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)

‘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