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)

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

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)

BABY SPERM WHALE, ABACO, BAHAMAS: HOPE FOR A NEW DECADE


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

BABY SPERM WHALE, ABACO, BAHAMAS

HOPE FOR A NEW DECADE 

Looking back at 2019, one of the most enjoyable posts to put together featured an adult sperm whale with a neonate calf. The wonderful photos were obtained last summer during 2 research trips in the deeper water off the south coast of Abaco by the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) It seems fitting to greet the new decade with a revised version of my original post. There’s optimism in these images, and more generally in the recovery in some areas of the savagely depleted whale populations of past decades. I’d like to think that a smiling baby whale holds out hope for the 2020s.

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

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

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

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

These are just some of the BMMRO research team’s images and footage of the baby sperm whale investigating the underwater world it has just been born into. Hopefully it will flourish and live for decades. If it does not, the overwhelmingly likely cause will be mankind, either directly or indirectly. 

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)

 

‘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

SOME NICE PICS OF BAHAMAS WILDLIFE… WHILE TECHIES LABOUR


Ring-billed Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

SOME NICE PICS OF BAHAMAS WILDLIFE…

WHILE TECHIES LABOUR

Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

I’m never quite sure how far it’s permissible to go beyond ‘really pissed off’ about a tech problem. Anything much stronger seems a bit indulgent both in itself and especially when measured against the far-reaching despair experienced by many in far more important areas of life.

Northern Parula Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

I am just having a huge “Grrrrrrrrr” moment because my complex blog menu, with 3 rows of headings and carefully curated nests of drop-downs under each, has been scrubbed by persons or AI unknown. It’s several years of cumulative and (mostly) pleasurable organisational work up the spout.

As a Brit, may I be permitted to say ‘bother’. Or maybe ‘Dash it all?’ Or declare that I’m a mite cheesed orf? To which a fair response would be “it’s just a trivial inconvenience, get over it…”

Abaco Parrot (Craig Nash)

For the moment, here are some nice pics to enjoy, all taken on Abaco. I’m happy to say that right now, 7 weeks since Dorian, there are promising signs that in some areas of Abaco, the birds are starting to show themselves – including a few winter warblers. See you the other side of rethinking my Menu…

Conch shell, Schooner Bay Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Nina Henry, Bruce Hallett, Mary Kay Beach, Craig Nash, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO (western spindalis badge, moi)

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

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)

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

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)

‘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