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


BMMRO whale pic

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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

ABACO’S RAREST VISITOR: MEET ALBERT ROSS… THE ALBATROSS


ABACO’S RAREST VISITOR: MEET ALBERT ROSS… THE ALBATROSS

I can find no record for the sighting of an albatross in the waters around Abaco. Nor for anywhere else in the Bahamas for that matter. It must have come as some surprise to the BMMRO team out at sea on their research vessel off Sandy Point to see a large and unusual seabird bobbing tranquilly on the water. A black-browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys. Diane Claridge managed to get a great shot of it and I’m really pleased to be able to use it here.

Black-browed Albatross, Abaco © DC BMMROBlack-browed albatross off Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas. Photographed by Diane Claridge.

© Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation 2013

This bird was way out of the normal range for the species. They are birds of the southern oceans, breeding in colonies on such islands as the Falklands, South Georgia and Macquarie Island. As far as I can make out, they have no business to be north of the equator at all.

Black-browed Albatross Range Map BirdLife Int

SIGHTING A BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS: A REPORT

During a three-hour survey for whales off Sandy Point, Abaco on Sunday, July 21st scientists from the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation had an exceptional sighting. Dr Diane Claridge, the group’s Executive Director recalls details of the sighting:

“We were drifting waiting for a beaked whale to resurface when our intern Tristan Albury pointed towards a white object floating in the distance and asked what it was. We decided that it was a piece of trash, unfortunately a common sighting, and continued to focus our search for the whale. A half hour later, we still had not re-sighted the whale and believed that it may have gone down on one of its one-hour long feeding dives. So with time to kill and the “trash” still in sight, we had another look with binoculars. We realised immediately that it was a very large bird and slowly motored towards it for a closer look. I began taking photographs of it because we already knew it was unusual and we wanted to be sure to identify the species. As we got closer, Roxy Corbett, a visiting scientist and avid birder exclaimed that it was an albatross! I couldn’t believe it. We were able to approach within 100 feet at which point it swam towards us providing an opportunity for us to document its body condition; it appeared healthy with no obvious signs of distress.

Later when back ashore, we compared our photographs with those available online and learned that it was a juvenile Black-browed albatross, an endangered bird with a 7-foot wing span known from subtropical to polar regions of the southern hemisphere! As far as I know this species has never been recorded previously in the tropical North Atlantic. I have seen albatross during whale surveys in Alaska but never dreamed that I’d ever see one in The Bahamas. Although we are thrilled by the rarity of this sighting, the outcome for a bird so far out of its normal range is not usually good. However, there are two Black-browed albatross that strayed into the North Atlantic previously that have taken up long-term residence in Scotland and the Faroe Islands so who knows where this one may end up. Sunday afternoon was indeed exceptional: in addition to this remarkable sighting, we also saw 4 different species of whales and dolphins, all within 5 miles of Sandy Point.”

These are huge strong birds, with a massive wingspan. I wondered what they might sound like – it’s like this… (Credit: Xeno-Canto & recordist Sofia Wasylyk)

For more information on the normal range and status of the Black-browed albatross, the BMMRO recommended links are:

Link to Birdlife International’s site:
http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3959

Link to IUCN’s species red list:
http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/106003959/0

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

BOTTLENOSE DOPHINS (VIDEO) & BMMRO ABACO CETACEAN SIGHTINGS


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BOTTLENOSE DOPHINS (VIDEO) & BMMRO ABACO CETACEAN SIGHTINGS

The legendary CONCH SALAD TV is a great resource for Bahamas wildlife and way-of-life enlightenment. Their instructive videos are very well put together, and cover Nature, Marine, Art, Science, Music, Culture, Cooking, and broader Bahamas issues. The video below is 9 minutes of Bottlenose Dolphin action, and is recommended for relaxation, gentle instruction, and Kalik-swigging accompaniment…

BMMRO Whale Camp Dolphin Image FV

It time to catch up with last month’s Cetacean sightings around Abaco. The Manatee reports are of Georgie in the Cherokee area – alas no longer resident on Abaco but safely at Atlantis where she is being cared for. To know more about the Blainville’s beaked whale on Abaco, click HEREBMMRO sightings 2013

stop pres gif BMMRO’s executive director DIANE CLARIDGE has been awarded her PhD by St Andrews University for her research on beaked whales.  Dr Claridge’s new status is celebrated by humans and cetaceans alike (see image ©BMMRO below…)Bottlenose Dolphins Abaco ©BMMRO

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“GEORGIE” THE MANATEE MOVIE: ON LOCATION AT CHEROKEE, ABACO


UPDATE 17 OCT I gather that Georgie is so pleased with her new home at Cherokee, she’s still there. Not sure if she is with or without her tag, but I suppose if she has decided to stay put in one area, tracking her is not a priority. Maybe the sea grass there is a particularly good kind – or perhaps she has found natural springs to her liking. Maybe it’s the folk who live there… yes, I think it must be that. I’m hoping to get some more specific news soon, and some more photos.

