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

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES’ FEEDING GROUND ON ABACO / BMMRO MAY 2012 REPORT


BMMRO MAY 2012 REPORT / THE BEAKED WHALES’ FEEDING GROUND

The BMMRO report for May 2012 has just been published. It’s quite short so I am posting it ‘as is’. While I am about it, Charlotte Dunn has just emailed me about an aerial shot we took on a flight from MH to Nassau of the southern stretch of Abaco coast between Hole-in-the-Wall and Rocky Point. She writes “that stretch of dark water is the North West Providence channel and where we often see our infamous beaked whales. They dive down to get their food, diving to 2000m in some cases!” In the top photo, the plane is roughly over Hole-in-the-Wall. Sandy Point Airport is just visible (top centre). The second close-up photo clearly shows how the shallow coastal water quickly gives way to the deeper water of the channel.

BMMRO Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation Banner
BMMRO NEWS MAY 2012
May fieldworkProject: Monitoring beaked whale responses to sonar tests at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre (AUTEC)
A collaborative effort to deploy satellite tags on odontocete cetaceans on and around the US Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in the northern Bahamas took place for the seventh time during April – May 2012. This project aims to monitor the movements of beaked whales and other odontocetes in relation to active sonar exercises, and particularly tests around multi-ship sonar exercises, on the AUTEC weapons range. This is a collaboration between the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation, the Protected Resources Division of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center (http://swfsc.noaa.gov/prd.aspx) and the US Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC, http://www.nuwc.navy.mil/), with funding provided by the Chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division – N45. Secondary objectives include obtaining photo-identification data and biopsy samples.Below a picture is showing a satellite LIMPET tag being deployed on a Blainville’s beaked whale at AUTEC. These small low-profile tags are attached using a crossbow to deploy the tag on a projectile bolt; on contact with whale this bolt falls away (as shown), leaving only the transmitter tag attached to the animal. Two of these tags were deployed in early May 2012, transmitting dive depth data and location signals for 18 and 28 days.

tag placement on Blainville's beaked whale

The field team worked in co-ordination with NUWC’s Marine Mammal Monitoring on Navy Ranges (M3R) team based at Site 1, AUTEC. M3R vectored the vessel to acoustic detections of cetaceans on the range.

Sightings were made of 3 species: Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), and melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra). There were 7 satellite tag deployments, 4 on sperm whales, 1 on a melon-headed whale and 2 on beaked whales. Both of the tags deployed on the beaked whales have provided movement and depth data prior to, during and after the multi-ship sonar exercise at AUTEC.

To read more about this project, go to the NOAA website to see their report.
Project: Assessing beaked whale reproduciton and stress response relative to sonar activity at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre (AUTEC)
Fieldwork took place in south Abaco with the field team based at BMMRO’s research centre in Sandy Point. The effort lasted two weeks and 22 biopsy samples were collected from 23 of the Blainville’s beaked whales sighted during the period, the 23rd animal was a calf and too small to biopsy.

These samples will be used to look at reproductive and stress hormone levels, and will be compared to samples taken from whales residing on the AUTEC range in Andros, during a project scheduled to take place in July this year. This project is funded with a research grant from the Office of Naval Research.