IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? OR IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?


Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? OR IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?

I wrote the original post on this theme, with its somewhat Bohemian and rhapsodic title, a while back. It was put together at a time of sunshine, normality and optimism. The 2019 hurricane season was far in the future, and the prospect of one – let alone two – of the finest islands in the Bahamas being virtually eradicated overnight was unthinkable.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Right now, in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian, and as the communities gradually start on the long road to recovery, the priorities remain personal and community safety, food, fresh water, medical supplies and access to all the other necessities that the major relief operation has so effectively enabled. However, as gradual improvements to daily life are achieved, so a degree of interest in the natural world is returning.

Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

The despoliation of the land is there for all to see, visible even from space. As yet – as far as I know – no one has had the time or opportunity, or even a boat and the right equipment to investigate below the surface of the sea. What of the reefs: the bright darting reef fish; the larger denizens of the deep; the corals, sponges and anemones? The massive Cat 5 storm caused an unprecedented 23′ surge. It’s hard to see how the reefs can have remained unaffected, and there must be the possibility that the THIRD LARGEST BARRIER REEF in the world will have been altered irrevocably.

Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Since Dorian, the related organisations have been unable to operate. Abaco’s ‘Dive Abaco’ was virtually annihilated along with the rest of Marsh Harbour. Grand Bahama Scuba has just reopened, although it may take a while before dive trips are anywhere back to normal. This post contains beautiful photos from both the Melindas concerned, taken in happier times before the dark cloud swept over the islands just one month ago.

Purple sea fan, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

NOTES FROM THE PRE-DORIAN PAST

The waters of Abaco teem with myriads of fish that depend on the coral reefs for shelter and safety, for breeding, for growing up in, and for nourishment. Sea fans (or gorgonians, to use the technical name) are animals too. They may look like plants and stay rooted to the spot, but like anemones these ‘soft corals’ are creatures of the reef and essential indicators of its health.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

At the moment it can still be said that the static (‘sessile’) members of the Abaco reef community are relatively unscathed by the impact of (and I don’t want to get into any arguments here) whatever causes mass bleaching and the death of reefs elsewhere in the world.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)  Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

The purple sea fan Gorgonia ventalina (classified by Linnaeus in 1785) is one of the most common species of sea fan, and a spectacular one at that. The main branches are linked by a lattice of smaller branches. Below the ‘skin’ is a skeleton made of calcite compounded with a form of collagen. 

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Sea fans are filter-feeders, and have polyps with eight tiny tentacles that catch plankton as it drifts past. They develop so that their orientation is across the prevailing current. This maximises the water passing by and consequently the supply of food as the fans gently wave in the flow.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)  Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Gorgonians have a chemical defence mechanism that protects against potential troublemakers. The main effect is to make themselves unpleasant to nibble or uproot.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

One species impervious to this deterrent is the fascinating FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAIL (more of which quite soon). Other ‘safe’ species include the fireworm and BUTTERFLYFISHES.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

One benefit of sea fans to mankind is that their defensive chemicals have been discovered to provide the basis for drug research and development, specifically in the field of  anti-inflammatories. Another benefit, of course, is that they are very beautiful to look at. And in bad times, that can only be good .

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)    Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Most of the photos featured are by courtesy of Capt. Keith and Melinda Rogers of the well-known local scuba dive and snorkel centre DIVE ABACO, located in central Marsh Harbour. As prime enablers of reef exploration in Abaco waters, it can truly be said that they too have plenty of fans.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Credits: Melinda and Keith Rodgers / Dive Abaco, Marsh Harbour; Melinda and Fred Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 3, 4, 5)

** The answer to the questions in the Title is… it’s both!

FINALLY, A SPECIAL FAN FOR ABACO AND GRAND BAHAMA

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

HIDDEN DEPTHS: LIFE ON ABACO’S CORAL REEFS


Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

HIDDEN DEPTHS: LIFE ON ABACO’S CORAL REEFS

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’. 

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

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.

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco) Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

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.

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco) Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

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.

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

Credits: Melinda Rodgers /  Dive Abaco

Reef Coral Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

URCHIN RESEARCHIN’: SEA HEDGEHOGS OF THE REEF


Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

URCHIN RESEARCHIN’: SEA HEDGEHOGS OF THE REEF

The long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum featured in this post is one of those creatures that handily offers its USP in its name, so you know what you are dealing with. Something prickly, for a start. These are creatures of the reef, and many places in the Caribbean and in the western Atlantic generally sustain healthy populations.

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

These animals are essentially herbivores, and their value to vulnerable coral reefs cannot be overstated. Where there is a healthy population of these urchins, the reef will be kept clean from smothering algae by their methodical grazing. They also eat sea grass.

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

HOW DO THE SPINES OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF URCHIN COMPARE?

Small sea urchins species have spines a few cms long at most. The long-spine variety exceed 10 cms, and the largest may have spines up to 30 cms (= 1 foot) long. The length, as shown here, means that when the creatures are safely lodged in crevices near their algae supply, their spines remain very visible.
Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)
Anatomy of a long-spined sea urchin. You may possess a few of these organs yourself…

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum anatomy diagram (wiki)

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

CAN YOU GIVE US A TEST, PLEASE?

As with SAND DOLLARS and similar creatures, the skeleton of a sea urchin is known as a ‘test’. Urchin tests are remarkably beautiful, especially seen in sunlight. Here are 2 examples I photographed a while ago. You’ll immediately notice the delicate colours and the amazing complexity of the pattern and symmetry. The top one is (or is most like) a long-spined urchin test.
Long-spined sea urchin Test / Skeleton Diadema antillarum (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour) Long-spined sea urchin Test / Skeleton Diadema antillarum (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A BIT ABOUT SYMMETRY

Sea urchins are born with bilateral symmetry – in effect, you could fold one in half. As they grow to adulthood, they retain symmetry but develop so-called ‘fivefold symmetry’, rather as if an orange contained 5 equal-sized segments. The graphic above gives a good idea of how the interior is arranged inside the segments.

