The conch. Such a fascinating gastropod, and with so many uses both culinary and decorative. In certain cultures, religiously significant. A rudimentary musical instrument for a shell. And did I mention delicious?
Live conchs enjoy motoring around uninhibitedly on the sea floor, keeping an eye out…
Conchs also enjoy racing each other…
“Eat my dust…”
Conch Pearl – one of the rarest natural pearls in the world
A conch spiral close-up
Conch shells just lie around the place at Sandy Point
Conchs are widely used for serving cocktails or as ashtrays in the best beach bars*
*This is a lie. Sorry about that. I meant to say “make prefect table decorations”
Sandy Point always promises well for birding. There are plenty of ‘good’ birds to see there, depending on the time of year: tropicbirds, frigatebirds, ospreys, brown pelicans, white ibis, cattle egrets, other egrets and herons, kestrels, and a variety of shorebirds. And gulls. We encountered a pair of Laughing Gulls perched on a piling.
To begin with they were laughing merrily. Then they quietened down. Maybe one of them told a somewhat off-colour joke. In the sequence of photos below, you can see the left hand gull tensing and preparing to fly. Then it does – leaving his buddy all alone to contemplate the consequences of causing a sense of humour failure…
This is the sound of a pair of laughing gulls on the Marls objecting as we slowly poled through the mangroves towards them. Not laughing, but complaining…
The small settlement of Sandy Point is literally at the end of the road. Beyond the limit of the tarmac lies the shallow sea. The Highway – Abaco’s only main road – extends the length of the skinny island, 120 miles roughly north to south with occasional side roads to settlements, dirt roads, forestry tracks, and something a bit more significant for Marsh Harbour – a roundabout, a single set of working traffic lights, the only ones on the island. There’s a second set but I have never seen them working. I don’t think anyone ever has. Maybe they were never even wired up.
We went to Sandy Point for lunch with friends at the famous (though not yet world-famous) Nancy’s, with its reliably comforting menu of a choice of the same 3 dishes permanently on offer (fresh fish, conch, or chicken), plus Kalik or Sands beer. Simple yet satisfying. Sandy Point is a great place for birding, both sea / shore / wading birds, and land birds. Ospreys are often around. And brown pelicans. At high tide they dive off the dock (see HERE). At low tide, when the long sand bars are just visible above the water level, the pelicans use them as base for their fishing operations, often some 200 yards from the shoreline.
We were watching 5 pelicans doing just that – lazily flapping aloft from the water in their clumsy way, then turning swiftly and diving with some elegance before smashing into the water for fish, returning in triumph or sorrow to the sand bar to eat… or plan the next foray. Then one detached itself from the group and flew closer to us for a single dive in deeper water, before flapping heavily back to the sand bar.
I took a sequence of photos with ‘Hated Camera’ (having drowned ‘Loved Camera’ in a minor marine mishap). As I have since discovered, ‘HC’ was on the wrong setting the whole time – by which I mean several days (some small but important side switch I’d neglected to remember). Hence the pelican images are in small format because I am slightly ashamed of the quality… There’s a theory about cartoons that there are two possible reasons for pairing them together on a magazine page: (1) they are each doubly funny and therefore only need half the space; or (2) they are only half as funny and so two are needed to double the overall chuckle quotient…
So here is the pelican dive sequence – unsuccessful in terms of fish – with the bird then flying back past us to the sand bar to rejoin his 4 buddies. I’ve put 2 images per line – either because (on the cartoon principle above) they are so good they only need half the allotted space or (hint: this is the truth) they are of such indifferent image quality that I am too embarrassed to enlarge them…
In the final image you can just make out a spooky ghost ship on the horizon. This is the huge vessel moored at the ‘Disney’ island, historically named Gorda Cay but now ‘pirated up’ to Castaway Cay. Arrrrrrrr!
