‘WELL SPOTTED’: 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

‘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 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

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

AN ‘EXHILARATION’ OF ABACO DOLPHINS


Bottlenose Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

AN ‘EXHILARATION’ OF ABACO DOLPHINS

Bottlenose dolphins! Tursiops truncatus! These engagingly playful show-offs of the inshore waters round Abaco are 99.99% adorable**. It’s been a harrowing few weeks in the western Atlantic, and everyone is hoping that the 2017 hurricane season has had enough of causing death and destruction over vast swathes of vulnerable islands and on the US mainland. Some cheer is needed.

Bottlenose Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Dolphins are good for the soul. And if you are out on a boat watching them – and especially tracking them for a whole day – every encounter reinforces the impression that all the leaping, bow-wave riding, boat under-swimming, and general sociability and interaction is often as much for sheer enjoyment as anything else. 

Bottlenose Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Abaco is fortunate in having the HQ of the Bahamas Mammals Research Organisation (BMMRO) based at Sandy Point. That just happens to be an excellent area for bottlenose dolphin spotting in the turquoise shallows. Many sightings are made within clear sight of land. Further south, where the bright blue gives way to darker and deeper water, live the equally frolicsome Atlantic spotted dolphins. The 3 photos above were all taken on the margins of where the colour of the sea changes from light to dark.

Bottlenose Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

I’m a bit of a collector of collective nouns. For dolphins, apart from the matter-of-fact ‘group’ or ‘pod’, there is no exotic word to describe a number of them when they are having fun. No equivalent of ‘exaltation’ (larks), ‘charm’ (goldfinches) or ‘parliament’ (owls). So I’m nominating an ‘exhilaration’ as a candidate to fill the gap…

The photo above shows clearly how individual dolphins can be identified by researchers. All tend to have scars or tears to their dorsal fins that enable them to be distinguished. The closest has distinctive scars near the tip. The furthest has a W-shaped nick at the back. In fact, it could even be Rocky, a well-known dolphin on Abaco that has been sighted over many years. There are regular reports annually. I saw him myself once, in 2012, playing about in Hopetown harbour. 

STOP PRESS To demonstrate how the ID methods work, I’ve now cross-checked with the BMMRO photo ID archive. Here is Rocky’s original dorsal fin ID image (“Tt15”) from October 2010. There’s a W-shaped nick, sure, but my speculation above was wrong because overall the two fins are clearly different…

Rocky the Dolphin Tt15, from BMMRO ID photo archive

** The 0.01%? Dolphins may, rarely, be alarming for divers in circumstances I won’t repeat here (hint: to do with over-friendliness, ok? Yes, the thing that dogs do)

Credits: all photos BMMRO – and taken in the last 2 months

DOLPHINS DISPORTING IN THE BAHAMAS


Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)

DOLPHINS DISPORTING IN THE BAHAMAS

‘Disporting’. Not a word I’ve used very often. Or possibly ever. It looks a bit like ‘unsporting’, which is emphatically what dolphins are not. Basically, it just describes what dolphins are doing when you see them on the surface: amusing themselves, frolicking around in the waves, and simply enjoying themselves.Bottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)

True, they are probably keeping an eye out for food… But when you have a group sociably following alongside the boat your are in, moving in front, dropping behind, diving under, and generally playing around, it’s quite hard to believe that these are completely wild creatures. They seem to be performing just for you, simply because they want to. You don’t even have to throw fish at them to earn this free display.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO) Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)

As is well-known, the BAHAMAS MARINE MAMMAL RESEARCH ORGANISATION (BMMRO) is the custodian for the welfare of these beautiful creatures for the entire Bahamas. However, being based on Abaco and carrying out the majority of the research from the HQ at Sandy Point means that many of the great images that get taken are from Abaco waters. Indeed some are taken within swimming distance (not mine) of the shore.  Bottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)Bottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)Bottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)Bottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)

The photographs featured here were taken during the last few weeks. Some are of the familiar bottlenose dolphins. The others – with speckled undersides clearly visible in the header image & below – are of Atlantic spotted dolphins. There’s even one of my own taken from the research vessel. Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Bahamas (BMMRO)

For the researchers, the most important part of an individual dolphin is its dorsal fin. Unique patterns of cuts and scars mean that each dolphin sighted can be logged and their profiles built up. Some have been found in the same area for many years. They are not usually given jocular names – ‘Davy Jones’, ‘Finny Phil’ or whatever. The first time we went out on the research vessel we were slightly surprised by the practical, scientific calls during a sighting of a dolphin group: “there’s B4 again” and “over there – D5 is back”. All said fondly however – many of the dolphins are old friends.

This dolphin has a notable notch on the dorsal fin with a nick below, & a scar line – with a prominent white scar on the lower front edge Bottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas - Dorsal Fin Damage (BMMRO)

Notice how these 3 dolphins all have quite different fin profiles.  The nearest one’s fin looks unblemished, but has a paler tip. Powerful binoculars and a serious camera can pick out small  differences at a distance that the eye could notBottlenose Dolphin, Bahamas - Dorsal Fin Damage (BMMRO)

Coming soon: Manatees & Man in the Bahamas

All photos (bar one by me) BMMRO, with thanks to Diane & Charlotte, and a tip of the hat to the current interns involved in the research projects (Hi, UK Thomas!)

HUMPBACK WHALE SEEN OFF SANDY POINT, ABACO


bmmro-humpbacks-2

HUMPBACK WHALE SEEN OFF SANDY POINT, ABACO

Dolphins are regularly seen around the coast and in the fishing grounds of Abaco. Sometimes, they make it easy by nosing into harbours and being generally adorable for a while, to the delight of onlookers. Hope Town can be a good place for this. Those aboard the “Donnies” –  the ferries that criss-cross the Sea of Abaco from the main island to the various Cays – may be in luck too. However, it is perhaps less well known that Abaco waters provide a home or a migratory passage for gigantic whales. Beside these mighty creatures, the several other whale species of the Bahamas seem relatively small. Yes it’s true: there are huge whales – humpbacks and sperm whales (cachalots) – to be found in Abaco waters, and not so very far from land either.

bmmro-humpbacks-5

The humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae above, with its characteristic white pectoral fins, was seen about a week ago off Sandy Point (southwest Abaco). You’ll get an idea of its immense size from the photo. An adult of this BALEEN WHALE species can reach 50 feet in length and weigh 35 tons or more. Imagine watching one slipping silently past your boat… and then consider that even larger sperm whales are seen in the same area. 

For the link to report a Bahamas whale sighting, please see either link provided below

Humpback whale / adult male human in scuba gear comparison
humpback_whale_size-svg

bmmro-humpbacks-1

Humpbacks are found in oceans throughout the world. They migrate huge distances each year, from polar regions to the tropical and sub-tropical waters where they breed. These are the whales beloved of wildlife film producers and whale-watching trips, with their spectacular arched breaching in which half their length or more may emerge from the water before smashing back into the waves. 

A humpback breaches on the Stellwagen Bank (about 50 miles offshore of Boston)
humpback_stellwagen-whit-wells-wiki

Like other large whale species, humpbacks were unsurprisingly prime targets for the whaling industry in a melancholy era of marine history that took them to the edge of extinction until a moratorium was declared in 1966. Since then the population has recovered significantly. They remain vulnerable, however: in some locations, to killing; to entanglement in heavy-duty fishing gear; to ship collisions; and to noise pollution that affects their ability to communicate long-distances underwater, as they need to do.

Finally, the Sandy Point humpback makes a last dive and, with a wave of its fluke, disappears  bmmro-humpbacks-4    bmmro-humpbacks-3

Do you have a Bahamas whale or dolphin sighting to report? Please use this link, giving as many of the details as you can. Each report makes a valuable contribution to the BMMRO’s research. 

http://www.bahamaswhales.org/sightings.aspx

As a footnote, my first whale encounter was on the Stellwagen Bank mentioned above, when I went on a whale-watching trip from Boston. We encountered a mother humpback with her calf and spent about 1/2 hour watching them interacting. I have the memories luckily – my photos were rubbish, using a very early digital camera that these days would be less effective and well-spec’d that a luminous pink plastic child’s camera now… 
stellwagen-humpbacks-keith-salvesen-2 Version 3stellwagen-humpbacks-keith-salvesen-3

RELATED POSTS

HUMPBACK HOPE TOWN ABACO

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES

BMMRO

SIGHTING REPORTS

Credits: Brad & his crew, and the BMMRO; Whit Wells / Wiki for the breaching whale; moi for the rotten but quite interesting archive photos from the same place; the whale for being awesome in the true sense of the word