SPERM WHALES TAILING: ABACO, BAHAMAS


Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

SPERM WHALES TAILING: ABACO, BAHAMAS

There can be very few people in the world whose breath would not be taken away by the sight of a massive sperm whale tailing close by. And as it happens, this very phenomenon can be seen in the deeper waters around the coast of Abaco. Here is a small gallery of photos of sperm whales tailing, taken from the BMMRO research vessel. There’s no point in my writing a lot of commentary to the images – they speak for themselves of the awesome (in its correct sense) power and grace of these huge mammals.

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO) Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

In these images, you will notice that the whales have distinctive patterns of notches and tears in their flukes (ie tail fins). As with a dolphin’s dorsal fin, these areas of damage are like fingerprints – unique to each individual, and a sure means to identification. The researchers log each sighting and assign a cypher – a whale will become known as ‘B42’ and not usually by a less scientific name like ‘Derek’ or ‘Susie’).

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO) Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

Q. What happened next?  A. You would see the tail emerge as the whale dives deep… Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

One of my favourite whale views is of the tail as it rises above the surface with water streaming off the flukes, before it flicks over and disappears beneath the waves. 

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

A juvenile takes a dive alongside an adult. One day that tail will be massive…Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

Credits: all photos © BMMRO, with thanks as ever to Diane and Charlotte

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©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

‘WELL SPOTTED’: PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO


Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

‘WELL SPOTTED’: PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO

Two species of spotted dolphin are found in Bahamas waters. The most common is the ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHIN Stenella frontalis, a species confined to the Atlantic. Less commonly seen – though with a global range – are Pantropical Spotted Dolphins Stenella attenuata

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

The BMMRO research boat is out whale-spotting right now, and the team is finding a good variety of cetacean species, from dolphins right up to SPERM WHALE mother and calves. A couple of days ago, the pantropicals surfaced and these great shots of them were taken.

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

The two spotted dolphin species are very similar to the untrained eye. Identification is further complicated by the fact that both species start life without spots and go through stages ranging from no spots at all to completely spotted. These stages are sometimes referred to as ‘two-tone, speckled, mottled, and fused’. The pantropicals are relatively small, reaching lengths up to 7 feet and weighing c250 pounds at adulthood. Their beaks are longer and more slender than the familiar but larger bottlenose dolphin. The beak has a white tip, a useful identifier.

Atlantic Spotted and Pantropical Spotted range maps for comparison

The pantropicals favour shallower water by day, and at night they move to deeper water where they can dive down for food such as squid. Although they are IUCN listed as ‘Least Concern’ and their world-wide numbers are estimated to be abundant, they face the usual man-related threats to the species throughout their range, especially in the Pacific region. As we see time after time, complacency can turn to concern in a very short time.

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

THREATS TO THE SPECIES

  • Entanglement in fishing gear – captured as bycatch in the course of commercial fishing
  • Entangled in discarded fishing gear
  • Illegal feeding and harassment – this is a problem in particular locations eg Hawaii
  • Overexposure to and interaction with eager tourists in inshore areas
  • Hunting – these dolphins are prolifically hunted for food in several parts of the world
  • Hunting – they are caught ‘accidentally’ in large numbers in nets set for tuna
  • Persecution in eastern tropical Pacific fisheries, according to WDC
  • Pollution, plastic ingestion etc – basically, mankind’s negligence over 60 years or so
  • General habitat degradation, disturbance and marine noise pollution – mankind again

Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Credits: BMMRO for all photos; research credits NOAA; WDC

SPERM WHALES GATHERING IN ABACO WATERS


Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

SPERM WHALES GATHERING IN ABACO WATERS

During the past week, the BMMRO research boat has been tracking sperm whales off the south coast of Abaco. These huge creatures are the largest marine mammals found in Bahamian waters, and the area between Rocky Point around the south coast to Hole-in-the Wall is a great place to find them. 

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

One reason they are found in this particular area is the existence of the Great Bahama Canyon, one of the deepest submarine canyons in the world. The depth of the canyon ensures that the waters are nutrient-rich, with food being drawn up from the depths towards the surface. In season it’s the perfect place for female sperm whales and their calves.

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

The BMMRO research trip encountered more than a dozen sperm whales, mostly females with their calves. And the amazing thing is that the sightings are often made within sight of land. In these photos, the are two landmarks visible. One is the huge Disney vessel parked at Gorda Cay aka Castaway Cay (header image); the other is HOLE-IN-THE-WALL LIGHTHOUSE (above)

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen) Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

Credits: All photos BMMRO 2018, with thanks to Diane & Charlotte as ever

Sperm Whales, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO / Keith Salvesen)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY


False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY

A couple of months back I wrote about the fate of the false killer whale Pseudorca crassidens (in fact a species of dolphin) that was stranded on Duck Cay. After its discovery, it was cut up, buried for many months before being disinterred, cleaned… and made ready to be reconstructed for display at Friends of the Environment, Marsh Harbour for research and educational purposes. The poor dead creature was destined to have a future ‘life’ (in a sense) as an exhibit. You can read the details and see the various stages of the preparatory processes (including some gory images) HERE.

