ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA
Credit: Fabulous in-flight shot by Nina Henry (contributor to ‘Birds of Abaco’)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
All photographs and video footage: BMMRO
CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
The massive destruction and dislocation caused on both Abaco and Grand Bahama by Hurricane Dorian is well-documented. The regeneration of both islands is making unsteady progress towards a stability that still seems many months away. In many locations it is still ‘two steps forward, one step back’. It remains a moot point whether ‘normality’, as it was just over 2 months ago, will ever be quite the same again.
We know how things are on land. As far as Abaco is concerned, few people can say how the coral reefs have been affected by the massive storms. Boats that were not flung ashore were sunk instead. Marinas and their infrastructure all but disappeared.
Dive Shops, like so many thriving businesses in MH, have been reduced to rubble by this cruellest of extreme tropical storms. For the time being at least, they are damaged beyond use. I have seen no reports about the conditions in – for example – Fowl Cays National Park, a coral and reef-life rich marine preserve that was directly in the hurricane’s path. It may be weeks before an assessment can be made.
Happily, Melinda and Fred Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba have very recently been able to reopen their business. Melinda is, as regular readers will know, a wonderful underwater photographer. She kindly gives me the freedom of her extensive photo archive, accumulated over many years. The focus today is on French angelfish on the reefs of Grand Bahama.
Many of the photos here have been taken during the last 3 weeks or so, as diving becomes more of a daily exercise and customers are able to return to explore the underwater world of the reefs. Adult French angelfish have handsomely decorated flanks and golden eye-rings. The small striped ones with blue flashes on their fins are juveniles.
There are three angelfish species in the northern Bahamas – Queen, Gray and French. I have chosen to feature French angelfish because as it happens the juveniles of the species found since Dorian by Melinda and Fred may provide some insight into the subsurface effects of this huge storm.
As is evident from Melinda’s recent photos, the reefs off the south coast of Grand Bahama are relatively unscathed. Corals that she and Fred planted after the last hurricane have ‘taken’ and remain in place. However the juvenile fish now being seen nosing around the reefs in quantity may tell a story of disruption elsewhere.
The juvenile angelfish – as with the young of many other species – tend to live in the relative safety of the mangroves as they grow towards adulthood and are ready to move to the reefs. However, the unusual numbers of juveniles seen in the open during recent weeks suggest that the storm-damage to mangrove swamps in shallower water has unexpectedly displaced the juveniles to the reefs.
This theory seems to apply to juveniles of other species recently encountered. What can be said is that, if even if displaced, there are plenty of healthy juvenile as well as adult fish around. And the justifiable fears of serious damage to the corals have not been borne out. It remains to be seen whether a similar situation exists in Abaco waters.
Credits: all fantastic photos, Melinda Riger / Dive Abaco. It’s great that you have been able to reopen the business and restart having been forced to suspend operations completely.
A SERIES OF 15 OF THE STRANGEST SEA CREATURES IN BAHAMAS WATERS
WTF? stands for ‘What’s That Fish’? But it might also be your exclamation when you come across one of these creatures. The WTF? series highlights some of the unusual, curious, weird and downright extraordinary fishes that inhabit the waters of the northern Bahamas. Some represent local forms of a species found elsewhere in the world; others are in their own evolutionary cul-de-sac. Just as I think I have seen it all, so another oddity crops up somewhere that demands inclusion.
The WTF? series, put together over several years, is intended to be the most direct route to an underwater menagerie of piscine strangeness, with some great photos to whet your appetite to learn more about these fascinating denizens of the ocean.
* CLICK ON THIS TITLE TO BE TRANSPORTED TO THE STRANGE WORLD OF THE FROGFISH *
Credits are given in the individual articles. Thanks to all those that have provide the photos, without which this type of illustrated, unscientifically scientific poke around in the ocean depths would not be possible.
Nearly 4 weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian, the island and its cays are beginning to emerge gradually from the wreckage and the desolation. The extent of the disaster on the ground is clear, not least from the aerial photos – first drone, then plane, and now Google – of ‘before’ and ‘after’.
At the stage, it isn’t possible to determine the extent to which the underwater world has been affected. The storm surge was huge and the waves were savage. The progress of the storm was slow (and it went on to stall over equally damaged Grand Bahama). Who knows the effect on the corals and other reef life for which Abaco is renowned.
This pictorial post is a reminder of how things were below the surface of Abaco waters before Dorian struck. If it lifts spirits to any degree, I shall be glad.
All these photos are by Melinda Rodgers who, with Capt Keith, are DIVE ABACO. Many will know how badly they have fared, being in the heart of Marsh Harbour. We wish them a speedy return to the wonderful enterprise they have run for many years. I’m pleased to be able to show the beauty of the reefs in happier times from their archive.
Credits: Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco