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

MANATEES IN THE BAHAMAS? WE GOTTEM!


MANATEES IN THE BAHAMAS? WE GOTTEM!

Not so long ago, most people had no idea that the waters of the Bahamas in general – and Abaco in particular – contained a small population of these curious, gentle, trusting creatures. When I first wrote about them and their adventures, there was surprise – maybe disbelief. A few years later, all that has changed thanks to the BMMRO and an outreach program that raised awareness – and consequently the sighting and reporting – of manatees. They are now widely recognised as they nose their way round harbours, docks and landing stages – and quite rightly they still excite delight and a degree of wonderment. 

You can find out more – lots more – about Bahamas manatees on my page HERE. I have a post in progress about recent manatee developments with a rescue one but alas I have found I have already run out of week through some kind of bizarre time / space continuum dislocation (specifically, flagrant time-mismanagement). So I am posting a few adorable images to be going on with. 

And remember, if you happen to see one, please do report it to the BMMRO or let me know. Useful data includes date, location and a description if possible of any damage – notches and nicks – to the paddle (= tail). It’s a good method for ID. Photos a bonus.  Every sighting adds to the database of knowledge about these strangest of creatures of the Bahamian seas. And you’ll be pleased to know that they are undoubtedly managing to breed in the Bahamas: there are baby manatees to prove it…

All photos: BMMRO

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (43): CUBERA SNAPPER


BAHAMAS REEF FISH (43): CUBERA SNAPPER

The cubera snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus) is the largest snapper species. Adults may grow to 5′ long but they average around 3′ long and weigh 40 lbs or so (the record apparently stands at a massive 126 lbs). These are game fish, and they are a commercially important species. They are also IUCN listed as vulnerable, perhaps for that very reason. 

10 CUBERA SNAPPER SNAPPY  FACTS

  • The largest of a large number of snapper species in the western Atlantic
  • Feed on fish, shrimps & crabs, with large strong teeth (see pics) and jaws
  • Among their (few) predators are sharks, barracuda, and moray eels
  • Edible, but beware of the danger of CIGUATERA poisoning
  • In summer months, spawning is governed by lunar cycles
  • Cuberas form huge spawning masses (to 10k) in offshore shallows
  • Sadly the resulting eggs and larvae are rich pickings for predators…
  • Youngsters live in sea grass or mangroves for protection
  • Cuberas are game fish with commercial importance
  • IUCN listed as vulnerable – largely courtesy of mankind (see »)

RANGE FINDER

Cubera Snapper Range Map (wiki)

CONSERVATION MATTERS

Overfishing is one of the greatest threats to the species. Those young fish that are not predated naturally and grow to adulthood are targets for fishermen. There’s no prissy ‘catch & release’, as with bonefish. At spawning time, as the fish instinctively (and predictably) mass as the moon dictates, so do the human predators. The spawning sites are where the best protection can be given, to ensure the annual reproductive cycle is uninterrupted. If not, ‘vulnerable’ will soon give way to ‘endangered’…

I’d been going to pull apart a long recipe for the “wonderfully sweet white meat ” of this fish for the tastiest morsels of info, then (not being a cook) I quickly tired of the idea. Sorry to disappoint. 

Credits: Melinda Riger for the wonderful photos; range map from wiki; magpie research pickings, including (but not limited to ) Nat Geo

CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS: SEASONAL SPIROBRANCHES


Christmas Tree Worm (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS: SEASONAL SPIROBRANCHES

music-notes-clip-art-png-musicDeck the Reefs with Worms Like Christmas Trees… Fal-La-La-etc-etc ” is a traditional Carol familiar to all. Well, most. Ok, some, then. Oh right – maybe with different words? Anyway, now is the perfect time to take another look at these remarkable subsurface symbols of seasonal good cheer (nb they are animals not plants).

christmas-tree-worm-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

10 CHRISTMAS TREE WORM FACTS TO PONDER

  • The 2 colourful spirals are not the worm, but complex structures for feeding & respiration
  • The spirals act as specialised mouth extensions for ‘filter-feeding’
  • Prey is trapped by the feathery tentacles & guided by cilia (microscopic hairs) to the mouth
  • The tentacle things are radioles and act as gills for breathing as well as prey traps
  • It is not believed that prey slide down the spiral to their doom, like on a helter-skelter

Christmas Tree Worm (Neil Hobgood Wiki)Christmas Tree Worm (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

  • The actual worm lives in a sort of segmented tube, with extremely limited mobility skills
  • It contains digestive, circulatory & nervous systems – and a brain in the middle of it all
  • The worm also has a tiny drainage tube (I think I have this right) for excretion etc
  • They embed themselves into heads of coral such as brain coral. And stay there
  • And yes, the Christmas trees are retractable… (see below for some action)

spirobranchus_giganteus_orange_christmas_tree_worm-nick-hobgood-wiki

HOW DO THE WORMS… YOU KNOW…  ERM… REPRODUCE?

This is a delicate area. They don’t tend to talk about it much, but as far as I can make out they eject gametes from their what-I-said-above. There are mummy and daddy worms, and their respective gametes (eggs and spermatozoa) drift in the current and presumably into each other to complete the union. The fertilised eggs develop into larvae, which settle onto coral and burrow into it, build their protective tubes and the process begins again.

christmas_tree_worm-nick-hobgood-wiki

YOU DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THESE CREATURES, DO YOU?

I won’t lie. I found it hard to work out how the CTWs function in practice. There are plenty of resources showing them in their full glory, but that only takes one so far. Then I came across a short video that shows it all brilliantly simply (except for the reproduction part).

The worms, in their coral burrows, hoist their pairs of ‘trees’. You can easily see small particles – possibly zooplankton – drifting in the water, and the radioles swaying to catch potential food. Suddenly it all makes sense (except the repro bit – I haven’t found footage of that).  Next: the New Year Worm (there is no Easter worm).

A WHOLE FESTIVAL OF CHRISTMAS TREE WORMSChristmas Tree Worms (Neil Hobgood Wiki)

Credits: Melinda Riger (G B Scuba); Nick Hobgood; Betty Wills; Video by ‘Super Sea Monkey’;Reef Collage by RH; MarineBio; Wikibits & Magpie Pickings

Happy Christmas to all those who put up with RH with such fortitude
blue_christmas_tree_worm-betty-wills-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)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (39): YELLOWTAIL DAMSELFISH


Yellowtail Damselfish (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (39): YELLOWTAIL DAMSELFISH

Yellowtails are just one of several damselfish species in Bahamas waters. These small fish are conspicuous not just for the bright tails that give them their name. More striking if anything – especially if seen underwater in sunlight against the coral – are the electric blue spots visible in both adults and juveniles.

Yellowtail Damselfish (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

The body of adults is dark blue to brownish to almost black 

The body of juveniles is blue

Yellowtails are a common and widespread variety of damselfish. They have a limited ability to change colour according to their surroundings, but with their bright tails and luminous blue flecks, it’s hard to see how they can look, to a predator, anything other than a tasty snack.

I have enjoyed seeing these little fish at Fowl Cay Marine Preserve, Abaco. The reef there makes for easy and rewarding snorkelling, with a wide variety of small and medium-size reef fishes to be seen. It’s an expedition I would definitely recommend to anyone wanting to see a healthy and active reef in a completely natural protected area.

I found that a video I took with a tiny camera was sadly of use only to myself. No one else would be able to make anything out due to the marked camera shake. Novices, huh? You are spared that: here’s a brief example of yellowtails swimming instead, showing the difference between juveniles and adults.

Credits: all photos, Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; video from Desert Diving

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