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco)

A FEW FACTS TO HAND DOWN TO YOUR CHILDREN

  • Urchin fossil records date the species back to the Ordivician period, c 40m years ago
  • In the ’90s the population was decimated and still has not recovered fully
  • Urchins feel stress: a bad sign that the spines here are white rather than black
  • Urchins are not only warm water creatures: some kinds live in polar regions
  • Urchins are of particular use in scientific research, including genome studies
  • Some urchins end up in aquariums / aquaria, where I doubt the algae is so tasty
  • Kindest not to prod or tread on them
  • Their nearest relative (surprisingly) is said to be the Sea Cucumber 

Sea Cucumber (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ARE THEY EDIBLE?

Apparently they are eaten in some parts of the world; their gonads and roe are considered a delicacy. As far as I know, they are not generally on the menu in the Bahamas. Correction invited. Personally, I could leave them or leave them.

CREDITS: Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco (1, 2, 3, 6, 9) taken Abaco; Melinda Riger / G B Scuba (4, 10, 11) taken Grand Bahama; Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (7, 8) taken Abaco; Wiki graphic (5) taken from internet. RESEARCH Fred Riger for detailed  information; otherwise the usual magpie pickings…

Long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

BLUE CHROMIS: A FLASH OF COLOUR ON THE REEF


BLUE CHROMIS: A FLASH OF COLOUR ON THE REEF

I’ve gone pictorial for today because I have only got my phone with me while we are away. Composition is slow, close to decomposition – and the comms connection is close to disconnection

Blue chromis (Chromis cyaneus) belong to the same group of fishes as damselfishes. These unmistakeable, bright reef denizens are very visible despite their tiny size. These fish are shoalers, so out on the reef you can enjoy them flickering around you as you swim along or hang in the water to admire the corals.

Like many a pretty and easily captured small fish that can be monetised once removed from its natural home environment, the blue chromis is popular for aquariums, and for humans to keep in their own home environments, unselfishly feeding them concocted food.

Blue chromis are adaptable and sociable, and will happily swim with other small reef fishes (as above). My own favourite combo is chromis mixed in with sergeant majors. But a shoal of them (mostly) alone is pretty special too….

I cynically mentioned ‘concocted’ food earlier. Here is one online care instruction for looking after them: “They are omnivores, meaning that they eat both meaty and plant based foods. They are not difficult to feed and will eat a variety of regular aquarium fare, frozen, live, and sometimes even dry food. Feeding them a variety of foods will help them retain their color in captivity. They sometimes feed on the algae in the tank”. 

If you are tempted to rescue some from their reef habitat, rest assured that: They have been known to spawn in captivity. Blue chromis can usually be obtained for about $10-15. And don’t hold back on the frozen food (though maybe warm it up a bit before feeding time).

Credits: Melinda Rodgers / Dive Abaco; Melinda Riger / G B Scuba

INTERNATIONAL SHARK WEEK? IT’S SO OVER… EXCEPT HERE


Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

INTERNATIONAL SHARK WEEK? IT’S SO OVER… EXCEPT HERE

There’s never a day without a ‘Day’, nor a week without a ‘Week’. Almost all creatures under the sun are celebrated in some regular calendar-based time-frame. With the exception of No-see-ums: I’ve checked – there is no national or international Ceratopogonidae Day in any online calendar. 

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

By a mere 2 days, I have missed Shark Week, a happening tied in with the Discovery Channel, and heralded by an amusing trailer that features no actual sharks… So, belatedly, here are some cool shark photos to enjoy, in case you didn’t get enough of them last week, or (like me) had other fish to fry.

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba“I’m so glad we agreed to watch each other’s backs…”

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

 Meet Nurse Betty, as she is known to diversSharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

MANGROVES: THE SHARK NURSERY

As all children are taught and some adults know, the mangroves that grow in the shallow waters around the islands of the Bahamas are of enormous ecological significance. This isn’t the place to expand on that now, but it is worth mentioning that the mangrove swamps are the nurseries of young sharks (‘pups’) until, as juveniles, they are old enough to leave the safely of their home for deeper waters. Check out the short video below.

Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - biminis-marine-protected-areaSharks in Bimini Bahamas - biminis-marine-protected-area

Spot the REMORA hitching a ride on this shark’s backSharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Nurse shark – note the twin barbels (cf recent Goatfish article)Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Sharks in Bahamas - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

HAMMERHEADS FROM BIMINI Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet   Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet

These wonderful photos were all taken in Bahamian waters. Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba is, as ever, the star snap-getter of sharks (and indeed all other marine creatures). Special thanks are also due to Grant Johnson / 60poundbullet and Neal Watson / Bimini Scuba Center for occasional use permission of photos – especially of hammerheads – that are, well, eye-popping. Video from ‘ZeroEye’

Sharks in Bimini Bahamas - Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (53): YELLOW GOATFISH


Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (53): YELLOW GOATFISH

GOATFISHES belong to the mullet family, a large group of species with a flexible membership. In other words, there is disagreement as to whether certain fish are mullet or not. For present purposes, it’s not our problem – no one doubts that the goatfish is a mullet.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

SO WHY ARE THESE CALLED GOATFISH? WAS SOMEONE KIDDING?

