WHALE TALES FROM ABACO (1): BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES


Blainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

WHALE TALES FROM ABACO (1): BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES

Back in March we were invited by Charlotte and Diane of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMRO to spend a day out with them on the research boat, a chance we jumped at. I had been writing on and off about the organisation’s whale, dolphin and manatee research since the very early days of this blog. We’d seen bottlenose dolphins in Abaco waters, but never whales. This was the big day…

Our first sighting was a short distance south of Rocky Point, as we moved beyond the turquoise water of the low sandbanks into the deeper, darker ocean waters of the Bahama canyon beyond. Whale territory. The shoreline was plainly in view to the east; and to the north, on the horizon, was the massive bulk of the ‘fun ship’ parked at Castaway (Gorda) cay.

Beaked whale or fun ship for a day out? You decide…Blainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

A Blainville’s beaked whale noses towards the research vesselBlainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

The Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) is also known slightly less politely as the dense-beaked whale.  It is named for the French zoologist Henri de Blainville who first described the species in 1817 based on his examinations of a piece of jaw or ‘rostrum’ — the heaviest bone he had ever come across — which resulted in the name densirostris (Latin for “dense beak”).

The beak breaks the surfaceBlainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

The BMMRO has carried out intensive research on the species for a number of years in the northern Bahamas, with detailed documentation of sightings and photo identification of individual animals. More recently, these whales have been the subject of incredibly detailed research into their species intercommunication through vocalisations – mainly clicks and click patterns. To view Charlotte’s PhD thesis for St Andrew’s University click HERE (and many congratulations, Dr Dunn…). Just reading the contents table will give a good idea of the scope and complexity of the research. 

The blowhole, used for breathing, in close-up. You can hear this in the video below.Blainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

Our amazing first encounter with 6 whales lasted nearly an hour. Usually, they stay near the surface for 20 minutes or so, then they do a deep dive lasting roughly 20 minutes before resurfacing. But on this occasion they behaved more like huge dolphins, swimming towards the boat, around it, under it, then drifting away again before returning.

Blainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

Given their length of some 15 feet and weight of about 2000 pounds, it was a extraordinary experience to see them at such close quarters.

Whale showing healed circular wounds caused by COOKIECUTTER SHARKSBlainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

The Blainville’s range is extensive and in general terms they may be found in tropical and sub-tropical waters worldwide. They are by no means uncommon, but apart from the data collected by the BMMRO it seems that comparatively little is known about them. Their diet is thought to consist mainly of squid found at depth. They are protected by a variety of Agreements, Memoranda of Understanding, Protocols and so forth throughout the worldwide range.

Cetacea_range_map_Blainvilles_Beaked_WhaleBlainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

The research boat is equipped with sonar the can pick up the click and whistles of whales and dolphins from a considerable distance. It was remarkable to watch a group of cetaceans and to be able to hear them loudly and animatedly communicating with each other..Blainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

Another vital aspect of the research is poop scooping. As soon as the whales had gathered round the boat, Charlotte slid into the water with her scoop net… the cloudy poop yields a mass of information about an individual creature. I wrote about this interesting job, often tasked to interns (who practice with coffee grounds) in ‘FAMILIAR FECES’.

Charlotte expertly wields the poop scoopBlainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) 11 16.46.13

Then, all too soon, it was deep dive time. The whales moved off from the boat and slowly, without show or splash, disappeared. And we went to investigate HOLE-IN-THE-WALL at close quarters. The next post will feature an adult male Blainville’s beaked whale, with his massive barnacle-encrusted teeth protruding upwards from his lower jaw.

The remains of a neat and undramatic deep diveBlainville's Beaked Whales, Abaco (1) (Keith Salvesen)

In this very short video of two whales right by the boat: you can actually hear their breathing.

BMMRO research RHIB with Diane           BMMRO HQ, Sandy Point, AbacoBMMRO Research Boat, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) BMMRO HQ, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: All photos RH; Charlotte & Diane for a brilliant day out; Mr Blainville for a brilliant whale

220px-Henri_Marie_Ducrotay_de_Blainville

BAHAMAS WHALES & DOLPHINS IN ABACO & ANDROS WATERS


Melon-headed Whale breaching - BMMRO copy

Melon-headed Whale breaching – BMMRO

BAHAMAS WHALES & DOLPHINS IN ABACO & ANDROS WATERS

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO)  has its HQ at Sandy Point, Abaco. We recently went out in their research boat, a RHIB, to spend an unforgettable day with Blainville’s beaked whales and bottlenose dolphins. I posted some of the dolphins HERE; and a two-part beaked whale post is a work in progress.