Credits: all images RH & ‘Hated Camera’; Mrs RH kindly being encouraging about the results
Gina (adult female) and her calf – last seen August 6th, 2015 in Spanish Wells Key feature – numerous paddle cuts; white oval scar on left side of back; linear scar on posterior right side of body
BAHAMAS MANATEE MAGIC ON ABACO & BEYOND
Four years ago, there were no manatees in Abaco waters. Then a couple of adventuresome sirenians made the trip over from the Berry Is. and since then, there have been at least one, sometimes two and occasionally three resident on Abaco. And for slow, gentle, animals they certainly move around, too. In the past, I wrote quite often about the manatees, charting their journeys based on satellite tracking and sightings. I reported the tantalising prospect of the young male, Randy, hooking up with young female Georgie in Cherokee Sound, only to turn back when he reached Little Harbour. You can read more about the manatees of Abaco on my manatee pageHERE.
Georgie’s epic trip (Sept 12) continued to Cherokee Sound; and Randy’s ‘pursuit’ (Sept 14)
The most comprehensive source for Bahamas Manatee information is now to be found by joining the open Facebook group BAHAMA MANATEE CLUB, skilfully curated by Felice Leanne Knowles. There, you can follow the meanderings of your favourite Abaco manatee, watching as he or she moves around the island and cays. In recent months there have been sightings of single or pairs of manatees in several places, including Sandy Point, Little harbour, Marsh Harbour, Schooner Bay and Hope Town Harbour (where two are right now). Here’s an excellent example of how, just like a Beach Boy, an Abaco manatee gets around. In July, Randy moved from Sandy Point to Schooner Bay in 2 days. The big question is, did he travel round the longer top route, as he has in the past; or (more likely in the time taken) via Hole-in-the-Wall?
Randy the Abaco Manatee goes swimabout
Felice has just produced a great map that shows the present locations of all the Bahamas manatees currently recorded. She has also supplied photos and information about them. Most have names and are well-known to the research team and the locals where they stay. There is one new calf – Gina’s – this year. One or two manatees are new on the scene and have yet to be identified or named.
Manatees Throughout The Bahamas
The map shows the last location of the named manatees. The pink dots label females, the green dots label males, and the yellow dots label unknown manatees. The number of unknown manatees has been approximated to reduce error. The photos are of the individual manatees with dates and specific locations of their most recent sighting. We do not have enough data and photos to confirm the unknowns labeled. Any help from the public would be greatly appreciated. Send sighting reports tohttp://www.bahamaswhales.org/sightings/index.htmlNB Felice points out“Full body and paddle photos are very important for the identification of manatees. Facial shots do not provide enough information for a manatee to be identified”
Georgie (sub-adult female) Last seen in Casuarina, Abaco 9th July, 2015 Key feature – 2 pink scars on the right posterior of her body
Randy (sub-adult male) Last sighted in Hope Town August 12th, 2015 Key feature – triangle cut on right side of paddle
Unknown (adult, presumed female) with Randy Last seen in Hope Town August 12th, 2015 Key feature – 3 prop scars on the posterior right side of body
Gina’s Calf Last seen August 6th, Spanish Wells Key feature – none yet, just really tiny!
Blackbeard (adult male) Last seen in Lyford Cay August 13th, 2015 Key features – triangle cut on right side of paddle (similar to Randy’s); oval scar on centre of paddle; three prop scars on the back and linear scar
Kong (adult male) Last seen in Great Harbour Cay Marina, February 25th, 2015 Key feature – triangle cut on the left side of paddle; linear scar across the back; oval scar on the back near paddle
J.J. (sub-adult female) Last seen in Great Harbour Cay Marina, Berry Islands, February 25th, 2015 Key feature – 3 small semi-circular cuts out of paddle at the very end
Rita (adult female) Last seen 23rd March, 2014 Hawks Nest Marine, Cat Island Key feature – Large triangle cut on right side of paddle; two small triangular cuts side by side forming a “w” on the left side of paddle
Unknown adult, West Grand Bahama – Key feature: too distant!
You may have noticed that several of the manatees shown carry scars attributable to prop wounds. Almost all carry injuries of some sort. Because manatees are slow, gentle, inquisitive and trusting creatures, they are especially vulnerable in harbour areas for obvious reasons. Elsewhere than the Bahamas, boat-strike is one of the main causes of manatee mortality. The BMMRO recently issued the above advisory notice because of the uncertainty about the rights and wrongs of watering manatees from docks with hoses and feeding them lettuce etc. Overall the message is that, though creatures of wonder, they are better off being admired but left to their own devices. They are adept at finding the fresh water sources they need, and their sea-grass diet is amply provided for. Dependence on humans, however well-meaning, is actually harmful.
