‘DEEP DIVERS IN DIVERS DEEPS’: CUVIER’S BEAKED WHALES


Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

‘DEEP DIVERS IN DIVERS DEEPS’: CUVIER’S BEAKED WHALES

JOURNEY TO THE WORLD’S MIDNIGHT ZONE

Please join me in a dive down from the sparkling surface of the turquoise sea to the twilight zone at 200 meters. You’ll pass plenty of sea-life on the way: manatees grazing on seagrass just below the surface; reef fish, barracudas, reef sharks, mahi-mahi, maybe an orca at 100 meters. Other familiar creatures that are found even lower include a few reef fish, some shark species and green sea turtles. You are now running out of clear light.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

As you descend from 200 meters the waters become murky, then inky. The variety of inhabitants and their numbers are gradually decreasing. There are eels, some sharks, squid, stranger deep-water creatures. You may be surprised to see familiar bottlenose dolphins, recorded as diving nearly 300 meters. At 332 meters you will equal the deepest point any human being has ever scuba-dived (Ahmed Gabr 2014). There is little light, but you still have a long way to go to reach your goal.

Dolphin dive depth (Neal)

Descending still deeper, species and numbers continue to thin out. Around the world the limits of larger recognisable species is being reached – more shark species, tuna, chinook salmon, emperor penguins, swordfish, the few corals that can survive the depth. As the light fades to black, giant creatures and strange fish abound. Huge crabs. Sunfish. The (no-longer-extinct) Coelocanth. Massive octopuses. 

Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

Deeper down, nearing 1000 meters now, there are still some familiar species. Leatherback turtles; Baird’s beaked whales (nb not in the Atlantic); and at 920 meters, the deepest recorded sperm whale dive. It’s pitch dark: you have reached the level that sunlight never penetrates. You are in the Midnight Zone.

Sperm whale dive depth (Neal)

DEEP OCEAN DWELLERS

In black depths below 1000 meters, creatures have adpated to create their own light sources – so-called bioluminescence. This is the realm of the self-lit anglerfish, the blobfish and the goblin shark. It’s the Attenborough world of deep sea exploration. The geology is changing: there are hypervents, volcanic rocks, heavy metals. Below are the deep ocean-floor trenches. Yet there are still recognisable species down here, diving astonishingly deep to 1800 meters to feed – not least the narwhal which makes this trip several times a day to feed.

We need to quicken up the descent now – we have to get down nearly twice as far as this to reach our destination…

Cuvier's Beaked Whale leap (M.Rosso GIMA - IUCN)

We pass large squid and isopods, the deepest diving shark – the Greenland, the 10 meter-long 700 kilo colossal squid – yet amazingly there are marine mammals yet to be encountered: at 2400 meters we drift past a huge elephant seal. There are evil-looking creatures down here with names to match – devilfish, viperfish, black swallowers that can eat a larger fish whole, vampire squid and zombie worms. 

At 3000 feet, we finally end our quest. We have reached the depth to which the world’s deepest diving mammal has been recorded: the Cuvier’s beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris


Cuvier's Beaked Whale (NOAA Fisheries)

Cuvier’s beaked whales, or “goose-beaked whales,” are not rare. For a start, unlike many beaked whale species, they inhabit most oceans and seas in the world and have the most extensive range. Unsurprisingly therefore, they are one of the most often sighted beaked whale species and one of the best studied. 

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

FIN FACT

You may be wondering about the pressure exerted on a creature at a depth of 3000 meters. The answer is, an astounding 300 atm (atmospheres), enough to crush all but the hardiest and best adapted of species. The question how these whales manage to survive at such a depth is one for the future…

The Cuvier’s is one of the 3 beaked whale species found in Bahamas waters. Like the rarer Blainville’s and Gervais’s beaked whales, the Cuvier’s is the subject of ongoing research by the BAHAMAS MARINE MAMMAL RESEARCH ORGANISATION BMMRO

Cuvier's Beaked Whale leap (BW - Getty - Times)

The research into marine mammal populations in the Bahamas and far beyond is focussed on the massive increase in single and mass strandings, including recently in a remote area of Scotland (Hebrides) where more than 40 Cuvier’s were washed ashore.

