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)

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!)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)


Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)

Four years ago a young English friend of ours, Oscar Ward, was lucky enough to be offered an internship with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). At the time, he was post-school, and waiting to start a degree course in marine biology at university. He had no practical experience at all, so he had to progress from the menial tasks (scraping barnacles off the bottom of the research boat) to the more adventurous (whale poop-scooping) to the scholarly (collection and analysis of samples and data, including audio file matching of whale calls for identification). The need for hard work, concentration and accuracy were made clear from the outset… and as you will see, Oscar’s short internship has stood him in very good stead during his university course.

Oscar weekending at Gilpin Point – self-sufficientBMMRO Internship - weekend off (Oscar Ward)

From a promising start on Abaco, and with 2 year’s study behind him, Oscar is currently spending the 3rd year of his 4-year course in Australia, working with The Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has been involved in a number of complex projects focussed on corals and reef life – as we all know, a matter of huge concern – and the projections for the future of the reef systems in a time of warming seas and raised acid levels. Oscar also assists PhD students, for example examining the damaging effects of parasitic worms on coral; and the effect of changing light conditions on corals.

Nurse Sharks, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Much of Oscar’s time has been spent doing fieldwork. Often he is at sea, monitoring and collecting samples in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, diving two or three times a day. This work is often carried out in restricted or preservation zones, and with ever-present manta rays, sharks and sea turtles around him.

Manta Ray, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Right now Oscar is involved with the investigations into the recent bleaching events, work that is at the forefront of serious concern for the GBR and far beyond. I have recently corresponded with him – he has definitely not forgotten that his grounding for the fieldwork and studies that he is engaged in – and very likely his career – came from his time on Abaco and the lessons he learned during his time with the BMMRO at Sandy Point.  (In part 2: another good intern, currently at Sandy Point)

Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

All photos: Oscar Ward (the header image is taken from a research vessel – no idea how, maybe a drone with fish-eye lens?)

ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS OFF ROCKY POINT, ABACO


Atlantic Spotted Dolphins off Rocky Point, Abaco

This pair was in a group of 8 Atlantic Spotted Dolphins that we encountered yesterday during a day’s expedition on the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) research boat. We spent nearly an hour with them, and there will be a longer post about these magnificent creatures in due course. But right now, I’m still in single image posting mode while “on-island”…

Photo: Keith Salvesen / BMMRO

BROWN PELICANS ON ABACO & BEYOND


Brown Pelican, Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

BROWN PELICANS ON ABACO & BEYOND

Six more sleeps. That’s all. Suddenly, a trip that seemed ages away is rushing towards us. Or, to put it more plausibly science-wise, we are rushing towards it. Abaco beckons, with bonefish, rays, sharks, reef fishes, whales, dolphins, birds and butterflies to investigate. Plus Kaliks to consume. 

Brown Pelican, Abaco (Tony Hepburn)

Idly thinking along those lines and vaguely plotting the first few days, took me to Sandy Point, home of the BMMRO (Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation) and of course the legendary Nancy’s, the restaurant at the end of the road. From where it is a short step to the dock on which the pelicans gather and use as a launch pad for their fishing dives.

I photographed this bird at the end of the SP dock, looking rather bedraggled after a diveBrown Pelican (m), Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Note the significant plumage differences between the male (above) & this femaleBrown Pelican (f), Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I recently read somewhere that the brown pelican is (or has become) quite uncommon in the Bahamas. On Abaco it is a permanent resident breeding species, so a drop in numbers equals fewer nests, fewer chicks and… fewer numbers. It’s a classic cycle towards serious population decline and all that is implied. Has anyone noticed an apparent reduction in numbers, I wonder? Comments welcome.

Brown Pelican, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Brown Pelican, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

The pelicans above were all photographed on Abaco. The two below were not, but are both by exceptional photographers. One, Phil Lanoue, specialises in dramatic sequences, and his work features elsewhere in this blog. The final image was sportingly uploaded by Alan Schmierer from Flickr into the ‘public domain’.

Coming in to land…Brown Pelican coming in to land (Phil Lanoue)

While we are on Abaco, I plan to keep posting as and when, subject to connectivity (always a proviso in the Bahamas). My big hope is that the piping plovers that were on the beach last year and returned this season, will have resisted the increasingly insistent call to fly north to the breeding grounds. If they could just hang on for just a few more days… 

Brown Pelican preening (Alan Schmierer)

Credits: Tom Sheley (1); Tony Hepburn (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 6); Woody Bracey (5); Phil Lanoue (7); Alan Schmierer (8); Birdorable (cartoon)