As Abaco starts to rebuild from the unimagined severity of its destruction, it’s not a great moment for discursive writing about the astonishing richness of wildlife there, both above and below the sea. So here’s a photo of a Harbour Seal that I took this afternoon. If it gives you something to smile about, I’d be very glad. RH
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.
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.
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.
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.
Credits: BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn; Friends of the Environment
‘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.
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…”
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.]
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.
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
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
All photos: Keith Salvesen / 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.
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.
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 Dolphins
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)