One significant area of research examines the effect on marine mammals of man-made noise. There is plenty of it in the world’s oceans caused by noise pollution in and around shipping channels that traverse marine mammal migration, feeding and breeding grounds; naval surface and submarine exercises; seismic surveys, sonar waves and undersea resource investigations. The evidence of sound / acoustic damage as an additional hazard for marine mammals is starting to look very clear.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

DEEP WATER INFOGRAPHIC

Do not miss this wonderful work by Neal Agarwal. This article is based around it and includes facts and images derived from his incredibly complex structure that has resulted in a remarkably simple resource for layman and ocean-lover alike (I realise these categories may overlap). To see the entire masterpiece, double click of the box below – “it will be worth it”.

CREDITS: Neal Agarwal; BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn; M.Rosso GIMA – IUCN; NOAA Fisheries; BW – Getty – Times; Pierangelo Pirak / BBC Earth (depth infographic), general sources – BMMRO, IUCN, NOAA, WDC

As ever, the Bahamas Philatelic Bureau has produced a wonderful stamp special issue

EEL-SPOTTING: FORAYS WITH MORAYS (7)


Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

EEL-SPOTTING: FORAYS WITH MORAYS (7)

MORAY EELS are plentiful around the reefs of the Bahamas. Some species, anyway. The ones you are most likely to encounter are green morays, and the spotted morays shown here. Less common are chain and golden-tail morays and, rarer still I suspect (because I have only  one image in the archive…) is the ‘purple-mouth’.  

Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Despite their moderately intimidating appearance – an adult may grow to 1.5 meters or more, with sharp teeth at the front end – these eels are not especially aggressive unless provoked. Best to assume that all humans will behave respectfully around them and remember that people are the intruders in the eels’ domain. 

Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Morays tend to be loners of the reefs, but they do gather in groups from time to time. And as shown below, they will also hunt with other species, for example this tiger grouper.

Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Sharp-eyed, sharp-toothed

Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Looks friendly enough…

Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

A long and surprisingly large body, generally concealed in the crevices of the reef

Spotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Lurkin’ GoodSpotted Moray Eel, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT


Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes) BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT

I was looking at the list of the dozens of Abaco bird species I have featured over the years, when I was struck by the complete omission of one of Abaco’s most significant small birds – the Bahama Warbler Setophaga flavescens. This warbler species is of the most important in the Bahamas for several reasons, any one of which should have prompted me to showcase this lovely bird before now.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

A SPECIALITY BIRD

The Bahama warbler is a significant species with a near-unique status in the Bahamas:

  • Found only on Abaco and Grand Bahama
  • One of only 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas
  • One of only 2 endemic warbler species on Abaco (with the BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT)
  • One of only 5 permanent year-round resident warblers (33 others are migratory), the other 3 being the OLIVE-CAPPED, YELLOW, and PINE warblers.

Bahama Warbler Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Until 2011, the BAWA was classified as a subspecies of the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER. The ornithological powers-that-be then recognised that the two species were distinct in both appearance and in vocalisation, and split them into separate species (this splitting / amalgamating process occurs annually and plays havoc with the precious ‘Life Lists’ kept with such rigour by ardent birders**.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The BAWA has such a confined range that even the extensive reach of the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not got as far as this bird. The info sections of the otherwise comprehensive website for Neotropical Birds are blank and waiting for someone to upload some details. Here are a few facts in one of a very good series of info-graphics produced by the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST.

BNT infographic Bahama Warbler

** I have never even started a Life List, which demonstrates just how lightweight I am as a bird person

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 4); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Woody Bracey (3); Tom Sheley (5); Range Map, Cornell; Info G, BNT

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

BAHAMAS MARINE MAMMAL RESEARCH: 20/20 VISIONS


Sperm Whale Calf, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Neonate Sperm Whale Calf, Abaco Bahamas

BAHAMAS MARINE MAMMAL RESEARCH: 20/20 VISIONS

Change is in the air. And in the sea. Above, you will notice the brand new logo of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMRO based in Sandy point, Abaco. Several major Bahamas-wide projects are in progress or in preparation, and as we approach 2020, this is the perfect time for some marine mammal news, illustrated with great images from BMMRO research trips.

Bottlenose Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Bottlenose Dolphins

BMMRO’s scientific research over many years is a prime reason why we all have the privilege of seeing the neonate sperm whale calf in the header image. It was photographed with its mother off South Abaco last Spring. Much-appreciated support of the essential research and conservation work of the organisation helps to ensure that the whales, dolphins and manatees in Bahamas waters are watched over, documented in minute detail (even their calls) and protected. The marine mammals of the Bahamas have a promising future looking ahead to 2020, and well beyond.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Blainville’s Beaked Whale and young calf

Humpback Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO)

Humpback Whale

ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS

WEST INDIAN MANATEES – GINA and RANDY

West Indian Manatee, Bahamas - Gina (BMMRO)  West Indian Manatee, Bahamas - Randy (BMMRO)

All photographs and video footage: BMMRO

Sperm Whale tailing, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Sperm Whale Tailing, Bahamas

ABACO HUMMINGBIRDS: WHAT’S THE NEWS?


