WHALE TALES FROM BMMRO, ABACO BAHAMAS


Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

WHALE TALES FROM BMMRO, ABACO BAHAMAS

These photos of tailing sperm whales Physeter macrocephalus were taken in the last month or so off the coast of South Abaco, close to the HQ  of BMMRO (Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation) at Sandy Point.

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

The powerful tails, or flukes, of the sperm whale are the largest of any whale species relative to body size. As the whales prepare for a deep dive, the flukes are the last thing you’ll see…

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Marine mammals can be identified by individual characteristics such as tears to the fluke (whales – see header image), dorsal fin (dolphins) or ‘paddle’ (manatees). Many will be sighted and recorded, and later seen regularly, often for many years. Family dynasties can even be traced down the generations.

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

The whale above is in the final stages of a dive, just before the fluke slides beneath the surface and vanishes. The dramatic moments that precede this, with the unforgettable sight of water pouring off the spread tail – are over. The hunt for deep-down squid has begun in earnest.

BMMRO research boat, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour))

BMMRO Research RIB (with Harry)

Main Photos: Charlotte Dunn/ BMMRO

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

INTERNATIONAL MANATEE DAY: BAHAMAS? WE GOTTEM!


West Indian Manatee, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

INTERNATIONAL MANATEE DAY: BAHAMAS? WE GOTTEM!

Manatees are apex ‘gorgeous marine mammals’. Gentle, inquisitive, brave, long-distance-but-rather-slow-swimming, grass-grazing miracle ur-elephant descendants. They never made it out of the sea in the Miocene epoch.

West Indian Manatee, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

Incongruous in a world of fast sharks, huge whales and leaping dolphins, they contentedly mooch around the seagrass beds. No one in the world has ever objected to or dissed a manatee. They bring only delight to the sea-world, and offer only charm to mankind.

West Indian Manatee, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

I’ve written quite often about the small number of manatees that inhabit the turquoise inner waters of the Bahamas. Almost all are named and some are tracked (until they lose their trackers). Their friendships and amorous hook-ups are recorded. Despite their relative scarcity in the Bahamas and a 16-month birth cycle, they produce manatee-lets and the family trees are very gradually growing.

West Indian Manatee, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

Gina and Calf, Bahamas (BMMRO)

IS THERE A DOWNSIDE FOR THESE APPARENTLY BLISSFUL AND PEACEFUL CREATURES?

Yes indeed. It’s mankind. Among the threats to the survival of these unusual, endearing, and legally protected creatures are, in no particular order:

  • Pollution of inshore waters and canals
  • Degradation of the (formerly limitless) sea-grass beds where they feed
  • Reduction or tainting of the fresh water sources that they need to survive
  • Understandable over-enthusiasm by admirers – especially in harbours – in dousing them with water from hoses and feeding them lettuce…
  • …and similar behaviours that may lead to a trusting dependance on humans
  • Unthinking or speed-selfish boat behaviour in or near harbours resulting in collisions
  • Simply not caring at all and carving them up, leaving often deep prop-scars. Few manatees escape at least a few of these. Some may not survive.

West Indian Manatee, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

Let’s celebrate this special day for manatees. Let’s hope that they can survive and prosper in these increasingly difficult and dangerous times for almost all species. Look at any of these photos… can we agree that these wonderful animals deserve care and protection.

All photos: Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO and research contributors

West Indian Manatee, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn / Keith Salvesen)

WORLD OCEANS DAY: WHAT YOUR DESCENDANTS MAY MISS


Bottlenose Dolphins Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

WORLD OCEANS DAY: WHAT YOUR DESCENDANTS MAY MISS

Even the most optimistic lovers of unmolested wildlife, unpolluted oceans, un-degraded habitats, unextinguished species and understanding humans will be beginning to lose heart. Even as reports increase of resurgent wildlife during these Covid months, so it is gradually becoming clear that once humans are unlocked again, the only way will be down. 

Humpback whaleHumpback Whale, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Here are just a few magnificent marine mammals to admire. All were photographed from the BMMRO research vessel in Abaco or adjacent waters. They are protected, recorded, researched, and watched over in their natural element – some individuals for more than a decade. 