These fish get their name for the pair of so-called ‘barbels’ below their mouths (see image below), thought to be reminiscent of a goatee beard. The name has Latin origin, ‘barbula‘, meaning a small beard. Linnaeus may have had a hand in this choice of description.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF THE BARBELS?

The barbels are sensory organs which, depending on the creature, may be located on either side of the mouth, on the chin, or even extending from the nostrils. In broad terms, the barbels are where the taste buds are located. They help a fish to find food even when the water is stirred up or murky or at night, and are used to probe into sand or into holes in the reef for prey.  

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

WHY ARE THEY OFTEN SEEN WITH YELLOWTAIL SNAPPERS, GRUNTS & PORKFISH?

Goatfish have limited means of self-protection. They are not poisonous or venomous, they have no spines or razor-sharp teeth, nor ink to squirt. They do have an ability to change colour rapidly to blend into their surroundings – e.g. over pale sand – to make them less conspicuous to predators. Overall, however, they are docile and probably delicious to many other species. Their bright hues may have some function as aposematic colouring to warn, scare or repel potential predators, but this is possibly of limited use among the familiar reef denizens. So instead the goatfish goes in for so-called protective mimicry, as shown in the image above.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

PROTECTIVE MIMICRY?

Goatfish and yellowtail snappers (in particular) are similar in size, appearance, coloration and behaviours, though the feeding patterns differ. The reason they are often found in mixed groups on the reef is for the individual protection they gain in a larger mixed school. This really amounts to taking advantage of safety in numbers (especially for the fishes in the middle). Here’s a very recent photo that shows exactly this scenario – a large mixed shoal of two almost indistinguishable fish species.

Goatfish & Yellowtail Snappers shoaling (Melinda Riger, GB Scuba)

IS THIS A ‘SPOT THE DIFFERENCE’ TEST?

If you’d like to make it so! (click on the image to enlarge it). Look out for the fish with the barbels (Goatfish); and the fish with the larger, more deeply forked tails (Snappers). A predator won’t take a great deal of notice of the finer points of difference of course, but overall this large mixed shoal gives a degree of protection to individual fish in the unit as a whole

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ARE GOATFISH EDIBLE?

Goatfish are eaten in many ares of the world, though I can’t recall seeing it on a Bahamian menu. The Romans ate the local mullet / goatfish species, but then they ate many things that we do not now consider as permissible food – dormice in honey for example. Rather revoltingly, the goatfish were served live so that guests could watch them die and see the amazing change of colours in the process. Barbaric? But don’t we cook live… well, never mind that.

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Photos: all great photos from Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; magpie research pickings inc. the abstract of a scientific paper with about 23 authors; tip ‘o the hat to Wiki, no seriously

Goatfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

PEACOCK FLOUNDERS REVISITED: NOW YOU SEE THEM…


Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

        PEACOCK FLOUNDERS (Part Deux)

MASTERS OF SUBAQUATIC CAMOUFLAGE

I featured the extraordinary, colour-transforming PEACOCK FLOUNDER Bothus lunatus about 3 years ago in the Bahamas Reef Fish series (No. 21 I think). These really are remarkable creatures, and I am pleased to be able to show some more wonderful illustrative photos. 

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ROVING EYES

In the fish shown here, you’ll see that – surprisingly – both eyes are on the upperside of the fish, above the rather grumpy mouth, whereas the head is horizontal to the ocean floor. Oddest of all, juveniles are constructed conventionally with bilateral eyes, and look like ‘normal’ fish rather than flatfish.

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

As the fish matures, in some magic way the mechanics of which I can only guess at**, the right eye grows round to the topside and the flounder transforms from a ‘vertical’ fish to a flatfish. For this reason, the PF is known as a ‘lefteye’ flounder. Maybe in other flounder species in the world – the southern hemisphere maybe? – the eye that moves round to the upperside is the left eye.

Peacock Flounder (Virginia Cooper / G B Scuba)

The eyes of this fish have another special trick up their sleeves (so to speak). They operate completely independently. Thus the creature can look left and right, or forwards and backwards, simultaneously. It’s an excellent system for detecting predators coming from any angle. It’s a superpower we might all benefit from.

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

DO THEY HAVE ANY OTHER TRICKS WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT?

Yes they do indeed. If you have been admiring the fish shown so far, you’ll have noticed that the colour of each one differs from the others. In addition to the predator-protection that the eyes provide, the peacock flounder can make itself (near) invisible. They can rapidly change colour to match their surroundings. There are 3 reasons for this: to avoid / confuse predators; to conceal themselves on the sea-floor to catch passing prey; and, as dive expert Fred Riger has pointed out, “the male peacock flounder can, and does greatly intensify his colours to declare territory and attract females. When doing this the males will also signal with the left pectoral fin, sticking it straight up and waving it around.” 

The same fish, photographed over several minutes as it moves over the ocean floorPeacock Flounder (Wiki)

Matching the background happens as the fish swims, and in a few seconds. When they rest on the sea-floor, the camouflage may even become total. In #4 above you can just about make out the eyes. The whole effect is known as ‘cryptic coloration’ or CRYPSIS. In contrast, the image below shows just how adaptable the transformation can be. Note how the fish can even mimic the pinkish tinge of the sand perfectly. If threatened, the fish will bury itself in the sand, with just its eyes showing.

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

HOW DO THEY MANAGE TO CHANGE COLOUR IN SECONDS?

It’s complicated! A simple answer is: a mix of hormones, pigment-cells and vision, all coordinating rapidly. The colour change works in two ways: pigments are selectively released to the skin cells; and other pignments can be selectively suppressed. An analogy might be image manipulation using variations in brightness, saturation etc. Not convinced? Then watch this short video and prepare to be impressed. Astonished, even.