Male Blainville’s beaked whale with its extraordinary barnacle-encrusted teeth that protrude upwards from its lower jaw. The prominent beak is plainly visible. Sighted off the south-west point of Abaco during our second encounter with a group of these whales – the only male we saw that dayBlainville's Beaked Whale KS 1

Abaco waters are ideal for marine mammals, especially off the southern shores where the walls of the Great Bahama Canyon drop vertiginously down from the shallow coastal waters to depths of up to 3 miles below. This is one of the deepest ocean canyons in the world.  The area provides a rich source of food and nutrients for the whales and dolphins and many different species are regularly sighted there, from huge sperm whales to small pilot whales (including plenty of species I had never heard of before). 

Great Bahama Canyon Map edit

As the name suggests, the BMMRO’s remit extends far beyond Abaco. The researchers often spend time exploring and recording cetaceans in other Bahamian waters. For the last few weeks the team have been off Andros and have encountered quite a few target species. I have included a selection below taken within the last month to illustrate the importance of the area for a remarkable assortment of wonderful whales and dolphins.

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALEBlainville's Beaked Whale copy

DWARF SPERM WHALESDwarf Sperm Whales - BMMRO copy

PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINSPantropical Spotted Dolphin - BMMRO Pantropical Spotted Dolphin leap - BMMRO copy

On board the research vessel, every sighting is recorded in detail – where possible by species, numbers, ages, sexes, and individual identifying characteristics. Thus ‘SW34’ may have a damaged fluke, whereas ‘RD49’ may have a long scar on its back. 

PILOT WHALESPilot Whale - BMMROPilot Whales - BMMRO copyPilot Whales 2 - BMMRO

The research boat is equipped with sound devices which, when the microphone is immersed, are capable of picking up whale or dolphin sounds from a considerable distance. It’s astounding to be able to listen in ‘live’ to the wide assortment of clicks and whistles produced as the creatures communicate with each other. The recorded sound patterns are studied and can often be matched to enable an individual animal to be identified. 

MELON-HEADED WHALESMelon-headed Whales - BMMRO Melon-headed Whale - BMMRO

RISSO’S DOLPHINRisso's Dolphin - BMMRO copy

Other work, including photography, is done underwater. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the collection of poop specimens, from which a great deal can be ascertained about the diet and health of an individual animal. I wrote about this task and the methods used a while ago inFAMILIAR FECES‘.

I’ll be writing more about whales soon. Meanwhile, here’s a short BMMRO video of a large group of melon-headed males. At the start, you can clearly hear communication sounds between them.

Credits: Charlotte & Diane of the BMMRO for taking us out with them and for all the photos except the male Blainville’s beaked whale (mine, for once!)

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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3 MONTHS ON ABACO WITH THE BMMRO: AN INTERN’S STORY


BMMRO whale pic

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation LogoClick logo for website

BMMRO Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation Banner

3 MONTHS ON ABACO WITH THE BMMRO: AN INTERN’S STORY

My name is Jack Lucas and I am Marine Biology Student at Plymouth University in the UK. I came to the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation on Abaco in July 2013 for a 3 month internship, which has been an amazing experience from start to finish. Heres a summary of my summer spent at BMMRO.

Sperm Whale Fluking

I arrived at the start of July and was fortunate enough with my timing to be part of an assembled crew of scientists from all over the world coming together to start work on what was to be this summers main project; collecting faecal samples from Blainville’s beaked whales to assess stress hormones produced. This team included Dr Roz Rolland and Dr Scott Kraus from New England Aquarium, who are collaborating with BMMRO for the work, and the samples will be analysed back at their lab in the US. Also along for the ride was Roxy Corbett; a whale observer and field researcher from the US, and Dr Stephanie King; a acoustician from the Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland. The first day after arriving it was straight out on the boat to search for these elusive creatures and the beginning of a crash course in how to collect and store the faecal samples when we found them. For the first week the work was a mix of boat work when the weather permitted and practicing poop collection using custom-made fine-mesh nets and coffee grounds (as close to the real thing as we were willing to try!), as well as clearing out BMMRO’s garage and, under the direction of foreman Scott, the construction from scratch of a lab to prepare samples for storage.