Pantropical spotted dolphinsPan-tropical spotted dolphins, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Today we contemplate our oceans at a time when the human species is having to confront a sudden and indiscriminate destructive force. Maybe the impact will lead to a recalibration of the ways we treat other species and their environment. We have contaminated the world’s oceans, perhaps irreparably, in a single generation. We could start by committing our support to those that tackle the plastic saturation, oil / chemical pollution, acoustic bombardment, ‘ghost gear’, and all the other unwelcome attritional activities we are responsible for. We could continue by supporting those that monitor and protect all the marine creatures struggling in a polluted environment that, in natural law, should be theirs.

Bottlenose DolphinsBottlenose Dolphins, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Below is a male Blainville’s beaked whale, with its remarkable barnacled tusks that protrude upwards from its lower jaw. This is a specialist research species in the Bahamas. Below that is a short video of these whales that I took from the BMMRO research vessel. Turn up the volume – you will clearly hear them breathing as they slowly pass by (and others in the group, under) the boat. Note that land is clearly visible. These whales can sometimes be found just beyond the shallow turquoise waters, where the sea deepens as the depth drops down to an underwater canyon.

Blainville’s beaked whale (m)Blainville's Beaked Whale Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Hope for the future…Sperm whale - neonate calf Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

All photos taken in (or adjacent to) Abaco waters, Bahamas: Charlotte Dunn / Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO), except for the beaked whale image and video by Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (BMMRO)

Note: prognostications and personal views – and their intensity – detectable here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my colleagues at BMMRO… 

Farewell – but not goodbye, we must hope…Sperm Whale, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

SPERM WHALE BONES & RESEARCH: LIFE AFTER DEATH


SPERM WHALE BONES & RESEARCH: LIFE AFTER DEATH

I made this short video last year at BMMRO HQ, Sandy Point, Abaco. A sperm whale had stranded earlier in the year, and after the necropsy some of the bones were taken from the beach for research. In order to clean them, the bones were sunk and anchored to the seabed offshore in quite shallow water. Strandings are always sad, of course, but  it is good to know that even after death the creature makes an important contribution to scientific research. In a sense, it has life after death.

BMMRO / Rolling Harbour Abaco / Keith Salvesen

MANATEES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (4)


MANATEES: PICTURE PERECT ON ABACO (4)

MANATEE APPRECIATION DAY 2020West Indian Manatee, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Mrs RH and I are sticking to self-isolation right now (we are fine, but thank you for asking). However I am already breaking my current self-imposed ‘single-picture-and-not-much-writing’ regime with today’s creature feature. The excuse? It is of course the last Wednesday in March and as everyone must know it is Manatee Appreciation Day.

Anyone can (and indeed should) appreciate manatees anywhere at any time, and their contemplation is a way to lift the spirits. They were first found in Abaco waters about a dozen years ago. BMMRO reported their movements and the ongoing research. Later, Bahamian locals enthusiastically followed the lives of Gina, Rita, Georgie, Randy & co; and the calves such as JJ and Sayle (winning name in a public competition). Citizen scientist reports were invaluable to the research. Unsurprisingly, since Hurricane Dorian reports have greatly reduced. Manatees may well still be around but even now, 6 months later, trichechi sightings are sporadic. There are other concerns, after all.

West Indian Manatee, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Manatees love the camera and, Madonna-like, are often pleased to ‘strike the pose’. Of a sort.

West Indian Manatee, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

West Indian Manatee, Abaco, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

Today the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) showed their appreciation for manatees with a superb image and an excellent set of Manatee Facts that I recommend to anyone who has read this far. For example, recent broadcasts and news articles have featured the importance of seagrass. You will see that it is the primary diet of manatees. 