BAHAMA WOODSTAR (F) ABACO - TARA LAVALLEE

ABACO HUMMINGBIRDS: WHAT’S THE NEWS?

SIGHTINGS POST-DORIAN

Since the hurricane struck nearly 3 months ago, order is slowly being imposed on the chaos. Debris is being removed in vast quantities, building repairs are in progress, shops and some businesses are starting to open – and even (only last week) a bank. 

BAHAMA WOODSTAR (M) ABACO - BRUCE HALLETT

Specific bird news from Abaco post-Dorian is sporadic, with people having plenty of other concerns at the moment and for some time yet. The wellbeing of the parrots has been checked during a scientific survey last month. There is infrequent but positive news of the shorebirds, especially of the piping plovers that are counted each winter season. There have been some reports of the warblers (of which there are an astonishing 38 species recorded for the Island and its cays).

CUBAN EMERALD (M) ABACO BAHAMAS (KEITH SALVESEN / ROLLING HARBOUR)

As yet, I have seen no recent mentions at all in SocMed about the hummingbirds – the endemic Bahama Woodstar (#1 F; #2 M); and the Cuban Emerald (#3 F; #4 M). Are they around? Is anyone seeing them darting about like jinking bullets or feeding on flowers on the hover? I’m not on-island, so I’d be very pleased to know: are the hummers still humming?

CUBAN EMERALD (F) ABACO BAHAMAS (KEITH SALVESEN / ROLLING HARBOUR)

Photos: Tara Lavallee (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (3), (4)

ELKHORN CORAL, ABACO BAHAMAS (DORIAN UPDATE)


Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

ELKHORN CORAL, ABACO BAHAMAS (DORIAN UPDATE)

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) is a widespread reef coral, an unmistakeable species with large branches that resemble elk antlers. The dense growths create an ideal shady habitat for many reef creatures. These include reef fishes of all shapes and sizes, lobsters, shrimps and many more besides. Some of these are essential for the wellbeing of the reef and also its denizens.

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

GOOD POST-DORIAN NEWS ABOUT ABACORAL

A recent report from FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT brings encouraging news about the reefs of  Abaco post-hurricane, and an indication of the resilience of the coral to extreme conditions (with one exception for a reef too close to the shore to avoid damage from debris).

Shortly before Dorian hit, The Perry Institute for Marine Science and its partners surveyed reefs across Grand Bahama and Abaco to assess their health. Following Dorian, they were able to reassess these areas and the impact of the hurricane. Over the 370 miles that the surveys covered, minimal damage was found on the majority of reefs. Unfortunately Mermaid Reef, where FRIENDS does most of our educational field trips, sustained extensive damage due to debris from its close proximity to the shoreline. We are looking into how we can help with logistics to get the debris removed, and hopefully the recovery will begin soon.

Elkhorn Coral, Pelican Cays, Abaco Bahamas (Friends of the Environment)

Elkhorn coral standing strong post-Dorian at Sandy Cay Reef, Pelican Shores, Abaco

The scientists were also able to visit four of the Reef Rescue Network’s coral nurseries and assess out-planted corals in national parks in both Grand Bahama and Abaco. The great news is that all of the corals on these nurseries survived the storm and will be used to support reef restoration. Also from the surveys, it appears that our offshore reefs around Abaco sustained minimal damage, including Sandy Cay Reef in Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park (pictured above). This gives us hope for the recovery of our oceans post-Dorian and proves how resilient these amazing ecosystems are.

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

Examples of species vital for healthy corals include several types of PARROTFISH, the colourful and voracious herbivores that spend most of their time eating algae off the coral reefs using their beak-like teeth. This algal diet is digested, and the remains excreted as sand. Tread with care on your favourite beach; in part at least, it will consist of parrotfish poop.

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

Other vital reef species living in the shelter of elkhorn and other corals are the CLEANERS, little fish and shrimps that cater for the wellbeing and grooming of large and even predatory fishes. Gobies, wrasse, Pedersen shrimps and many others pick dead skin and parasites from the ‘client’ fish including their gills, and even from between the teeth of predators. This service is an excellent example of MUTUALISM, a symbiotic relationship in which both parties benefit: close grooming in return for rich pickings of food.

