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)

BAHAMAS WHALES & DOLPHINS IN ABACO & ANDROS WATERS


Melon-headed Whale breaching - BMMRO copy

Melon-headed Whale breaching – BMMRO

BAHAMAS WHALES & DOLPHINS IN ABACO & ANDROS WATERS

The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO)  has its HQ at Sandy Point, Abaco. We recently went out in their research boat, a RHIB, to spend an unforgettable day with Blainville’s beaked whales and bottlenose dolphins. I posted some of the dolphins HERE; and a two-part beaked whale post is a work in progress.

Male Blainville’s beaked whale with its extraordinary barnacle-encrusted teeth that protrude upwards from its lower jaw. The prominent beak is plainly visible. Sighted off the south-west point of Abaco during our second encounter with a group of these whales – the only male we saw that dayBlainville's Beaked Whale KS 1

Abaco waters are ideal for marine mammals, especially off the southern shores where the walls of the Great Bahama Canyon drop vertiginously down from the shallow coastal waters to depths of up to 3 miles below. This is one of the deepest ocean canyons in the world.  The area provides a rich source of food and nutrients for the whales and dolphins and many different species are regularly sighted there, from huge sperm whales to small pilot whales (including plenty of species I had never heard of before). 

Great Bahama Canyon Map edit

As the name suggests, the BMMRO’s remit extends far beyond Abaco. The researchers often spend time exploring and recording cetaceans in other Bahamian waters. For the last few weeks the team have been off Andros and have encountered quite a few target species. I have included a selection below taken within the last month to illustrate the importance of the area for a remarkable assortment of wonderful whales and dolphins.

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALEBlainville's Beaked Whale copy

DWARF SPERM WHALESDwarf Sperm Whales - BMMRO copy

PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINSPantropical Spotted Dolphin - BMMRO Pantropical Spotted Dolphin leap - BMMRO copy

On board the research vessel, every sighting is recorded in detail – where possible by species, numbers, ages, sexes, and individual identifying characteristics. Thus ‘SW34’ may have a damaged fluke, whereas ‘RD49’ may have a long scar on its back. 

PILOT WHALESPilot Whale - BMMROPilot Whales - BMMRO copyPilot Whales 2 - BMMRO

The research boat is equipped with sound devices which, when the microphone is immersed, are capable of picking up whale or dolphin sounds from a considerable distance. It’s astounding to be able to listen in ‘live’ to the wide assortment of clicks and whistles produced as the creatures communicate with each other. The recorded sound patterns are studied and can often be matched to enable an individual animal to be identified. 

MELON-HEADED WHALESMelon-headed Whales - BMMRO Melon-headed Whale - BMMRO

RISSO’S DOLPHINRisso's Dolphin - BMMRO copy

Other work, including photography, is done underwater. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the collection of poop specimens, from which a great deal can be ascertained about the diet and health of an individual animal. I wrote about this task and the methods used a while ago inFAMILIAR FECES‘.

I’ll be writing more about whales soon. Meanwhile, here’s a short BMMRO video of a large group of melon-headed males. At the start, you can clearly hear communication sounds between them.

Credits: Charlotte & Diane of the BMMRO for taking us out with them and for all the photos except the male Blainville’s beaked whale (mine, for once!)