WHAT IF A FLOUNDER CAN’T SEE CLEARLY FOR SOME REASON?

As with many (all?) superpowers, there is usually some kryptonite-style flaw. A flounder with a damaged eye, or one temporarily covered (by sand, for example) will have difficulty in changing colour – possibly at all, or at any rate with the swiftness it needs to have. 

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

THESE SIDEWAYS FISH – HOW DO THEY… YOU KNOW…?

Take a look at the fish above with its top fin raised. It’s a ‘ready’ signal in a harem. Male flounders have a defined and defended territory within which live up to 6 females – a so-called ‘harem.’ I can do no better than borrow the description of the rituals from an article derived from scientific papers by Konstantinou, 1994Miller, et al., 1991 in the website animaldiversity.org/…ounts/Bothus_lunatus To which I can only add, ’15 seconds, eh?’

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

“Mating activities usually begin just before dusk. At this time, a male and a female approach each other with the ocular pectoral fin erect. The two fish arch their backs and touch snouts. After this interaction the female swims away, and the male sometimes follows, approaching the female again from the left side. At this point the male pectoral fin is erect and the female pectoral fin moves up and down, possibly signalling willingness to mate. The male then positions himself underneath the female and mating begins. This process consists of a mating rise, during which the female and male rise in the water column together. On average, these rises last about 15 seconds. At the highest point of this rise, usually around 2 m above the substrate, gametes from both fish are simultaneously released, producing a cloud of sperm and eggs. Once the couple returns from the rise, the male “checks” to make sure mating was successful, and the pair separates quickly, swimming away from each other in opposite directions. Not all mating rises are successful, and the process of “checking” is thus important. The exact purpose of the mating rise in these flounders unknown; possible reasons for rising include better dispersal of gametes and predator avoidance.” 

Peacock Flounder – Kim Rody ArtPeacock Flounder (Kim Rody Art))

**This may in fact be through sheer laziness

Credits: Melinda Riger & Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba; Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Adam Rees / Scuba Works; Kim Rody; animaldiversity.org; magpie pickings and other credits in the text

Peacock Flounder (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

BABY SPERM WHALE IN BAHAMAS WATERS: AMAZING FOOTAGE


Sperm Whale baby (neonate) Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

BABY SPERM WHALE IN BAHAMAS WATERS: AMAZING FOOTAGE

Over several years I have had the privilege of being able to feature wonderful photographs and video footage in this blog. Birds, course, and also reef fish, sharks, seahorses, coral and anemones and a whole lot more. I have also been involved throughout with the wonderful work of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO), and have been a part of team since 2017. Abaco is lucky enough to have the HQ at Sandy Point, but we must keep in mind that the organisation’s remit extends throughout the entire Bahamas archipelago, and has firm links with research and conservation organisations on the other islands.

Sperm Whale baby (neonate) Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

The clear turquoise waters around the islands and their cays are well-known to, and appreciated by, all. This is the playground of the smaller marine mammals – the dolphins, smaller whales and the (now a significant presence) manatees.

   

Less well known are the denizens of the deeper waters and the immense depths of the GREAT BAHAMA CANYON of the northern Bahamas. This is the realm of the large marine animals, from the mysterious speciality beaked whales right up to massive sperm whales. 

Sperm Whale baby (neonate) Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

About 3 weeks ago, the BMMRO research team encountered something truly wondrous off the south Abaco coastline – something to quicken the pulse and gladden the heart – a newborn sperm whale investigating the underwater world it has just been born into. Hopefully it will flourish and live for decades. The hope is sadly tempered by the overwhelming – and increasing – evidence of the terrible effect that humans have caused in just one generation by the pollution of air, land and sea. 

Charlotte Dunn posted the footage of 2 separate sightings. Her first caption reads:

“Close encounter with a curious newborn (‘neonate’) sperm whale yesterday – reminding us of the importance of our Shared Waters project about the effects of ship traffic on resident sperm whales, http://www.bahamaswhales.org/research.aspx. The young individuals like this one will be the most impacted if we don’t make serious conservation changes. As this young whale matures, the policy changes we make in the Bahamas now will affect its survival”.

“While their mothers are feeding at depth (knocking sound in the background) this newborn is being cared for by a slightly older calf until the adults return.”

After the second encounter, Charlotte wrote: “Here’s another amazing short clip of the neonate sperm whale we videoed off south Abaco two weeks ago – thank you to the BEP Foundation and the Devereux Ocean Foundation for funding some of our important work with sperm whales in the Bahamas”.

Sperm Whale baby (neonate) Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

On Charlotte’s conservation points above, over the last 3 months or so I have been checking daily for posts and articles specifically related to stranded, dead, and killed whales, and their stomach contents as revealed by necropsies. I have collected images from around the world. I won’t wreck this marvellous find in Abaco waters by including any of these. This casual research reveals a horrifying attrition rate for marine mammals. Most animals were full of plastics, from micro through flip-flops all the way up to very large chunks. Some of this junk clearly was the actual cause of death rather than a contributing factor. A whale may take several weeks to die in this way. All of it is entirely the responsibility of mankind – and pretty much caused in the last 50 years.

So let’s enjoy this little sperm whale, and hope it grows to an adulthood that will have seen a radical change for the better in its birth environment – the one that should never have been considered ours to destroy.

Sperm Whale baby (neonate) Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

CREDITS: Brilliant close-up footage plus the clips I have taken from it – Charlotte Dunn / Diane Claridge / BMMRO.  