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

VULNERABILITY TO OFFICIALLY NON-EXISTENT CLIMATE CRISIS

Formally abundant, over just a couple of decades elkhorn coral has been massively affected by [climate change, human activity and habitat destruction] inexplicable natural attrition in many areas. One cause of decline that is incontrovertible is damage from storms, which are empirically increasing in both frequency and intensity, though apparently for no known reason.

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

Physical damage to corals may seriously impact on reproductive success; elkhorn coral is no exception. The effects of a reduction of reef fertility are compounded by the fact that natural recovery is in any case inevitably a slow process. The worse the problem gets, the harder it becomes even to survive let alone recover. 

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

SO HOW DOES ELKHORN CORAL REPRODUCE?

There are two types of reproduction, which one might call asexual and sexual:

  1. Elkhorn coral reproduction occurs when a branch breaks off and attaches to the substrate, forming a the start of a new colony. This process is known as fragmentation and accounts for roughly half of coral spread. Considerable success is being achieved now with many coral species by in effect farming fragments and cloning colonies (see above, Reef Rescue Network’s coral nurseries)
  2. Sexual reproduction occurs once a year in August or September, when coral colonies release millions of gametes by broadcast spawning (there’s much more to be said on this interesting topic, and one day I will)

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

THE FEATURED PHOTOGRAPHS

You may have wondered in which healthily coral-infested waters these superb elkhorn coral photographs were taken. Did I perhaps source them from a National Geographic coral reef special edition? In fact, every image featured was obtained among the reefs of Abaco.

All except the recent Perry Institute / Friends of the Environment photo were taken by Melinda Rogers of Dive Abaco, Marsh Harbour. The long-established and highly regarded Dive Shop she and her husband Keith run was obliterated (see above) less than 3 months ago by Hurricane Dorian, along with most of the rest of the town. It’s a pleasure to be able to showcase these images taken in sunnier times.

Elkhorn Coral, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

AN OCTOPUS’S GARDEN, BAHAMAS


Octopus on coral reef, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

AN OCTOPUS’S GARDEN, BAHAMAS

Most of us, from time to time, might like to be under the sea, warm below the storm, swimming about the coral that lies beneath the ocean waves. An undeniably idyllic experience that is perfected by the presence of an octopus and the notional garden he lives in. Enough to make any person shout and swim about – and quite excessively at that.

Octopus on the coral reef, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

The extra ingredient here is that these photographs were taken on the reef off the southern coast of Grand Bahama last week, less than 2 months after the island (along with Abaco) was smashed up by Hurricane Dorian. Thankfully, Grand Bahama Scuba has been able to return to relative normality and run diving trips again. Moreover, fears for the reefs have proved relatively unfounded. These images suggest little damage from the massive storm. The Abaco reefs have not yet been able to be assessed in any detail.

Octopus on the coral reef, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

The feature creature here was observed and photographed as it took it a octopodic wander round the reef. The vivid small fishes are out and about. The reef and its static (technically ‘sessile’) life forms –  corals, anemones and sponges –  look in good order. The octopus takes a pause to assess its surroundings before moving on to another part of the reef.

Octopus on the coral reef, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

THE PLURAL(S) OF OCTOPUS REVISITED

A long time ago I wrote a quasi-learned disquisition on the correct plural for the octopus. There were at least 3 possibilities derived from Greek and Latin, all arguable but none so sensible or normal-sounding as ‘octopuses‘. The other 2 are octopi and octopodes. If you want the bother with the details check out THE PLURAL OF OCTOPUS

There’s an aspect I missed then, through rank ignorance I’d say: I didn’t check the details of the Scientific Classification. Now that I am more ‘Linnaeus-woke’, I have two further plural candidates with impeccable credentials. Octopuses are cephalpods (‘headfeet’) of the Order Octopoda and the Family Octopodidae. These names have existed since naturalist GEORGES CUVIER (he of the beaked whale found in Bahamas waters) classified them thus in 1797.  

RH ADVICE stick with ‘octopuses’ and (a) you won’t be wrong (b) you won’t get into an un-winnable argument with a pedant and (3) you won’t sound pretentious

Octopus on the coral reef, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION

Whether you are 9 or 90, you can never have too much of this one. If you are somewhere in the middle – or having Ringo Starr free-styling vocals doesn’t appeal – you can. Step back from the vid.

All fabulous photos by Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba, Nov 2019

Octopus on the coral reef, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)