, CLICK NICE TO SEE FAMILIAR FECES. Another essential part of any sighting is to take fluke photos to enable ID.  Every whale has different and distinctive patterning to the fluke, including general wear and tear. As a photo archive is built up, the researchers are able to recognise a particular whale and cross-reference it with previous sightings.

Sperm Whale, Sandy Point, Abaco BMMRO2Sperm Whale, Sandy Point, Abaco BMMRO1

The third task of a sighting is to record clicks made by an individual whale. This enables an estimate of the whale’s size to be made, and again a sound archive is gradually built up from which comparisons can be made.

Sperm Whale, Sandy Point, Abaco BMMRO4

A NEW MANATEE VISITS MARSH HABOUR

FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT has just reported the sighting of a new manatee at the head of Marsh Harbour harbour. I’m not aware of any other sightings in the last couple of days, but as they say,  “Please keep your eyes out and drive carefully! Contact Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization with any further sighting reports by calling 357-6666. You can also share photos with them on Facebook. Also, please do not feed the manatee. They are able to find their own food and anything else may make them unhealthy”.

This is Abaco’s third recent manatee. First there was GEORGIE, who as far as I know is still comfortably settled in the Cherokee area. Then RANDY arrived earlier this and got to within about a few miles of Georgie… High hopes of a meeting – and ‘friendship, maybe more’ – were dashed when Randy turned round and headed back to Castaway Cay. Let’s hope this newcomer stays around. I wonder what he – or she – will be named? My suggestion is Abby or Abi, which I think is unisex…

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Just as with the whale flukes, the tail of a manatee is an important means of identification. The new manatee’s tail has its own distinctive edge pattern, which will enable its future recognition. Here is an image of Randy’s tail, with its unique notch. 

Randy the Abaco Manatee - tail notch

Credits: BMMRO & FOTE with thanks as ever for use permissions

mantsw~1

NASSAU GROUPER: VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED… & NOW PROTECTED


Nassau Grouper ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copy

NASSAU GROUPER: VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED… & NOW PROTECTED

The Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus is one of a number of Caribbean grouper species found generally in the Northern Bahamas and specifically in Abaco waters. Others include the Black, Tiger, and Yellowfin groupers, the Red Hind,and the Graysby. The Nassau grouper is special, however, not least because (unlike the others) it is on the IUCN Red List as an Endangered Species and is also a US National Marine Fisheries Service Species of Concern. It is considered the most important of the groupers for commercial fishing in the Caribbean, and the IUCN listing data suggests that a population decline of 60% occurred over the last three generations (27-30 years), a startling rate. The current population size is estimated at >10,000 mature individuals.

Nassau Grouper ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy 2

The Nassau Grouper is a creature of the coral reefs in the Caribbean and adjacent seas, though it can also be found in deep water. It feeds in the daytime on small fish and small crustaceans such as shrimps, crabs and lobsters. It lurks in caves and recesses in the reef, sucking in the prey that passes unsuspecting by. The coloration of an individual fish may vary considerably with conditions, and it can adapt its colour to its surroundings as camouflage.  

Tiger grouper meets Nassau grouperNassau & Tiger Grouper ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba  copy

Spawning takes place in December and January as the seawater cools, always at full moon, and always in the same place. In the moonlight, huge numbers of the grouper gather together to mate in a mass spawning aggregation. This may continue for several days. However, the species is slow breeder, which is why overfishing is particularly damaging to the population as the depleted stock cannot readily be replaced.

3846_aquaimages Wiki

CONSERVATION ISSUES

There are other besides factors commercial overfishing that make the Nassau grouper so vulnerable, including fishing during the breeding season; taking undersized fish; pollution and reef decline; habitat loss; and invasive species. The spawning areas are especially vulnerable to exploitation. In the Bahamas, as elsewhere,  the government has now instituted a closed fishing season for the Nassau grouper. Here is the BREEF  flyer, just circulated – and in fact the reason for this post, which reminded me that I had planned to write about this fish! 10382222_10152869346685953_7443797899832698038_o

THREATS

The Bahamas National Trust sums up the multiple threats in this uncompromising way:

Nassau grouper is eaten by barracudas, lizard fish, dolphins, sharks and other large predators of the reef community. But the predators that have the biggest impact on the grouper population are humansPeople are fishing groupers before they can grow to maturity and reproduce. Sex change may also cause a problem. In undisturbed areas there are usually equal numbers of male and females. In heavily fished areas there are often three or more times more females than males. This means many eggs will not be fertilized during spawning. Other threats include, habitat destruction, coral breakage from divers, siltation from construction, runoff from logging and agriculture, dredging, sewage, oil spills and other contaminants that harm coral reefs where Nassau Groupers live.