DONATE: If you are touched by the magic of this little Bahamas sperm whale, may I invite you to consider making a donation to BMMRO for its research and conservation work – a scientific commitment that reaches far beyond the waters of the Bahamas. The system is set up to process donations from just $10 upwards, and every cent is used to further the work of BMMRO. Please click the logo below to reach the right page directly.

Sperm Whale baby (neonate) Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Baby sperm whale off south Abaco, Bahamas ©BMMRO

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO: PLAYTIME


Dolphins, Sea of Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO: PLAYTIME

Earlier this year, the team at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour Abaco, in conjunction with BMMRO (Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation), arranged a fundraising trip to look for whales and dolphins. On both counts, the guests’ hopes and expectations were amply fulfilled – in fact, almost certainly exceeded.

Dolphins, Sea of Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

Where there is a single dolphin, there will almost invariably be others – and so it proved. The group of bottlenose dolphins turned out to be in a very playful mode, living up to their reputation as delightful, inquisitive, entertainers.

Dolphins, Sea of Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

One of the dolphins turned out to be a young 3rd generation animal from the same family, recently weaned. The BMMRO has a large photographic library of dolphins and whales, collected over many years. In the photo above, you’ll see that the dorsal fin of the nearest one is ragged, especially near the top. This is the primary method by which individual animals are recorded to assist with subsequent identification in the field (= water) or back at base in Sandy Point by means of the photo archive.

Dolphins, Sea of Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

The trip was perfected when a young female sperm whale came close to the boat… and then rolled onto her side, flipper up, to get a good look at the boat and its human contents. A wonderful experience for all those on board.

Dolphins, Sea of Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

Credits: BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn; Friends of the Environment

Dolphins, Sea of Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

‘TERN, TERN, TERN’: THE UN-NOTORIOUS BYRD COUSINS


Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘TERN, TERN, TERN’: THE UN-NOTORIOUS BYRD COUSINS

There are twelve (12!) species of tern – ‘swallows of the sea’ – that to a greater or lesser extent may be found on Abaco. Whether they will actually  be visible at any given time is less certain, though. For a start, the only resident species is the lovely Royal Tern, available at many locations on Abaco and the cays throughout the year.

ROYAL TERNS Thalasseus maximus PR1

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

In the slightly less commonly-found category are the summer migrant terns that, by definition, are only in residence for around half the year. Four of these are fairly common in certain areas, and actually breed on Abaco; these include arguably the prettiest of all, the bridled tern. The other two tern species (gull-billed and sandwich) are more rare and as far as I can make out do not breed locally; or perhaps only rarely. 

LEAST TERN Sternula antillarum SR B 1

LeastTern, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

BRIDLED TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2

BridledTern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)BridledTern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ROSEATE TERN Sterna Dougallii SR B 2

Roseate Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

SOOTY TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2

Sooty Tern, Duncan Wright wiki

GULL-BILLED TERN Gelochelidon nilotica SR 3 

Gull-billed Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)Gull-billed Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

SANDWICH TERN Thalasseus sandvicensis SR 4

Sandwich Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)Sandwich Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

There is one rare winter resident migratory tern species. I had to check when the last one was recorded for Abaco. It was of course only in January this year, when ace birder-photographer Sally Chisholm saw one at Treasure Cay and managed to photograph it for posterity.

FORSTER’S TERN Sterna forsteri  WR 4

Forster's Tern (Dick Daniels)Forster's Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The final four ‘Abaco’ terns are very much the occasional visitors. Three of them pass over the Bahamas on their longer migration, but may make a pit-stop around Abaco to take on fuel. Likelihood of sighting one? Slender but not impossible… The fourth, the Arctic Tern, is a very rare vagrant, a bird well away from its usual home or migration route as the result of storms or faulty satnav or sheer happenstance. Don’t travel to the Bahamas intent on seeing one.

CASPIAN TERN Hydroprogne caspia TR 4

Caspian Tern Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)Caspian Tern Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

As for the remaining three species, they are the transient black tern and common tern; and the vanishingly rare vagrant  Arctic tern (the clue is in the name). No photos of any of these I’m afraid, so here’s a handy checklist instead. 

     ELECTIVE MUSICAL DIGRESSION

Written by Peter Seeger a few years earlier, Turn x 3 was released in 1965, the title track on the second album from the Byrds. At a rather febrile time in US history (Vietnam, draft riots, black civil rightists v cops and so on), this unusually palliative and thoughtful song with its religious connotations to some extent stood for peace and hope in a time of turmoil.

PS the somewhat laboured title of this post shoehorns in the name of another Byrds album, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’

Photo credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2, 3, 5, 18); Tony Hepburn (4); Alex Hughes (10, 11); Bruce Hallett (6, 7, 12); Woody Bracey (8, 13, 16); Duncan Wright (9); Dick Daniels (14); Sally Chisholm (15); Keith Kemp (17)

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

MEET ARNOLD: BE A BAHAMAS BLACK GROUPER GROUPIE


Black Grouper, Bahamas (Arnold) - Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

MEET ARNOLD: BE A BAHAMAS BLACK GROUPER GROUPIE

The Black Grouper, like all its cousins, has the twin disadvantages of being fished for sport and fished for food. As demand for grouper on the menu rises, so does its vulnerability. The species is described as a ‘slow breeder’, so a depleting population has less chance of sustaining numbers. The consequence is an exponentially diminishing stock of the species. The equation is simple: fewer fish means less and less stock replenishment.

Black Grouper, Bahamas (Arnold) - Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

Formerly plentiful, these groupers (like other grouper species) have moved from an IUCN listing of ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Near-Threatened’. Whatever effect climate change may be having on the oceans, stock depletion of this noble species also has more direct human causes.

