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)

FOLLOWING DOLPHINS IN THE BAHAMAS…


Following Dolphins (SailorDolphin / BMMRO)

FOLLOWING DOLPHINS IN THE BAHAMAS…

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) is based at Sandy Point, Abaco. The principals Diane Claridge and Charlotte Dunn with their team cover not only Abaco waters but the whole of the Bahamas. Their research work is complex, and some of it is carried out in conjunction with partners on specific projects or more generally.

Following Dolphins (SailorDolphin / BMMRO)

Which brings me to SailorDolphin Research, a project that involves the meticulous mapping, photographing, and recording of the details of each sighting. Much of the work is carried out in the Bahamas in partnership with BMMRO. The link will take you to the homepage, which notes “This website provides a list of Dolphins that I have documented on the US East coast and the Bahamas. It includes details (with photos & notes) for each dolphin and lists of their sightings from my personal database.” If you have an interest in dolphins (and who does not?), it will repay exploration – and you will see some awesome photographs. Here are a few of them to admire. 

Following Dolphins (SailorDolphin / BMMRO)

Now imagine yourself in the water, with these wonderful creatures cutting through the water in front of you, working their sleek bodies just below the surface, jostling and cavorting, occasionally letting a fin cut through the water. Hold that thought… Right, get back to work!

All photos courtesy of SailorDolphin / BMMRO

Following Dolphins (SailorDolphin / BMMRO)

SPERM WHALES TAILING: ABACO, BAHAMAS


Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

SPERM WHALES TAILING: ABACO, BAHAMAS

There can be very few people in the world whose breath would not be taken away by the sight of a massive sperm whale tailing close by. And as it happens, this very phenomenon can be seen in the deeper waters around the coast of Abaco. Here is a small gallery of photos of sperm whales tailing, taken from the BMMRO research vessel. There’s no point in my writing a lot of commentary to the images – they speak for themselves of the awesome (in its correct sense) power and grace of these huge mammals.

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO) Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

In these images, you will notice that the whales have distinctive patterns of notches and tears in their flukes (ie tail fins). As with a dolphin’s dorsal fin, these areas of damage are like fingerprints – unique to each individual, and a sure means to identification. The researchers log each sighting and assign a cypher – a whale will become known as ‘B42’ and not usually by a less scientific name like ‘Derek’ or ‘Susie’).

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO) Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

Q. What happened next?  A. You would see the tail emerge as the whale dives deep… Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

One of my favourite whale views is of the tail as it rises above the surface with water streaming off the flukes, before it flicks over and disappears beneath the waves. 

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

A juvenile takes a dive alongside an adult. One day that tail will be massive…Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

Credits: all photos © BMMRO, with thanks as ever to Diane and Charlotte

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

‘WELL SPOTTED’ (2): ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO


Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

‘WELL SPOTTED’ (2): ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO

No sooner have I posted about PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS sighted during the current BMMRO whale research program, than the other Bahamas spotted dolphin species shows up as well. These are the more numerous Atlantic Spotteds Stenella frontalis, more confined in range (as the names suggest) than the Pantropicals. 

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

The BMMRO caption reads “Atlantic spotted dolphins today! Small social group playing with sargassum – they swam past what looked like a plastic mattress cover – one dolphin whacked it with its tail as it swam by…”

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

Just because it can…Atlantic Spotted Dolphin leaping in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

RUBBISHING RUBBISH: A RANT

Behold a large plastic bag, made by humans and dumped by humans into a place that is not theirs to use as a trash repository. It will take some 500 years to break down completely. But when people say that they don’t really mean it will have harmlessly disappeared over that period and become salt water. Far rom it. It will just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, to bite-sized bits for turtle, fish and seabirds who will idiotically mistake them for food (duh!), then to micro-plastic that will become part of the evolving plastic soup that will be ingested by tiny sea creatures and coat the reefs in polyethylene gunk. [End of rant. Ed.]

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters - marine trash (BMMRO)

Behold an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin giving the bag a passing whack with its tail. It won’t do anything to help with marine pollution, but is shows a robust disdain for a piece of man-made rubbish that has made it into the creature’s home environment.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters - marine trash (BMMRO)

Below is a short GoPro shoot of a pair of ASDs, that I took from the BMMRO research boat last year. Marvel at the grace and elegance of these beautiful animals as they swim just below the surface (wonder, too, at the incompetence of the cameraperson who, to be fair, was leaning over the side of the RHIB with the camera on a stick…)

All photos BMMRO; video from the Rolling Harbour achives, intemperate rant all my own

‘WELL SPOTTED’ 1: PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO


Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

‘WELL SPOTTED’: PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO

Two species of spotted dolphin are found in Bahamas waters. The most common is the ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHIN Stenella frontalis, a species confined to the Atlantic. Less commonly seen – though with a global range – are Pantropical Spotted Dolphins Stenella attenuata

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

The BMMRO research boat is out whale-spotting right now, and the team is finding a good variety of cetacean species, from dolphins right up to SPERM WHALE mother and calves. A couple of days ago, the pantropicals surfaced and these great shots of them were taken.