An example of the use of coffee grounds to practise whale poop-scoop technique269RH note: NOT Jack’s arms / snappy diving suit…

Unfortunately, despite days of poop collection practice and endless hours searching for the whales at sea, the original poop team never got a chance to employ these by now highly developed skills or to see the lab being used, as the weather was so windy we barely encountered the animals let alone spent long enough with them to collect any samples. 

Despite the lack of beaked whales, we did encounter loads of marine mammals in the first few weeks, from sperm whales to three different species of dolphin; including the little-seen and even less-studied rough-toothed dolphin.

Rough-toothed Dolphin

After discussion with Charlotte and Di about a possible project for me to complete during my stay, it was to be this species that I would focus on and in between the usual office jobs it was my task to sort through the photos from 20 rough toothed encounters in the Bahamas since 1995 and create a catalogue of individuals. This initial task consisted of careful inspection, comparison and sorting of what turned out to be over 5000 photos, into an organised catalogue of 167 separate and distinctive individuals. Despite the hours of endless staring at fins, it was very rewarding as there were 13 resighted individuals found (we were not necessarily expecting any!) which suggests long-term site fidelity and association of these animals, in addition to year round use of the Grand Bahama Canyon. Even more rewarding; the results of this work have recently been submitted for a poster display at an Odontocete workshop in New Zealand this December and I am also writing up the results in a formal scientific paper, with the hopeful goal of publishing a note in a peer-review journal. 

 Scott, Jack, Stephanie and Di in the new lab at Sandy Point

Around a month in I was lucky enough to be sent by Di and Charlotte to Great Harbour Cay on the nearby Berry Islands to work with the manatees there, in particular Georgie; a recently released juvenile whose status is being carefully monitored after her rehabilitation at Atlantis’ Dolphin Cay following health problems. The work here for a week under the guidance of Kendria; a Bahamian contracted by BMMRO to monitor the manatees on the Berry Islands, consisted of tracking Georgie using a satellite tag attached to a belt around her tail. Once located, we logged her position and made any notes on her health and behaviour aswell as the other manatees that were often found with her (there are currently 6 located on Great Harbour Cay). Two days in her tag was found unattached at a locals dock (it has a weak-link incase of entanglement) and we had to locate her using underwater hydrophones to detect her belt. Once found, I had the rare opportunity of entering the water with her in order to re-attach a new tag to her belt; it was amazing and one of the best encounters I have had with any animal! It is impossible not to love these amiable and gentle creatures, especially when you observe their infamous ‘hugs’ in person! 

Georgie the Manatee

For more about Georgie’s re-release in the Berry Is. after her earlier shenanigans on Abaco, see HERE

After returning from the Berry Islands (and incidentally missing the first two poop collections of the season made by Charlotte!) it was back to hunting for the elusive beaked whales around South Abaco. During my time I had the chance to work with several interns coming to BMMRO including local marine-enthusiasts Tristan and AJ, and Courtney Cox from Florida. Oscar Ward from the UK also joined the team as Charlotte left for Scotland to complete her PhD, and was on hand during the poop-collection and other little excursions. In wasn’t until the last month of my time here that we managed to get close enough to the whales for me to get in the water and be towed alongside in the hope of seeing one defecate. One amazing morning two whales surfaced right off the bow of the boat and what resulted was again, one of the most amazing moments; swimming just a couple of feet away from an animal only a handful of people in the world have seen underwater. After nearly two months with no samples, the two weeks that followed were a flurry of boat days, poop-collection and whale watching; with a total of 7 samples collecting from beaked whales (5 in one day!!) and another 3 from sperm whales. This was the best possible end to my time here and I finally got a chance to use the much-practiced poop collection techniques. The samples included a number of squid beaks, and in one very deep dive collection a mass of parasitic worms and a weird cephalopod-type animal! We also got a chance in the last few weeks to test-run a new addition to the fleet, that included a dive compressor.

Ready to collect some poop…

Finally my time in the Bahamas had to come to an end, and I had to return home. The last 3 months has flown by and has been one of the most enjoyable and most importantly educational periods of my life and I cannot thank Di and Charlotte enough for making it all possible. The day-to-day boat runs, office work, equipment maintenance and station chores has given me a good insight into all aspects of field research. It was my first taste of life as a marine mammal scientist, and it has made me even more determined to pursue a career in this field; a perfect stepping stone from which to move forward. In addition my work with BMMRO (and what must of been a brilliant reference from the girls!) made it possible to secure a highly competitive internship in the Farallon Islands this winter tagging elephant seals amongst other work! I cannot wait to continue working in this field and finish writing up the results of my project here, and hope I have the chance to come to Abaco again to work with these amazing people and animals!Sperm Whale supplier of poop BMMRO

BMMRO would like to thank Jack for all his help during the summer, and all our interns for their assistance! To our sponsors, Friends of the Environment, Disney Animal Programs and Environmental Initiatives and Rotary of Abaco, we thank you for your continued support.

