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

‘FAMILIAR FECES’: CETACEAN POOP-SCOOPING BY SPECIES


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‘FAMILIAR FECES’: CETACEAN POOP-SCOOPING BY SPECIES

UPDATE I name-checked BMMRO intern Oscar Ward’s blog below. Now he’s been out on the ocean on ‘poop patrol’. You can read Oscar’s account of his experiences HERE

Among the many pleasures for cetacean research scientists must be the joy of whale poop collection. Followed by close inspection and analysis. The Bahamas  Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMRO conducts research expeditions, in conjunction with such organisations as the New England Aquarium NEAQ and Friends of the Environment FOTE, in Abaco waters and further afield in the Bahamas. The attention this year has been on beaked whale feces, though available sperm whale feces are not to be sniffed at. Images and info below are courtesy of the organisations mentioned above, with thanks for use permission

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A researcher working with BMMRO demonstrates feces collection using coffee grounds. She collects the coffee granules in her net and places the entire sample into a ziplock bag, ready to hand to the boat for processing 269

The purpose of feces collection is to look at the stress and reproductive hormones of the whales and to gather a baseline for these animals with which to compare other populations that are under threat3

An alternative method of collectionpoop15

Blainville’s Beaked Whales (suppliers of raw research material)Blainville's Beaked Whale AbacoBeaked whale - supplier of poop BMMRO

There are some conditions – dare I say windy ones – when Blainville’s beaked whales may be hard to locate. At such times, collection of pieces of other species feces rarely ceases… Here is a sperm whale in the act of producing laboratory samplesTail_18Jun10_01_Pm_CAD_123

Weather of the sort that makes the day’s collection more complicated. Indeed, it looks and uphill task…GOPR0109

That’s enough on the topic for now. Later in the month there will be some great dolphin pictures to enjoy. Below is the BMMRO sightings chart for July, which I forgot to publish sooner.

Finally, a young UK friend of ours, Oscar Ward, has recently won his place to study marine biology at university next Autumn. He has just arrived on Abaco to start an internship with the BMMRO at Sandy Point. He will then be moving to Friends of the Environment in MH. He has set up an excellent blog to record his experiences, with his first Abaco post going up today, I notice. You can follow Oscar at SEVENTYPERCENT.COM And if you see him around, do say hi! to him.

BMMRO SIGHTINGS JULY 2013

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

ABACO WHALES & DOLPHINS, BMMRO SIGHTINGS & NEWSLETTER


Dolphin Leap copy

ABACO WHALES & DOLPHINS: BMMRO SIGHTINGS & NEWSLETTER

I haven’t posted Abaco whale, dolphin & manatee news for a while. Time for a catch-up. Georgie the young manatee that left her mother Rita and came to Abaco from the Berry Is. alone, is no longer here. She survived a very long journey, and investigated various coastal areas of Abaco – all the while being tracked. In the end she settled down in the Cherokee area. There were anxious times during Hurricane Sandy when she went missing (having by now shed her tracking device) but she eventually reappeared at Cherokee having found a safe haven from the storm. Sadly, however, her condition deteriorated and in the New Year she was relocated to Atlantis Dolphin Cay Marine Mammal Rescue Center. Some weeks ago a healthy Georgie was moved to a sea-pen to acclimatise her for release back into the wild.

Read more about Georgie the Manatee’s epic trip HERE and about the operation to relocate her HERE

ABACO DOLPHINS – A MOTHER & HER CALF 428475_595355517150345_807197303_n-1

The Bahamas Marines Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) is based at Sandy Point, Abaco. A number of research projects are underway, and recently these have involved work on Andros. The team are now back, and encountering Abaco’s own dolphins and whales. The main photos on the page have all been taken in the last week or so. [The header is by Norwegian artist Roll Inge Haaver]

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN, ABACO971695_596998516986045_1649965583_n

SPERM WHALE ‘TAILING’, ABACO (1 of 3 found yesterday using acoustic tracking)374338_596998896986007_1736456956_n

DCB GBG Cover Logo dolphin

BMMRO CHART OF CETACEAN SIGHTINGS FOR MARCH 2013

Of special note are the big whales – 3 sperm whales, and a humpback whale reported close to Cherokee.
BMMRO SIGHTINGS March 2013

Sperm whales. Humpbacks. How big are they? This useful chart shows the average lengths of various whales. I grabbed it off the internet a while ago, but regrettably forgot to mark the source. So, apologies to the originator for using it uncredited, a cyber-sin I try to avoid.what-largest-whale-cetacea-size-comparison-chart-590x338

Finally, the BMMRO’s latest 4-page Newsletter contains a wealth of information about their current activities, some great pictures, and even a quiz – check out BMMRO NEWSLETTER_Apr13

Click logo to linkbmmro_logo

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.