UPDATE 7 OCT Kendria says that Georgie has managed to lose her tag yet again. She’s still at Cherokee, but if she decides to make a move, she can now be tracked only from reported sightings. Maybe she just doesn’t like to accessorise…

UPDATE 6 OCT Georgie has taken to life in Cherokee. She is still there – the longest she has stayed on one place during her epic journey. She’s a very popular guest, of course, and  has generated a lot of local interest and affection. Here’s a BMMRO photo taken yesterday of Georgie enjoying some quality algae browsing on the pilings in the dock

“GEORGIE” THE MANATEE MOVIE: ON LOCATION AT CHEROKEE, ABACO

The story of Georgie, the young female manatee currently undertaking a round trip of Abaco, has further raised the profile of these unusual and fascinating creatures in the northern Bahamas. Like many others who have been enthused by this important conservation and research project, I’ve been following her story since her release with her mother Rita in the Berry Is. earlier this year. In June she was weaned. In September she decided to set off to sea grass pastures new –  see GEORGIE for details

Yesterday she was still in the Cherokee area, but had lost her tag. The task was to locate her, find the tag and reattach it, and check her wellbeing. All were accomplished in the course of the day and the BMMRO posted: “Today was another day in Georgie’s ‘world according to Georgie’!!! A special BMMRO thank you and Manatee high five to Andrew Lowe, Cindy & Buddy, and the community of Cherokee! Georgie is lucky to have such caring people around! She is still parked at Cherokee and BMMRO will do their best to continue to monitor her health and habitat use in the area!”

Things have moved on a bit since then, and I am really grateful to Kendria Ferguson for finding the time to email me; and to Cindy James Pinder  for permission to use her excellent photographic material from her time spent with Georgie. Her latest news is that Georgie is moving south towards Casuarina. There are blue holes in the area where she can find fresh water. Cindy adds “She may show up in the canal in Casuarina today. If you see her please offer her fresh water from a hose.”

It’s time to showcase a short video taken by Cindy at Cherokee yesterday. In order to post it here I have had to make a derivative movie from the original. It’s like an uncontentious bootleg, i.e. made with the artist’s approval (for which many thanks!). The quality isn’t as good of course, but you will clearly see what is endearing about these inquisitive, gentle and trusting creatures – and why this makes them so vulnerable and in need of protection. Only today, a woman has been detained in Florida for riding a manatee – a strictly unlawful act that has been strongly condemned.

Here are some stills also taken by Cindy yesterday, who says “…in case you are wondering . . . a manatee feels like leather!”. They depend on having some fresh water, and these great pictures show various methods of supplying it. The top one is my favourite.

HELP NEEDED If you would like to support manatee research and conservation in The Bahamas, please email info@bahamaswhales.org or rollingharbour.delphi@gmail.com 
This is the perfect place and time to post the BMMRO September 2012 Whale, Dolphin and Manatee sightings map. Last month the cetacean count was very low – no whales at all, a solitary dolphin. However, manatees are starting to feature much more, and the Abaco sightings – presumably of Georgie as she progresses round the Islands  – are the first ones recorded there (I think) since manatee sightings began to be included towards the end of last year. A cause for breaking out the fresh water to celebrate.
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MUSICAL AFTERNOTES The video music is Rizraklaru by Ralph McTell (before he arguably spoilt it all with the mawkish ‘Streets of London’) from ‘Spiral Staircase’ (credit / plug for RM). He wrote it in 1967 while living in an old caravan in deepest Cornwall. He and his mates had only mother nature’s ‘Rural Karzi’ to use, and the song title is an anagram. It’s a long story that ends, in RM’s words, “After he’d stopped laughing, Henry and I explained the title’s origin [to him] and he suggested an anagram, so we put the first letter last and spelt the whole thing backwards, and there you have it ! RIZRAKLARU !” 