To read more about the work of Interns on Abaco with the BMMRO at Sandy Point and Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour, check out Oscar Ward’s excellent blog SEVENTYPERCENTBLUE. There are articles on Life in the Mangroves, the Bahamas Climate, Whale Poop Collection, and most intriguing how he and co-intern Jack both came very close to being Black Tip  Fodder… real live Chums!

The Author researching underwater creatures

WHALE & DOLPHIN RESEARCH, PHOTOS & SIGHTINGS REPORT


WHALE & DOLPHIN RESEARCH, PHOTOS & SIGHTINGS REPORT

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) has recently been involved in a major tagging and monitoring program  around Andros, in particular using sonar to test the responses of beaked whales. Being all at sea for a few weeks meant that many other marine mammals were encountered. Thanks to Charlotte and Diane for permission to use some of their photographs taken during the research trip – and also in Abaco waters – to illustrate the amazing diversity of cetacean life in the waters of the northern Bahamas.

Click me!

RESEARCH VESSEL “SLUMBER VENTURE”'Slumber Venture' survey vessel

WHALES

A Sperm Whale with unusual pigmentation

SPERM WHALES OFF ANDROSSperm WhalesSPERM WHALE TAILINGSperm Whale tailingTHAT GULL SURELY CAN’T BE CRAZY ENOUGH TO…Gull landing on Sperm WhaleWELL, IT JUST DID!Gull landed on Sperm Whale

MELON-HEADED WHALES – MOTHER & NEW-BORN CALF

Melon-headed Whale mother with new calf

THE FIN OF A MALE BEAKED WHALEBeaked whales - the fin of a male

DOLPHINS

BOTTLENOSE DOPHIN & CALFBottlenose Dolphin & Calf, Abaco

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINBottlenose Dolphin near Gorda Cay

DOLPHINS BOW-RIDINGDolphins bow-riding

SPOTTED DOLPHINSSpotted Dolphins Spotted Dolphins x 4

ROUGH-TOOTHED DOLPHINS

The research, tagging and monitoring programs pay dividends in conservation and species preservation terms… but then along comes a brutal reminder, way out in the pristine ocean, of the far-reaching extent of man’s reckless damage of the planet and the creatures in it. This poor animal has become swathed in plastic.  The likelihood is that its stomach will have dozens of pieces of plastic in it, from microscopic to potentially damaging – or fatal. We made it all, and we chucked it away.Marine Mammals & plastic

Moving into less contentious areas, here is the BMMRO sightings list for the last month, with a great deal of activity recorded. For once there is even a sighting included of my very own, of 3 bottlenose dolphins in Hope Town harbour one lunchtime in mid-June. See HERE

BMMRO June Sightings

Finally, the latest news from the BMMRO is that Dr Diane Claridge, besides being awarded her PhD earlier this year for her research on beaked whales, has graduated from the ancient scottish university of St Andrews, founded in  1413. It is the third-oldest university in the english-speaking world (and the oldest in the scottish-speaking world…).Dr Diane Claridge, St Andrews Uni

Georgie Manatee BMMRO SUPPORT LOGO

Credit: savethemanatee.org

“MANATEE MANIA IN THE ABACOS” BMMRO FALL 2012 NEWSLETTER


“MANATEE MANIA IN THE ABACOS” – BMMRO FALL 2012 NEWSLETTER

The BMMRO has just published the Fall 2012 newsletter, and it’s no surprise to find that the front page news is the arrival of young manatee Georgie on Abaco. After nosing and indeed grazing her way around Abaco and the Cays, she still appears to be contentedly moored in Cherokee after the best part of a month. Here’s the official map of her wanderings 

Besides the manatee there’s plenty more to read and look at including 

  • Charlotte Dunn’s ‘President’s Update’
  • Articles on whales, and a friendly bottlenose dolphin’s visit to Hope Town
  • Fall ‘cetacean sightings’ map
  • Students at ‘Whale Camp’
  • A quiz to make sure you have taken it all in…

To read the four-page document –  and admire the photos – CLICK BMMRO FALL 2012 NEWSLETTER