‘SOCIABLE DOLPHINS’: MELON-HEADED WHALES


Melon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

‘SOCIABLE DOLPHINS’: MELON-HEADED WHALES

Last month, BMMRO undertook a joint expedition with FIELD SCHOOL to carry out research on sperm whales. This took them out into deep water, where another, quite different, cetacean species was also encountered on the final day – a huge pod of more than 100 melon-headed whales Peponocephala electra.

Melon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

The melon-headed whale is in fact – like the FALSE KILLER WHALE I recently wrote about – a species of dolphin. It is sometimes more accurately called the melon-headed dolphin, which removes any confusion. These creatures are oceanic, preferring deeper waters. For that reason they are not often encountered, despite being quite common in tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world.

Cetacea range map Melon-headed Whale.PNG

Melon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

The MHW belongs to a dolphin species commonly known as blackfish. Other dolphins in this group included, for the Bahamas, the pygmy killer whale and the more frequently encountered pilot whale, a species than can be seen in the Sea of Abaco.

In some of these photos you can see the distinctive white lips of the MHW Melon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

Melon-headed whales are notably social animals. They live in large groups – often more than 100-strong (as the expedition found), up to as many as 1000 individuals. Within these large groups, smaller groups of a dozen or so form and stay close as they swim.

Note the ‘Rainbow Blow’ caught in this photoMelon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

MHWs appear to communicate or perhaps to bond by touching flippers. MHWs also associate with other dolphin species, and they have even been recorded with large whales such as humpbacks.

Melon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

Other observed behaviour includes sub-surface resting in numbers, boat-wave riding, and so-called ‘spy hopping’ (above). This last activity may be carried out by several resting animals,  which jump vertically out of the water and splash back again into the ocean (see also the Header image).

Melon-headed whales, Bahamas (BMMRO / Field School)

This video was recorded during the expedition. You’ll get a very good idea of the size of the group from the drone shots as they pull out. I doubt that many people would expect to see such large sea creatures in such numbers – it must be an awesome** sight.

10 MELON-HEADED FACTS WITH WHICH TO ASTOUND YOUR LOVED ONES
  • The MHW’s head is rounded, lacking the obvious beak of more familiar dolphins
  • The darker grey face is sometimes called a ‘mask’
  • Their distinctive white lips are a good identifying feature
  • They are capable of swimming at very fast speeds
  • Like other dolphins, they make series of low jumps out of the water as they swim
  • Their groups often contain 100 individuals, up to as many as 1000
  • An adult grows to around 3m / 10′ long
  • They live for at least 20 years, and females may live as long as 30 years
  • As with many certaceans, their favourite food is squid
  • Oh, did I mention that they are really dolphins and not whales at all?

CREDITS: all fantastic photos & the original of the video clip – © BMMRO /  Field School

** In its true and original meaning of ‘inspiring wonder and awe’ (historically, in a religious sense), rather than the diluted modern usage as in ‘awesome pizza’ or ‘awesome selfie’

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY


False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY

A couple of months back I wrote about the fate of the false killer whale Pseudorca crassidens (in fact a species of dolphin) that was stranded on Duck Cay. After its discovery, it was cut up, buried for many months before being disinterred, cleaned… and made ready to be reconstructed for display at Friends of the Environment, Marsh Harbour for research and educational purposes. The poor dead creature was destined to have a future ‘life’ (in a sense) as an exhibit. You can read the details and see the various stages of the preparatory processes (including some gory images) HERE.

False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

The FKW joint project (see below for participants) has taken more than a year. The final stage has been similar to doing a jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication that it isn’t entirely clear where or even whether all the pieces fit – there may even be one or two leftover small bones when the reconstruction is finished.

HEADFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Since I last wrote about the ‘rearticulation’ project, I have spent some time on Abaco. A highlight was our visit to FotE to meet the jocundly-named ‘Ducky’ of Duck Cay [I’d have gone for ‘Killer’ as a name – there’s no such thing as bad publicity]. Incidentally the strange item on the whale’s skull is in fact nothing to do with the creature’s real structure – it’s a natural historian’s unicorn-related jest…

RIBCAGE & SPINEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO) False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Besides identifying all the bones and numbering them, those working on this project have had to devise ingenious methods for display to make the reconstruction as accurate as possible – not an easy task with a creature nearly 20 feet long.

SPINEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)         

FLIPPER 1 – COMPLETEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

FLIPPER 2 – WORK IN PROGRESSFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

JAW & A TRAY OF SUNDRIES…False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO) False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

It would be against the principles of this blog to miss out on an obvious open goal of an opportunity for an apposite final caption…

A WHALE TALE THAT ENDS WITH THE WHALE TAILFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. A number of children from local schools have already been to visit Ducky and been completely fascinated. A dead stranded whale now has a new incarnation, and a new story to tell.

ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?

Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.

And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.

STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
Credits: all photos by Keith Salvesen / BMMRO. Special thanks to Olivia Patterson and all at Friends of the Environment for a fascinating time visiting Ducky Killer; and to Nancy Albury for showing us around the excellent Museum. If you haven’t been, go!

THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO


Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO

There’s a strange affinity between humans and whales. Humans seem to think so, anyway – and whales seem to tolerate them amiably, perhaps now that the decimation of their populations by humans is (largely) a thing of the past. The Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular are in the mainstream of progressive cetacean research, led by the BMMRO at Sandy Point.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

One of the speciality research species is the Blainville’s Beaked Whale. These magnificent creatures are deep divers, and although they are found in many parts of the world, the Bahamas is one of only 3 locations with a significant population for study. Most of the whales here were photographed within sight of land (and a few with the Castaway Island Disney Cruise Ship visible on the horizon!).

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

I’ve been lucky enough to be on the BMMRO research vessel on a beaked whale outing – and luckier still that we were able to spend plenty of time with a group of them, including some males. The header image is of a mature male with his huge teeth that protrude upwards from the lower jaw, and in time become encrusted with barnacles.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

The whales were quite undisturbed by our presence – indeed they behaved much like dolphins, circling the boat and swimming under it; moving away and returning. This was an opportunity to count the whales, to identify those that had already been recorded, and to document any new ones. Each whale has its own unique pattern of marks, striations and in some cases healed wounds. The pair below are a good example.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Also, the whales have individually distinctive dorsal fins, with nicks and tears that also act as a means of identification. These can often be made out from a distance with powerful binoculars or photographed with a long lens for later analysis (this ID method also works reliably for dolphins).

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Beaked whales often bear the healed scars from the gouging bites of COOKIE-CUTTER SHARKS, a vicious little species that I recently featured. The distinctive circular scars on the back of the whale below result from encounters with these unpleasant creatures.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Finally, the photo below. It has no merit, photographically speaking, but I love the way that sometimes a ‘risk’ shot – into the sun, perhaps – produces rather magical effects. The unexpected ‘sea stars’ were a bonus!

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / BMMRO

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH


False Killer Whale (Endless Ocean-wiki)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH

The ‘false killer whale’ Pseudorca crassidens has a somewhat misleading name: first (as implied), it is not a killer whale; second, it’s not actually a whale at all, but a large species of dolphin. However, it does have some killer whale tendencies – attacking and killing smaller marine mammals for example – and perhaps a passing resemblance, so the species has been given something of an upgrade, name-wise.

False Killer Whale (NOAA-wiki)

Although these fine creatures are distributed widely around the globe, the overall numbers are thought to be small, and relatively little is known about them in the wild. They are, of course, used as aquarium exhibits but the knowledge gleaned in captivity cannot provide much of an overview of their oceanic behaviour, which remains relatively unstudied.

False Killer Whale range map - wiki

However, there is one source of valuable data – the scientific study of stranded animals. And as it happens, Abaconians will very soon be able to obtain at least a skeleton knowledge of the FKW, the end-product of a long and complicated research project by the BMMRO in conjunction with Friends of the Environment. Just a quick word of warning before you read further – some images below are not especially pleasant to look at, so be prepared for them… They are illustrative and not intended for close inspection (unless you want).

Exactly a year ago an FKW was reported to have stranded on Duck Cay, off Cherokee Sound. BMMRO were quickly on the scene, and hoping to undertake the usual procedure of a necropsy, in which post-mortem samples are taken for analysis. However the poor creature was in an advancing state of decomposition, so only skin samples and photographs could be taken.

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)         False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Telescoping the intervening months for the sake of brevity, the decision was made to cut up the carcass (note the face-masks) and bury it where it was, so that its integrity would be preserved for later retrieval, cleaning, reconstruction (‘re-articulation’) and exhibition for educational purposes.

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO) False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO) False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

In December, the remains were exhumed for the next phase of the animal’s decomposition – submersion in cages in the mangroves – before the final cleaning of the bones in readiness for its re-articulation and display.

False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Cleaning the bones has been a meticulous process, leaving the resulting skeleton ready to reconstruct in situ at Friends of the Environment’s Kenyon Research Centre in Marsh Harbour. Adult FKWs can grow up to 6 metres long, so there are a great many bones from large to very small to place correctly – and plenty of teeth (see below). The re-articulation is nearly finished, and it is hoped that the completed skeleton will be on display in the very near future. I am planning to see it in about 2 weeks time, and – this sounds quite strange, I know – I’m very excited about it.

False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale tooth & bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. I am keen to know whether, in the modern way, an affectionate name has been chosen for the skeleton. ‘Duck Cay’ doesn’t provide a very promising start. Well, maybe Donald is in vogue…? 

ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?

Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.

And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.

STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
False Killer Whale skull, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Credits: header image, Endless Ocean / wiki; #1 NOAA; all other photos BMMRO or FOTE, with thanks; range map wiki 

SPERM WHALES – BMMRO FIELD TRIP, BAHAMAS


Sperm Whales, Bahamas (BMMRO)

SPERM WHALES – BMMRO FIELD TRIP, BAHAMAS

I can never quite get my head around the fact that the waters around Abaco are home to the twin leviathans, sperm whales and humpback whales. And before anyone points it out, I realise they can’t actually be twins: sperms whales (cachelots) are TOOTHED WHALES whereas humpback whales are BALEEN WHALES

Sperm Whales, Bahamas (BMMRO)

During November, the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) undertook a rather special field trip. Using sophisticated devices, the scientists first located a group of sperm whales, and then tracked them through the night using the communications between the creatures – ‘vocalisations’ – to follow them. Later analysis of the recordings will have made it possible to identify the individuals through their unique vocal patterns – and so to recognise them again. 

Sperm Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO)

The hydrophonic equipment used is extremely sensitive, and can pick up the sounds made by whales and dolphins over a great distance. The box of tricks looks deceptively modest – I took these photos on a previous trip when we were looking for beaked whales and dolphins. Charlotte Dunn holds the microphone submerged on a cable and underwater sounds are amplified so that the slightest chirrup of a dolphin can be heard by everyone on the vessel. The sounds are recorded and locations carefully logged.

Besides the sperm whales, the BMMRO team also had sightings of spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and beaked whales during the field trip. These bonus sightings will also have been logged for future reference. It all adds to the detailed research data that assists the conservation of the prolific marine mammal life in Bahamian waters.

Atlantic Spotted DolphinsAtlantic Spotted Dolphins, Bahamas (BMMRO)

By the time one of the whales decided to breach, it was some distance away, so I’m afraid I can’t bring you a dramatic close-up from the trip. But just to see this view at all is breathtaking.

All photos BMMRO except the 2 hydrophone ones on the research boat (Keith Salvesen)

DOLPHINS: JUST AS SMART AS YOU ARE…


Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

DOLPHINS: JUST AS SMART AS YOU ARE…

Anyone watching David Attenborough’s astounding new Blue Planet 2 series will already have got the strong message that dolphins are smart, sociable, and joyous creatures. Brian Lockwood from Porquoson VA – and recently become an Abaco resident – knows a smart way to get out on the water to watch them at close quarters: a jetski. Here are a few of the outstanding photos he has recently taken of dolphins doing what they love to do, and what humans love them to do. 

Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

The hint of a quote in the heading of this post is based on something the inimitable Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, once claimed: “When I see a dolphin I know it’s just as smart as I am…”.  The only slight problem with this comparative assessment is that there may have been times when the good Captain was conceivably on, or adjacent to, a different planet. Times when the dolphins might actually have got the intellectual upper hand.

Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood) Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood) Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood)

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION FOR THE WEEKEND

There are plenty of excellent songs name-checking dolphins somewhere in the lyrics. Rather fewer with ‘dolphin’ in the title. Yes, there’s the Tim Buckley song (or the Beth Orton version of it). The insipid Firefall one? Nah! Then I remembered the Byrds and their ‘Dolphin’s Smile’. Never a single. Originally buried on “Side 2” of Notorious Byrd Brothers. Slightly obscure? Makes a change, so here it is, complete with its evocative yet synthetic ‘dolphin chatter’ intro.

Credits: all the wonderful dolphins taken by Brian Lockwood, with thanks for use permission

Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood)

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO WATERS


Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO WATERS

It’s hard to believe that the seas around Abaco and its cays are home to a number of whale species, from huge sperm and humpback whales down to so-called dwarf or pygmy species. In the middle of this range come the beaked whales, the most common being the Blainville’s Beaked Whale. I say ‘most common’, but in fact they are rare in the world, being found in only two other main locations on earth. 

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

These whales are carefully monitored by the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO), and there is a tagging program to keep track of them. As with dolphins, individuals are identified by markings on the dorsal fin, which vary for each whale. The one above has distinctive scarring at the tip. There are also striations on the body, and conspicuous circular marks that are healed wounds caused by cookie-cutter sharks.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

To the untrained eye, there are no noticeable marks on the dorsal fin of the whale above. However, the whale’s back has a prominent pattern of scarring and healed cookie-cutter wounds. The whale below really looks as though it has been in the wars, with long deep healed wounds behind the head.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

I can’t tell without seeing the head, but I wonder if it is a male and the scars have been caused in a fight with another male – adult males have prominent tusks with which they do battle. Here is an photo that I took from the research boat on a different occasion. The tusks protrude upwards from the lower jaw, and are often covered in barnacles. They are capable of causing serious injury.

Blainville's Beaked Whale male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Blainville’s beaked whales are amongst the deepest divers of all whales. But that and other whale topics will have to wait for another day… My computer malware / virus has been removed professionally with no data loss, and I have some catching up to do. Cost in terms of panic and stress: huge. Cost in real terms: $90.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

All photos BMMRO except the tusked male, Keith Salvesen