View this post on Instagram

Happy #ManateeAppreciationDay! ☺️ We have a great photo-feature of these amazing animals in the Spring issue of our magazine coming to all members in the next few days but whilst you wait, here are some fun facts about them: ⠀ ⠀ 💙The manatee, also known as a 'sea cow', is a large marine mammal with an egg-shaped head, flippers and a flat tail. ⠀ 💙Manatees range in size from 8 to 13 feet (2.4 to 4 meters) and can weigh 440 to 1,300 lbs. (200 to 590 kilograms). ⠀ 💙Although they may seem like cumbersome creatures, manatees can swim quickly and gracefully.They have strong tails that power their swimming and usually swim about 5 mph but they can swim up to 15 mph (24 km/h) in short bursts ⠀ 💙There are three species of manatee: the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian/American manatee and the African manatee. ⠀ 💙Manatees often swim alone or in pairs. If manatees are seen in a group (called an aggregation), it is either a mating herd or an informal meeting of the species simply sharing a warm area that has a large food supply. ⠀ 💙Manatees are herbivores. At sea, they tend to prefer sea grasses. When they live in rivers, they consume freshwater vegetation. Manatees also eat algae. It's reported that a manatee can eat a tenth of its own weight in 24 hours! ⠀ 💙The IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species lists all manatees as vulnerable or endangered and facing a high risk of extinction. ⠀ Manatees are thought to have evolved from four-legged land mammals more than 60 million years ago. Except for the Amazonian manatee, their paddlelike flippers have vestigial toenails — a remnant of the claws they had when they lived on land. ⠀ 💙Manatees' eyes are small, but their eyesight is good. They have a special membrane that can be drawn across the eyeball for protection. ⠀ 💙Manatees don't always need to breathe. As they swim, they poke their nose up above the water's surface to catch a few breaths every few minutes. If they are simply resting, they can stay under the water for 15 minutes without taking a breath ⠀ ⠀ #marinemammal #marineconservation #marnebiology #marinelife #oceanlife #oceanindoors #manatee ⠀ ⠀

A post shared by Marine Conservation Society (@mcs_uk) on

Credits: Photos #1 – #4 Charlotte Dunn / Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) and #5 Caine Delacy / BMMRO; MCS UK

MCS links: https://www.mcsuk.org; https://www.facebook.com/mcsuk/

Gina with her calf SayleWest Indian Manatee, Abaco, Bahamas (Caine Delacy / BMMRO)

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS


DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (BMMRO)

Dolphin mother and newborn calf

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS

The bottlenose dolphin photos here, taken during a recent BMMRO dolphin research project in the Sea of Abaco, are of great significance. Six months after Hurricane Dorian smashed the life out of Abaco, the island is still in the early stages of recovery – to the extent that recovery is possible when the main (only) town has been pulverised to rubble and the island’s infrastructure wrecked. Good news is prized.

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (BMMRO)

Amidst the human cost of Dorian to the Abaco community, people have found some consolation in the natural world around them. The return of birdsong. The bright flashes of the unique parrots flying overhead. Shorebirds returning to the beaches from wherever they found for cover. Curly-tail lizards sunning themselves. And on water, sightings of turtles, rays and dolphins to spread some cheer. Some huge bonefish are being caught (and released) too.

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (BMMRO)

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) has its HQ at Sandy Point. During the past months, life there has been busy. A long-term underwater acoustic research project is in progress, for example. The effects of the hurricane on the marine mammals in Abaco waters – whales , dolphins and manatees – has been a cause of great concern. A drop in the dolphin population in the Sea of Abaco had been noted a few months ago, so a second assessment of the area has just been carried out.

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (BMMRO)

Playtime in the Sea of Abaco

GOOD NEWS FOR DOLPHINS

Scientists Diane Claridge and Charlotte Dunn obtained positive results. During the assessment,  they encountered 18 individual dolphins. The encouraging observations included:

  • The wonderful mother and newborn calf in the header image – a great sign of hope
  • Some dolphins first recorded – amazingly – in 1992
  • Dolphins in areas not used for years, probably due to recent reduced boat traffic
  • Familiar dolphin behaviours such as wave-surfing and group socialising
DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (BMMRO)

Ragged dorsal fin patterns enable easy ID

If you wonder how researchers can be so sure about the ID of the animals they see, check out the dorsal fins in some images here. Individual dolphins have unique patterns, markings (#2) and in particular fin damage that is readily identifiable. Seen close to, these are obvious. At a longer distance, binoculars are needed. Photos of each animal are also taken to be analysed in the lab. Sound recordings may be taken: distinctive individual voice patterns are analysed to assist ID. All of this can be compared against the BMMRO database. That is how dolphins first recorded in 1992 can be identified with such certainty now.

Credits: Charlotte Dunn (photos) and Diane Claridge, BMMRO; the dolphins for research cooperation 

If you would like to know more about the work of BMMRO and its research, click the logo above

DOLPHINS IN THE SEA OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (BMMRO)

‘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

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