Black Grouper, Bahamas (Arnold) - Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

An adult black grouper’s diet consists of small fish and squid. Juveniles feed primarily on crustaceans. However, certain tiny reef fish – blennies and gobies for example – are important to the species as ‘cleaners’. You can read about their significance by clicking CLEANING STATIONS.

Black Grouper, Bahamas (Arnold) - Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

The service performed by tiny fish on large ones (not only groupers) is an example of a symbiotic relationship known as ‘mutualism’**, in which both parties benefit (the little fishes get gacky bits of grouper to eat). The cleaners are able to do their work inside the gills and even the mouth of the host without being at risk.

Black Grouper, Bahamas (Arnold) - Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

The NASSAU GROUPER has a defined and enforced closed season to help maintain numbers. It will be interesting to see if the same protection is eventually extended to the black grouper and indeed to other grouper species.

** The other two types of symbiotic relationship are commensalism, in which only one species benefits while the other is neither helped nor harmed; and parasitism, where one creature (the parasite) gains, while the other (the host) suffers.

RELATED POSTS

TIGER GROUPER

NASSAU GROUPER

RED HIND

GRAYSBY

Credits: all photos Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba 

Black Grouper, Bahamas (Arnold) - Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

BAHAMAS TURTLES: BE AWARE BUT DON’T BEWARE


Green Turtle Eye (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

GREEN TURTLE WATCHING

BAHAMAS TURTLES: BE AWARE BUT DON’T BEWARE

MAY 23 is another one of those ‘species awareness’ days. Somewhere in the world, it seems that every day of the year has a creature to be aware of. As the Sixth Extinction looms (the one we’ve promoted in basically two generations), a state of heightened awareness is where we should all be at. 

TURTLES BY ADAM REES / SCUBA WORKS

Hawksbill Turtle (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

Hawksbill Turtle (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Hawksbill Turtle (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

That’s not an end in itself of course – it’s merely the first step to doing something about the species in question… and beyond that, every species. We’ve screwed up their world for them. Awareness is just a wake-up call to action. Support a cause. Join an organisation or group. Support campaigns. Sign up. Write stuff. Do stuff. Don’t do other stuff. Even wearing a “Save the Great-crested Newt” T-shirt would be better than nothing.

TURTLES BY MELINDA RIGER / GRAND BAHAMA SCUBA

Hawksbill Turtle (Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba) Hawksbill Turtle (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Hawksbill Turtle (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Back to the turtles. I have featured a few great sea turtle photos (none of them mine) to concentrate the mind on today’s special species – one of the most loved and admired of the sea creatures of the Bahamas archipelago. If they go, we humans may not be far behind (but at least we won’t have stomachs full of plastic trash).

TURTLES: HAPPY TOGETHER!

Credits: Melinda Riger, Adam Rees, Virginia Cooper – and to all for their work in revealing the wonderful world beneath the ocean waves

Hawksbill Turtle (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

 

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (52)


ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (52)

I last featured the cheerfully-coloured Rock Beauty Holacanthus tricolor 2 or 3 years back. Time has passed; new photos exist; new people have signed up to follow this eclectic menagerie (thank you both). Time for another look at these beauties, which also happen to be cuties.

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Look at the little guy above –  posing for Pixar, adorably hoping to star in Part 3 of the Nemo / Dory trilogy

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

These fish are a small species of angelfish. Seen swimming around the reefs they are unmistakeable, not least because of their bright yellow hi-viz jackets, remarkable blue eyeliner and blue-black lippy. 

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Rock Beauties look like prime candidates for anyone’s aquarium, but their picky dietary requirements and tendency for aggression make them unsuitable.

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

They are highly specialised feeders, needing marine sponge in their daily diet. They are also prone to chase their tank-mates and nip them. On balance, they look more fetching nosing about the coral anyway.

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

WHAT DO JUVENILES LOOK LIKE?

Juvenile rock beauties are cute mini-versions of the adults, only more yellow and with yellow lips. In some development stages, they have a smart blue circle around the dark patch on their sides (bottom image).

ROCK BEAUTY: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Rock Beauty, Bahamas (Living Oceans Foundation))

NOTE Rock Beauties have no known kinship with Chrissie, Debbie, Lita, Joan, Jennifer, Stevie, Madge and the rest of the accredited ‘Rock Beauties aka Chicks’ 

NOT A TRUE ‘ROCK BEAUTY’ (no offence, Lita)

A TRUE ROCK BEAUTY

Credits: Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba; WP

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS


Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS Cyphoma gibbous are small marine gastropod molluscs related to cowries. The living animal is brightly coloured and strikingly patterned, but that colour only exists in the ‘live’ parts – the so-called ‘mantle’. The shell itself is usually pale, and characterised by a thick ridge round the middle. These snails live in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and the wider western Atlantic. Whether alive or dead, they are gratifyingly easy to identify.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THE IMPORTANCE OF CORAL

Flamingo tongue snails feed by browsing on soft corals. Often, they will leave tracks behind them on the coral stems as they forage (see image below). But corals are not only food – they provide the ideal sites for the creature’s breeding cycle.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Dive Abaco, Bahamas)Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

Adult females attach eggs to coral which they have recently fed upon. About 10 days later, the larvae hatch. They eventually settle onto other gorgonian corals such as Sea Fans. Juveniles tend to live on the underside of coral branches, while adults are far more visible and mobile. Where the snail leaves a feeding scar, the corals can regrow the polyps, and therefore the snail’s feeding preference is generally not harmful to the coral.