False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

The FKW joint project (see below for participants) has taken more than a year. The final stage has been similar to doing a jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication that it isn’t entirely clear where or even whether all the pieces fit – there may even be one or two leftover small bones when the reconstruction is finished.

HEADFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Since I last wrote about the ‘rearticulation’ project, I have spent some time on Abaco. A highlight was our visit to FotE to meet the jocundly-named ‘Ducky’ of Duck Cay [I’d have gone for ‘Killer’ as a name – there’s no such thing as bad publicity]. Incidentally the strange item on the whale’s skull is in fact nothing to do with the creature’s real structure – it’s a natural historian’s unicorn-related jest…

RIBCAGE & SPINEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO) False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Besides identifying all the bones and numbering them, those working on this project have had to devise ingenious methods for display to make the reconstruction as accurate as possible – not an easy task with a creature nearly 20 feet long.

SPINEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)         

FLIPPER 1 – COMPLETEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

FLIPPER 2 – WORK IN PROGRESSFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

JAW & A TRAY OF SUNDRIES…False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO) False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

It would be against the principles of this blog to miss out on an obvious open goal of an opportunity for an apposite final caption…

A WHALE TALE THAT ENDS WITH THE WHALE TAILFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. A number of children from local schools have already been to visit Ducky and been completely fascinated. A dead stranded whale now has a new incarnation, and a new story to tell.

ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?

Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.

And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.

STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
Credits: all photos by Keith Salvesen / BMMRO. Special thanks to Olivia Patterson and all at Friends of the Environment for a fascinating time visiting Ducky Killer; and to Nancy Albury for showing us around the excellent Museum. If you haven’t been, go!

THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO


Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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!).

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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).

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

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!

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / BMMRO

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH


False Killer Whale (Endless Ocean-wiki)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH

The ‘false killer whale’ Pseudorca crassidens has a somewhat misleading name: first (as implied), it is not a killer whale; second, it’s not actually a whale at all, but a large species of dolphin. However, it does have some killer whale tendencies – attacking and killing smaller marine mammals for example – and perhaps a passing resemblance, so the species has been given something of an upgrade, name-wise.

False Killer Whale (NOAA-wiki)

Although these fine creatures are distributed widely around the globe, the overall numbers are thought to be small, and relatively little is known about them in the wild. They are, of course, used as aquarium exhibits but the knowledge gleaned in captivity cannot provide much of an overview of their oceanic behaviour, which remains relatively unstudied.

False Killer Whale range map - wiki

However, there is one source of valuable data – the scientific study of stranded animals. And as it happens, Abaconians will very soon be able to obtain at least a skeleton knowledge of the FKW, the end-product of a long and complicated research project by the BMMRO in conjunction with Friends of the Environment. Just a quick word of warning before you read further – some images below are not especially pleasant to look at, so be prepared for them… They are illustrative and not intended for close inspection (unless you want).

Exactly a year ago an FKW was reported to have stranded on Duck Cay, off Cherokee Sound. BMMRO were quickly on the scene, and hoping to undertake the usual procedure of a necropsy, in which post-mortem samples are taken for analysis. However the poor creature was in an advancing state of decomposition, so only skin samples and photographs could be taken.

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)         False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Telescoping the intervening months for the sake of brevity, the decision was made to cut up the carcass (note the face-masks) and bury it where it was, so that its integrity would be preserved for later retrieval, cleaning, reconstruction (‘re-articulation’) and exhibition for educational purposes.

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO) False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO) False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

In December, the remains were exhumed for the next phase of the animal’s decomposition – submersion in cages in the mangroves – before the final cleaning of the bones in readiness for its re-articulation and display.

False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Cleaning the bones has been a meticulous process, leaving the resulting skeleton ready to reconstruct in situ at Friends of the Environment’s Kenyon Research Centre in Marsh Harbour. Adult FKWs can grow up to 6 metres long, so there are a great many bones from large to very small to place correctly – and plenty of teeth (see below). The re-articulation is nearly finished, and it is hoped that the completed skeleton will be on display in the very near future. I am planning to see it in about 2 weeks time, and – this sounds quite strange, I know – I’m very excited about it.

False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale tooth & bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. I am keen to know whether, in the modern way, an affectionate name has been chosen for the skeleton. ‘Duck Cay’ doesn’t provide a very promising start. Well, maybe Donald is in vogue…? 

ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?

Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.

And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.

STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
False Killer Whale skull, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Credits: header image, Endless Ocean / wiki; #1 NOAA; all other photos BMMRO or FOTE, with thanks; range map wiki