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.
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.
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!
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!
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 not
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!)
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-sufficient
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.
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.
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)
All photos: Oscar Ward (the header image is taken from a research vessel – no idea how, maybe a drone with fish-eye lens?)
The Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii is similar to its slightly smaller cousin, the widespread Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottis. The range of Bahama Mockingbirds is not restricted to the Bahamas themselves, and includes areas of Cuba, Jamaica and TCI, so despite the name they are not an endemic species to the Bahamas. They are also occasional vagrants to the United States, especially – for reasons of proximity – southeastern Florida.
The Bahama Mockingbird is browner than the greyish Northern Mockingbird, and has distinctive streaking and spotting to its breast and undercarriage. This may extend to what you might describe as the bird’s ‘trouser legs’, though I’m sure there’s a more technically correct term.
Both mockingbird species are found on Abaco. The NMs are ubiquitous in towns, settlements, gardens, coppice and pine forest, whereas BMs are shyer and tend to be found in the pine forest and well away from humans and their operations. When we were putting together The Birds of Abaco, I went on a birding trip with Abaco birding legend Woody Bracey and Ohio bird photographer Tom Sheley. We took a truck into the pine forest down a logging track south of Delphi, and they were quick to locate a bird, not least because one was sitting prettily on a branch singing lustily and unmistakably. It was well within range of Tom’s massive lens; more of a struggle for my modest camera (below). Caught the cobwebs, though…
I was astounded by the beauty and variety of the song. It consisted of very varied notes and phrases, each repeated 3 or 4 times before moving on to the next sounds in the repertoire. Here is a short 18 second example I recorded, using my unpatented iPhone method, for which seeHERE.
For those with interest in birdsong, here is a longer 1:13 minute song from the same bird, with largely different sounds from the first recording made minutes earlier. There’s even a decent stab at imitation of a 1960s Trimphone™. Had we not had to move on to Sandy Point for an appointment with some cattle egrets and American kestrels, I could have stayed listening for far longer.
THE ‘SUBSPECIES’ THAT WASN’T…
More recently, on a trip in backcountry to find Kirtland’s warblers – we saw 4 – the slow-moving truck jolted to halt in the middle of nowhere. This was because a Bahama Mockingbird was right by the track. I fired off some quick shots out of the window into a rather difficult light, to find that we appeared to have found a new subspecies, the scarlet-faced mockingbird.
The reason was clear, however. The bird had been pigging out on some red berries, and had managed to collect plenty of the juice round the base of its beak.
SO WHAT DOES A NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD LOOK LIKE, THEN?
I photographed the Northern Mockingbird below in a garden at Casuarina. The species is far tamer than its cousin, and seen side-by-side they are clearly very different. The range maps show the stark contrast between the very limited range of the Bahama Mockingbird and the vast distribution of the Northern Mockingbird.
Photos Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 6); Peter Mantle (2); Charlie Skinner (3); Keith Salvesen (4, 7, 8, 9); Alex Hughes (5); Susan Daughtrey (10). Range maps eBird & wiki.
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.
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 dive
Note the significant plumage differences between the male (above) & this female
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.
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…
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…
Credits: Tom Sheley (1); Tony Hepburn (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 6); Woody Bracey (5); Phil Lanoue (7); Alan Schmierer (8); Birdorable (cartoon)
Sandy Point is the absolute end. Literally. Abaco’s only highway runs 120 miles from north to south. Towards the end, it hooks around to the west, then back north a short distance to the small community. You can drive on right through the settlement, with its criss-crossing side streets. Best stop driving when you see the ocean: you’ve run out of road.
Sandy Point is home to the renowned Nancy’s culinary establishment, maybe a half-hour drive from the previous place you could get a meal along the highway. It’s that remote. The menu is elementary, the Kaliks are cold, the view from the verandah is out to the wide sea and the pelicans smashing down into the water off the sand bars. And sooner or later you will find a dog’s head in your lap. This is not part of an unordered Abaconian special menu with a Godfather theme; it’s a potcake looking for chicken. Or fish. Or chips. Or anything edible really.
The origins of these ‘community dogs’ – no one’s and everyone’s – are many and various, just like their assorted shapes, sizes and colours. You can read about their history, the reason for their name, and about ‘Amigo’, the most famous potcake of all, HERE. There are many of these semi-feral dogs on the island, slinking around the settlements and even the main town. They have a tough life. They are generally ignored or shooed away. But in Sandy Point at least, they seem healthy and well-fed. Nancy’s may have something to do with it…
The potcakes of Sandy Point make the beach and the sea their playground. If you walk along the strand and round the point, they may tag along for a while. Then they get bored and rush off. When the tide is low, they will trot along the exposed sandbars right out into the sea. Or chase each other into the sea. Or maybe just relax and watch an endemic Bahama swallow flit past.
There are active potcake rescue schemes aimed at rehoming strays. Spay and neuter clinics are regularly held. The aim seems to be to keep the numbers down with benign control rather than anything more radical. And rehomed animals make excellent pets, being “intelligent, loyal, calm, and resilient”. I’m guessing the potcakes of Sandy Point reckon they have a pretty good life as it is.
AND FINALLY… here is a video with a difference: Salty Dog the potcake goes mad on a beach – wearing a GoPro! Great idea…