grouperEpinephelus_striatus_2

There’s an extent to which a country can be judged on its attitude to wildlife from the stamps it chooses to issue. It’s something to do with appreciation and promotion of the country’s natural resources. For example, North Korea rates nil in this respect, with stamps involving scary weaponry, flags, marching and eerily glowing leaders – not a single sparrow to be seen.  By fortunate contrast the Bahamas and its Postal Service score very highly in celebrating the diversity of the wildlife of the islands. The Nassau Grouper was first featured on Bahamas stamps as long ago as 1971, some 25 years before the IUCN Red Listing, and probably before the sharp decline in population numbers had even begun.

bahamas-1971-nassau-grouper-sg-363-fine-used-19448-p

In 2012 the Bahamas Postal Service released ‘a new definitive 16 stamp series’ depicting the marine life of The Bahamas. The Nassau has been promoted from 5c in 1971 to 70c in 2012. That’s inflation for you.

bahamas-marine-life-stamps2

Finally in 2013 BREEF’s 20 years of marine conservation was commemorated with a distinguished and colourful set of 8 stamps, noting in their release: ‘Two of the new stamps feature the Nassau Grouper, a now endangered species that has experienced severe population decline throughout the region… BREEF is well known as an advocate for an annual closed season for the iconic Nassau Grouper during its winter breeding period. The push for the closed season was based on scientific evidence of population collapses throughout the region due to overfishing. BREEF is calling on the government to implement a fixed closed season for the Nassau Grouper in order to protect the species and the fishing industry. The closed season traditionally runs during the spawning season from December 1st until February 28th, to allow the fish to reproduce.  BREEF is calling urgently for the announcement of this year’s Nassau Grouper closed season….’ And so it came to pass… Not only is the Nassau grouper now worth 2 x 65c; it is strictly protected for 3 months during its breeding season. Maybe philately even had a hand in getting somewhere…

BREEF_Comemorative_stamps_PastedGraphic-3

Nassau Grouper (Rick Smit wiki)

Credits: Melinda Riger, Rick Smit, Open Source, BNT, BREEF, Wikimedia, Bahamas Postal Service

ABACO’S FOUR PROTECTED AREAS: THE PROPOSALS


ABACO (CUBAN) PARROT (Caroline Stahala)

ABACO’S FOUR PROTECTED AREAS: THE PROPOSALS

The latest version of the 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BAHAMAS PROPOSAL FOR THE EXPANSION OF THE PROTECTED AREA SYSTEM OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF THE BAHAMAS has been published. It is a joint proposal by the Bahamas Government, The Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust. The breadth of the scheme is very ambitious, affecting all the principal Bahama Islands. To understand the objectives and scope of the project, you can see the whole 34-page project by clicking BAHAMAS PROPOSED PROTECTED AREAS 2014 It is in pdf format, so you should be able to save it if you wish to.

Many people will be familiar with the proposals as they affect Abaco. However since the latest version appears to be a final draft, I thought it might be helpful to show the 4 proposed areas of protection and conservation in their present form. These are, in summary:

  1. THE ABACO MARLS NATIONAL RESERVE A vast area of nearly 200,000 acres (300 square miles) of mangrove flats, sandbanks, creeks and wetland habitat
  2. EAST ABACO CREEKS NATIONAL PARK 13,000 acres (20 square miles) of wetland habitat that provides a vital wildlife nursery, and includes blue holes, creeks and a significant area for recreational activities (though Pete’s Pub at Little Harbour may be just outside the zone…)
  3. CROSS HARBOUR PROTECTED AREA 14,000 acres (21 square miles) in South West Abaco, a crucial breeding area for a number of species,including bonefish
  4. SOUTH ABACO BLUE HOLES CONSERVATION AREA  A huge 34,000 acre (53 square miles) swathe of South Abaco to the west of the E D Highway, incorporating 4 inland blue holes and important cave systems, and 13 offshore blue holes. This is an area of mainly pine forest on land and low waters at sea, with an anticipated value for eco-tourism

Here are the BNT maps showing the extent of each area. Far more information will be found via the link to the report given above. 

THE ABACO PROPOSALS

Abaco Preserves 1 copy

Abaco Preserves 2 copyjpg Abaco Preserves 3 copyjpg Abaco Preserves 4 copyjpg

Credits: Parrot, (ex-)parrot protector Caroline Stahala; Maps, BNT; acres to sq m conversion, Gizmo!