The principal purpose of the patterned mantle of tissue over the shell is to act as the creature’s breathing apparatus. The tissue absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. As it has been (unkindly?) described, the mantle is “basically their lungs, stretched out over their rather boring-looking shell”

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THREATS AND DEFENCE

The species, once common, is becoming rarer. The natural predators include hogfish, pufferfish and spiny lobsters, though the spotted mantle provides some defence by being rather unpalatable. Gorgonian corals contain natural toxins, and instead of secreting these after feeding, the snail stores them. This supplements the defence provided by its APOSEMATIC COLORATION, the vivid colour and /or pattern warning sign to predators found in many animal species.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

MANKIND’S CONTRIBUTION

It comes as little surprise to learn that man is now considered to be the greatest menace to these little creatures, and the reason for their significant decline in numbers. The threat comes from snorkelers and divers who mistakenly / ignorantly think that the colour of the mantle is the actual shell of the animal, collect up a whole bunch from the reef, and in due course are left with… dead snails and “boring-looking shells” (see photos below). Don’t be a collector; be a protector…

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

The photos below are of nude flamingo tongue shells from the Delphi Club Collection. Until I read the ‘boring-looking shell’ comment, I believed everyone thought they were rather lovely… I did, anyway. You decide!

Flamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen AbacoFlamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen Abaco

Image Credits:  Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

TUNICATES: SESSILE ASEXUAL SEA-SQUIRTS


Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

TUNICATES: SESSILE ASEXUAL SEA-SQUIRTS

Painted Tunicates Clavina picta are one of several species of tunicate ‘sea-squirts’ found in Bahamas and Caribbean waters. These creatures with their translucent bodies are usually found clustered together, sometimes in very large groups. One reason for this is that they are ‘sessile’, unable to move from where they have taken root on the coral.

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

HOW DO THEY FEED?

Like most if not all sea squirts, tunicates are filter feeders. Their structure is simple, and enables them to draw water into their body cavity. In fact they have 2 openings, an ‘oral siphon’ to suck in water; and an exit called the ‘atrial siphon’. Tiny particles of food (e.g. plankton) are separated internally from the water by means of a tiny organ (‘branchial basket’) like a sieve. The water is then expelled. 

Diagram of adult solitary tunicate

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

WHAT DOES ‘TUNICATE’ MEAN?

The creatures have a flexible protective covering referred to as a ‘tunic’. ‘Coveringates’ didn’t really work as a name, so the tunic aspect became the name. 

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

IF THEY CAN’T MOVE, HOW DO THEY… (erm…) REPRODUCE?

Tunicates are broadly speaking asexual. Once a colony has become attached to corals or sponges, they are able to ‘bud’, ie to produce clones to join the colony. These are like tiny tadpoles and their first task is to settle and attach themselves to something suitable – for life – using a sticky secretion. Apparently they do this head first, then in effect turn themselves upside down as they develop the internal bits and pieces they need for adult life. The colony grows because (*speculation alert*) the most obvious place for the ‘tadpoles’ to take root is presumably in the immediate area they were formed.

 

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

APART FROM BEING STATIONARY & ASEXUAL, ANY OTHER ATTRIBUTES?

Some types of tunicate contain particular chemicals that are related to those used to combat some forms of cancer and a number of viruses. So they have a potential use in medical treatments, in particular in helping to repair tissue damage.

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Credits: all fabulous close-up shots by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; diagram from depts.washington.edu; magpie pickings with a particular mention of an article by Sara MacSorley

Painted Tunicates Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

 

‘REEF ENCOUNTER’ 1: GRAY ANGELFISH


Gray Angelfish 9with four-eyed butterflyfish), Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

‘REEF ENCOUNTER’ 1: GRAY ANGELFISH

Today I learn from a cheery message from WordPress that my illustrated ramblings have been going on for exactly X years, where X is greater than 5 but less than 10. Time to start a new theme: channelling my inner Noel Coward, I am introducing a new mainly pictorial series provisionally called ‘Reef Encounter’. All the awesome beauty of reef life will be here.

Gray Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

In the past I have posted about GRAY ANGELFISH, one of three kinds of angelfish found in the northern Bahamas. Today, I am featuring some more recent images of these pretty creatures. Note in particular the striking shape and colour of their mouths, the blue being found also on the fin edges at the back.

Gray Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Gray Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

On this otherwise gray fish, you’ll also find touches of yellow on the face and the edges of the front fins. In the header image there’s another little fish in the bottom right corner. Not a baby angelfish, but a FOUR-EYED BUTTERFLYFISH – a species that will feature in own right in due course

Gray Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

All fabulous photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Gray Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? OR IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?


Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? OR IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?

The waters of Abaco teem with myriads of fish that depend on the coral reefs for shelter and safety, for breeding, for growing up in, and for nourishment. Sea fans (or gorgonians, to use the technical name) are animals too. They may look like plants and stay rooted to the spot, but like anemones these ‘soft corals’ are creatures of the reef and essential indicators of its health.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

At the moment it can still be said that the static (‘sessile’) members of the Abaco reef community are relatively unscathed by the impact of (and I don’t want to get into any arguments here) whatever causes mass bleaching and the death of reefs elsewhere in the world.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)  Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

The purple sea fan Gorgonia ventalina (classified by Linnaeus in 1785) is one of the most common species of sea fan, and a spectacular one at that. The main branches are linked by a lattice of smaller branches. Below the ‘skin’ is a skeleton made of calcite compounded with a form of collagen. 