ABACO MANATEE GEORGIE’S TRIP: HOPE TOWN TO CHEROKEE


ABACO’S MANATEE, GEORGIE, SWIMS  FROM HOPE TOWN VIA LITTLE HARBOUR TO CHEROKEE

GEORGIE UPDATE 2 OCT Cindy James Pinder has posted on Facebook “Oh no, Georgie the manatee has lost her tracking device. Be on the look out for it in the Cherokee area. We are going to go out and look for her tomorrow with BMMRO. We are hoping that she goes back to the dock area looking for fresh water.” 

BMMRO UPDATE 1 OCT I’ve just heard from Diane Claridge and Kendria Ferguson. They have kindly clarified the details of Georgie’s route, which makes her journey longer than my guesstimate (see below). Georgie has continued on her way, and after some resting and some quality sea grass munching, Kendria says (yesterday ) “…right now she is in CHEROKEE!”. I’m not sure where the fresh water springs are along the east coast, but I am beginning to think that Georgie may be on her way to check out Rolling Harbour and the Delphi Club, drawn by telepathic and symbiotic forces as yet unexplained, projected from the blogosphere… 

BMMRO FACEBOOK “Georgie the manatee is creating quit a stir in Cherokee! Thank you for the sighting reports! (get some photos please!) To everyone there please don’t feed her lettuce. Manatees become very dependent on humans-their fast learners! It also teaches them to come into marinas which is where their number one predator lives – BOATS!! We want to ensure Georgie’s safety whiles she is here! We are unfamiliar with the area-so if anyone knows of any natural freshwater resources (shallow water seepage/blueholes) please do share that info! It is ok to give her a hose, mainly because we are not sure if she’s getting adequate freshwater in the area. Please remember she is a toddler and her belly is never full so have a cut off limit!  See you tomorrow Cherokee!! Take care of Georgie!”

Georgie’s next stop?

BMMRO report 30 SEP Georgie the manatee continues to travel around the Abaco’s! Fitted with a new satellite tag, she is currently exploring LITTLE HARBOUR. Yesterday, scientists caught up with her by CORNISH CAY where she was taking a quick nap and feeding on seagrass. We will continue to update the public on her whereabouts. Thank you to everyone for all their assistance in locating Georgie and ensuring her safety whiles she takes a much needed vacation from the Berry Islands.

A short time ago I wondered (in print) when a manatee would next be seen in Abaco waters – the nearest candidates being the small Berry Is. population. The answer was quick. Now! Georgie – the recently weaned calf of Rita – had swum across from the Berrys to Abaco, explored the Marls, headed  north to Little Abaco, then travelled south on the eastern side of Abaco. She was spotted at Green Turtle Cay, but it had become clear that her satellite tag was malfunctioning, so locating Georgie and monitoring her progress depended on reported sightings.

The BMMRO reported yesterday “Georgie the manatee was sighted at the Sailing Club dock in Hope Town Harbour just after 2pm today! We’d appreciate any further sighting reports as to her whereabouts! Please drive carefully in and around Hope Town Harbour.” Hope Town resident Stafford Patterson was able to get 2 fine photos of Georgie. I contacted him about using them, and he has replied “Permission granted!! And we were happy to host Georgie yesterday.” So here is Abaco’s sole resident manatee (as far as I am aware) enjoying her visit to Elbow Cay.

A team was able to fit a new satellite tag to Georgie (see below), so following her adventures will now be much easier. But where will she go next? What this space or, better still, check out the BMMRO FACEBOOK page

STOP PRESS I’ve been wondering about the distance Georgie has travelled (remembering always that she was weaned only recently). So with the the help of an online map measuring thingy (Free! Cool!), here’s a calculation based loosely on more assumptions than you will find on ASSUMPTION ISLAND. For a start, I don’t know where in the Berry Is. Georgie officially set off from; nor where she was seen on  the Marls; nor how she negotiated Little Abaco and the Cays along the east coast of Abaco; nor how many times she circled round exploring as she went. However, taking the ‘as the manatee swims’ direct line approach and assuming no significant deviations, the gizmo reckons the journey was a minimum of 150 miles. With any luck the recovered defective tag will have recorded her exact route, and amply demonstrate that I have wasted 1/2 an hour on this. Still, I wanted to know…

 

And for anyone wondering about Assumption Island, it does indeed exist, located in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar. And the spooky thing is… it is shaped remarkably like a manatee! Well, quite like one, anyway.

Assumption Island (geographically correct)  Assumption Island (manatee rotation)      Awww…Cute!!!

                                

Credit: savethemanatee.org