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

The two spotted dolphin species are very similar to the untrained eye. Identification is further complicated by the fact that both species start life without spots and go through stages ranging from no spots at all to completely spotted. These stages are sometimes referred to as ‘two-tone, speckled, mottled, and fused’. The pantropicals are relatively small, reaching lengths up to 7 feet and weighing c250 pounds at adulthood. Their beaks are longer and more slender than the familiar but larger bottlenose dolphin. The beak has a white tip, a useful identifier.

Atlantic Spotted and Pantropical Spotted range maps for comparison

The pantropicals favour shallower water by day, and at night they move to deeper water where they can dive down for food such as squid. Although they are IUCN listed as ‘Least Concern’ and their world-wide numbers are estimated to be abundant, they face the usual man-related threats to the species throughout their range, especially in the Pacific region. As we see time after time, complacency can turn to concern in a very short time.

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

THREATS TO THE SPECIES

  • Entanglement in fishing gear – captured as bycatch in the course of commercial fishing
  • Entangled in discarded fishing gear
  • Illegal feeding and harassment – this is a problem in particular locations eg Hawaii
  • Overexposure to and interaction with eager tourists in inshore areas
  • Hunting – these dolphins are prolifically hunted for food in several parts of the world
  • Hunting – they are caught ‘accidentally’ in large numbers in nets set for tuna
  • Persecution in eastern tropical Pacific fisheries, according to WDC
  • Pollution, plastic ingestion etc – basically, mankind’s negligence over 60 years or so
  • General habitat degradation, disturbance and marine noise pollution – mankind again

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Credits: BMMRO for all photos; research credits NOAA; WDC

MARINE POSTER COMPETITION FOR ABACO KIDS


BMMRO children's poster competition winners

MARINE POSTER COMPETITION FOR ABACO KIDS

BMMRO recently collaborated with Dolphin Encounters Marine Education Poster Contest in a competition for schoolchildren on Abaco. There were 3 age groups, 3 -5, 6 – 8, and 9 – 12. The young participants received the excellent BMMRO marine educational poster as a prize, though I suspect they were motivated not so much by a prize but by the fun possibilities of the challenges set for them. 

BMMRO children's poster competition winners

And how well they met them. I am featuring a selection of the prizewinners as posted by BMMRO on FB and Insta. Bearing in mind the ages of the artists, the results are astounding. As someone for whom the task of drawing a stickman presents insurmountable difficulties of perspective, proportion, form and accuracy, I am in awe of the inventiveness of these young minds and their artistic skills. They’ve done a fantastic job in highlighting the critical conservation issues facing all marine creatures large and small, with an awareness that I hope will help stay with them into adulthood.

BMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winners

Do I have a favourite, I asked myself. Actually, no – I’d just be proud to have any of these on my wall. And I bet the teachers and the families involved all feel the same.

HUGE CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE WORTHY WINNERS

BMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winners

 

SPERM WHALES GATHERING IN ABACO WATERS


Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

SPERM WHALES GATHERING IN ABACO WATERS

During the past week, the BMMRO research boat has been tracking sperm whales off the south coast of Abaco. These huge creatures are the largest marine mammals found in Bahamian waters, and the area between Rocky Point around the south coast to Hole-in-the Wall is a great place to find them. 

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

One reason they are found in this particular area is the existence of the Great Bahama Canyon, one of the deepest submarine canyons in the world. The depth of the canyon ensures that the waters are nutrient-rich, with food being drawn up from the depths towards the surface. In season it’s the perfect place for female sperm whales and their calves.

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

The BMMRO research trip encountered more than a dozen sperm whales, mostly females with their calves. And the amazing thing is that the sightings are often made within sight of land. In these photos, the are two landmarks visible. One is the huge Disney vessel parked at Gorda Cay aka Castaway Cay (header image); the other is HOLE-IN-THE-WALL LIGHTHOUSE (above)

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen) Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

Credits: All photos BMMRO 2018, with thanks to Diane & Charlotte as ever

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)