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Sea fans are filter-feeders, and have polyps with eight tiny tentacles that catch plankton as it drifts past. They develop so that their orientation is across the prevailing current. This maximises the water passing by and consequently the supply of food as the fans gently wave in the flow.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)  Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Gorgonians have a chemical defense mechanism that protects against potential troublemakers. The main effect is to make themselves unpleasant to nibble or uproot.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

One species impervious to this deterrent is the fascinating FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAIL (more of which quite soon). Other ‘safe’ species include the fireworm and BUTTERFLYFISHES.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

One benefit of sea fans to mankind is that their defensive chemicals have been discovered to provide the basis for drug research and development. It’s tempting to say that by way of gratitude, we pollute the waters they need for their very existence. So, consider it said…

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)    Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

All the photos featured are by courtesy of Capt. Keith and Melinda Rogers of the well-known local scuba dive and snorkel centre DIVE ABACO, located in central Marsh Harbour. As prime enablers of reef exploration in Abaco waters, it can truly be said that they too have plenty of fans.

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

Credits: Keith and Melinda Rodgers; Dive Abaco @DiveAbaco, Marsh Harbour, The Bahamas ** The answer to the questions in the Title is… it’s both!

Purple Sea Fans, Abaco, Bahamas (Dive Abaco / Keith & Melinda Rogers)

PILOT WHALES: “DIVIDED BY A COMMON SEA”


Pilot Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Pilot Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Rolling Harbour)

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?Pilot Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Pilot Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Pilot Whales - dorsal fin ID, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Pilot Whales, La Gomera, Canary Isles (Rolling Harbour / YN) Pilot Whales, La Gomera, Canary Isles (Rolling Harbour / YN) Pilot Whales, La Gomera, Canary Isles (Rolling Harbour / YN) Pilot Whales, La Gomera, Canary Isles (Rolling Harbour / YN) Pilot Whales, La Gomera, Canary Isles (Rolling Harbour / YN)

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

Pilot Whale (Marina Nolte / Wiki)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 17: YELLOWHEAD JAWFISH


Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 17: YELLOWHEAD JAWFISH

It’s been a little time since I added to the WTF? series, in which some of the more outlandish reef denizens come under close scrutiny. Jawfishes (Opistognathidae) come into this category, not least because of their interesting ways with their eggs. Also, they tend to stick upright out of the substrate, which is not especially fishy behaviour.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

More than 50 species of jawfish are found around the world. In the Bahamas, you are most likely to encounter the Yellowhead (or Yellow-headed) variety. And if you think they look slightly… primitive, that’s because they are. In fact, their forebears (forefishes?) originated in prehistoric times, specifically the Miocene era (a lot of million years ago, I didn’t count exactly).

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

These rather extraordinary little fish superficially resemble certain types of BLENNY. Their modus operandi is to burrow down into sandy, gravelly or other loose substrate. They do so by cramming their mouths with sand and spitting it out to one side. By this means they form a tunnel of sorts in which they can live, and from which they can emerge, or half-emerge and take a look around them. As they do so, they hoover up passing food, mostly plankton and suchlike.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba)

If something looks threatening while they are feeding or having a look around, they can simply duck down into their burrow for safety. They guard their patch against rivals, and behave ‘territorially’ in the jawfish community. One method is to ingest and and then eject sand or gravel at a would-be intruder.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Michael Wolf Wiki))

YES, BUT WHERE IS THE REAL ‘WTF?’ FACTOR HERE?

Good question. With a good and original answer. These little creatures are so-called MOUTHBROODERS‘, meaning that they carry their eggs in their mouths. Depending on the species, females, males or even both parents (don’t try this at home) will do this at or after fertilisation. In effect the eggs are safely incubated until they hatch as fry. Then they are on their own.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

ARE THERE ANY DRAWBACKS TO THIS UNUSUAL GESTATION METHOD?

Apart from accidentally swallowing the occasional potential junior, the eggs need aeration from time to time. This is achieved by expelling the eggs from the mouth, and quickly sucking them back in again. Try this very short video to see this rather improbable behaviour in action. It’s only 8 seconds blink and you’ll miss the action. The eggs hatch into fry in 8 – 10 days, after which both parents can relax. Until the next time.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)
Photo Credits: all images from Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba except (4) Virginia Cooper / GBS; (5) Michael Wolf / Wikimedia; video, Alan Keller. Research: magpie picking, not excluding yet not limited to Wiki…
Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (51): BLACK MARGATE


Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (51): BLACK MARGATE

The black margate (Anisotremus surinamensis) is a type of GRUNT (see also PORKFISH) found among the reefs and rocks of (mostly) the western Atlantic seaboard, from Florida as far south as Brazil. They are relatively ‘shallow’ fish and they prefer to be close to place where they can live safely and avoid the predators that lurk in open or deep water.

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Margates are not usually very large, mostly growing to between 18″ and 30″, although they can grow larger. Thanks to the awesomeness of Wiki and other reliable sources I can confidently report that “…the maximum recorded weight for this species is 5.8 kg (13 lb)“.

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

MAY WE HAVE THE TRADITIONAL 10 FUN FACTS PLEASE?

  • Local names include burriquete (Sp) and zapatero or burros (Mex)
  • There are 10 margate species world wide, including 2 Pacific versions
  • Their heads slope down to a notably thick lipped mouth in which they have strong teeth
  • Margates have erectile spines, presumably for defence (I’ve not tested that)
  • They like to shelter in caves and crevices, on ledges, and in wrecks (see pics)
  • Margates are ‘solitary fish’ or hang out in small groups
  • They are night-feeders on a diet of crustaceans, mollusks, smaller fish & urchins
  • Sadly for them, they are valued by commercial fisheries using baited drift fishing…
  • …and also targeted by anglers during the spawning season when they shoal (?unfair)
  • … and also caught as aquarium fish, adding to stock depletion

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

RELATED SPECIES

PORKFISH

Credits: all photos, Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; research from magpie pickings and in particular the interesting mexicanfish.com

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)