PILOT WHALES: “DIVIDED BY A COMMON SEA”
You know the thing about Britain and the US being ‘two Nations divided by a common language’? Among the many august people credited with first coming up with this remark, the leading contenders are Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. Generally, Wilde seems to be considered the winning author**. Whichever, the saying is intended to be lightly and amusingly rude, probably to both nations.
Well, pilot whales are in a similar position. They are found on both sides of the Atlantic (and many other places of course). As acoustic analysis of the sounds made by marine mammals becomes increasingly sophisticated, the evidence suggests that a pilot whale in The Canary Islands saying “Hey guys, meal approaching 11.00 o’clock, moving right, 30 feet” will use different sounds from its counterpart in the Bahamas.
A pilot whale with a recent injury to its jaw. Chief suspect: a COOKIECUTTER SHARK?
Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorynchus) are also known as blackfish or potheads (though some may reserve this last term for – ahem – higher species). As with MELON-HEADED WHALES, they are in fact a species of large dolphin. They can grow to nearly 20′ long and weigh accordingly.
Pilot whales live in large pods of 50 or more. These are so-called ‘matrilineal’ groups, meaning that they consist of 2 or even 3 generations of related females. When the sea is calm, they sometimes adopt a behaviour known as ‘logging’, in which they will spend a long time – maybe hours – lying on the surface in tight groups.
In The Bahamas, pilot whales are seen year-round but are more common during the spring and summer months. Some are resident, but Bahama pilot whales appear to have large ranging patterns. Pilot whales tagged in The Bahamas have travelled as far north as North Carolina suggesting they are part of a population located in the US southeast .
HOW DO RESEARCHERS RECOGNISE EACH ANIMAL?
The first place to look is the dorsal fin. There are (at least) two reasons for this. First, it’s the part of the dolphin / whale that is most visible through binoculars; secondly, it is the part that tends to acquire nicks, ragged edges, and scar patterns that are unique to that animal. When a new cetacean is sighted, it is logged and assigned an ID. This will usually be kept simple and scientific: “look, there’s AL16 again” and so on; how unlike birds, where banders assign names such as Felicia Fancybottom, Bahama Mama and Harry Potter.
If you look at #2 above, notice the distinctive hooked dorsal fin of the right-hand pilot of the trio. An easy ID for future sightings. And see below for nicks and scarring.
MEANWHILE, 3643 MILES EAST ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
Last Autumn my niece and her family went to La Gomera, a small volcanic island in the Canaries. They all went on a whale / dolphin watching trip and were delighted to encounter a group of pilot whales. My great nephew, not yet a teenager, had an iphone with him and in the circumstances of standing on a moving platform photographing creatures swimming fast through the water, he did a very good job. A couple of them even have a bonus shearwater.
The west and east Atlantic pilot whales shown here are almost exactly on the same latitude
I’m not particularly bothered by my lack of photographic eptitude, but even I feel that my own shot of a pilot whale in the Sea of Abaco rates high in the list of epic fails
The identity of the photographer is protected under the Official Secrets Act 1989
** ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’ Oscar Wilde The Canterville Ghost (1887)
Photo Credits: 1 – 5, BMMRO / Rolling Harbour; 6 – 10, my naturalist nephew Yarin; 11, name withheld by order of the management; 12, Marina Nolte / Wiki. General thanks: Diane, Charlotte, BMMRO