Credits: first and foremost, Felice Leanne Knowles; also BMMRO, Charlotte, & Diane for permission to make free with their material and photos from the get-go; any other photographers of the manatees shown and posted via BMMRO / FLK (Cha Boyce, Jessica Mullen,Otis Wilhoyte I think, maybe others…)
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 day
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).
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 WHALE
DWARF SPERM WHALES
PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS
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.
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.
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 in ‘FAMILIAR 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!)
WHITE IBISES ON ABACO: UNCOMMONLY EXCITING SIGHTING
“STOP THE CAR!” The shout was embarrassingly loud, amplified by being yelled inside a vehicle. Loud, because it seemed to emanate from very close indeed to my ear. Embarrassing, because it appeared to come out of my own mouth. Good grief! It was me. And I’d seen White Ibises. There they were, 2 adults and 2 juveniles, strolling and feeding their way across an open grassy area right in the middle of Sandy Point, as casual as you please.
So I leapt out of the car (it had conveniently and fortunately stopped by this stage), remembered to remove the lens cap for once, and took some photos. Unfortunately we had driven slightly past them which inevitably increased the risk of bird-butt shots (as the birds were moving away from me) to add to my already impressive ‘aves-ass’ collection
The reason for the excitement was that the White Ibis is classed on Abaco as a ‘WR4‘, that is to say a Winter Resident that is both uncommon to rare and irregularly reported. Some years, maybe none will be seen at all. When I was collecting the images – hundreds and hundreds of them – for THE BIRDS OF ABACO, I rejected any that had not actually been taken on Abaco. That was part of the point of the enterprise, to showcase Abaco’s birds, not “birds from other islands that you may also encounter on Abaco”. So although we had some wonderful White Ibis pics from Nassau, they were ineligible for the book…
We ended with just the one, taken by Kasia Reid at the Treasure Cay Golf course ponds. In the course of the 16 months it took to produce the book, we never obtained another Abaco White Ibis photo, which meant that Kasia’s image did not qualify for a spread and sadly had to be relegated to the supplement… (bird 159 on page 262!). Here it is.
Meanwhile, returning swiftly to Sandy Point, the 4 Ibises (Ibi?) were working their way slowly and systematically over the greenery, picking through it for morsels of food.
Then they were gone, and I got back into the car feeling that I had seen something special. I may have been the only occupant who felt that way, but such is life. For all I know, the birds may have been there for weeks. Or forever. But I have never seen them there before, nor seen reports of them. The sighting further confirms the excellence of Sandy Point as a birding location on land, shoreline and out to sea.
And then it was off to the legendary Nancy’s for lunch (fresh snapper, Kalik). Here are some of the Ibi (that sounds a much better plural) that had to be ruled out of the book for being non-Abaconian.
Sometimes things happen that completely take my breath away. Here is one of those moments, from our recent trip with Charlotte and Diane in the BMMRO research boat. As we returned from whale-watching to base in Sandy Point and moved from the deep dark ocean to the bright blue shallows, we encountered a group of bottlenose dolphins. You can see my recent post featuring some of the adults HERE. That was exciting enough, as they played around the boat. Then another participant appeared…
Notice the dark area behind the adult dolphin…
…which soon separated into a small dark splashing creature with its own fin cutting the waves…
…and next seen keeping pace with its parent
The sharp line between the light and the dark sea is where the sandy shallows abruptly give way to the deep waters of the Grand Bahama Canyon, a massive trench up to 2.5 miles deep with almost vertical cliff walls to the depths in some places
There were less active and splashy moments as the pair swam around together
Then it was back to doing what they like best…
Then some more restful moments…
And finally the pair moved away. On the far horizon, the Massive Mickey Mouse Cruise ship moored at ‘Disney’s Castaway Cay’ (formerly the sober-sounding Gorda Cay), where you can be a Pirate of the Caribbean. Or anyway a very happy Tourist. The choice is yours. Would you like fries with that?
And looking out to sea from the cheerful place that is Castaway Cay, I wonder if a small child was wondering “Ok, love Mickey and his Friends – but I’d also really love to see a wild dolphin swimming free…
All photos RH (except Castaway, Wiki). Huge thanks to Charlotte, Diane and Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMROfor a truly wonderful day