Sperm Whales of DominicaSeptember 1 2018
Female and young sperm whales have been known to gather off the coast of Dominica. In early winter our team will return to the area to document this family group behavior. Will the whales provide clues as to how these groups are surviving in a changing ocean? Could these insights be used to help conserve sperm whales worldwide?
Sperm whale tails get damaged by any number of incidents. The scratches can be from squid beaks, the bite out chunks are caused by animals, such as sharks or other cetaceans like false killer whales that have been known to harass sperm whales and especially sperm whale calves. (We've witnessed this and it's scary!) All the sperm whales we saw on our last expedition had lots of identifying marks on their flukes which are a good way to ID individual whales. The main damage on the flukes can be tracked for years, although the ID photos may go slightly out of date due to additional damage incurred by the time of the next expedition or study period. The core damage features however, can be reliably used for ID and are helping track whales in this area of the Caribbean.
This week we are getting tech gear ready and calculating the number of camera cards needed per day and number and size of hard drives we need in order to capture all the data. A donation this week of a new Apple laptop and additional hard drive has put us over the moon with joy because now we will be able to edit and compile photos and video easier in the field! We leave in less than 2 months! Follow us now so you can be ready for the expedition kick off in December!
Part of our educational methods include teaching our citizen scientist team members about sperm whale ecology and current conservation issues. In order to do that we provide lots of information and interactive assignments before we leave for expedition. Shark Team One writer Autumn Homer writes thought-provoking essays filled with ecology and historical facts as well as key conservation issue sections that we use for this purpose. In this way, our citizen scientists can get up to speed before they join us on location. Photos, diagrams and mobile programs are also used as we prepare the team for the expedition.
A sample subject that a citizen scientist must learn about is how a sperm whale produces and receives sound, and Autumn writes, “These sounds are created through a complex system that takes place inside the giant head of the whale. The animals are able to emit pulses of sound in particular patterns. It is even thought that they can aim their clicks at certain targets in search of prey. The way it works is through the whale’s spermaceti organ (the valuable substance whalers sought) and a large chunk of oil-saturated fatty tissue called “the junk”. Surrounding these, are two long nasal passages. The left nasal passage runs directly to the blowhole which lies at the top of the whale’s head. The right nasal passage does not have a straight path, its twists and turns form air filled sacs that are able to reflect sound. Near the blowhole is a pair of clappers called “monkey lips”. To make a sound, the whale will force air through its right nasal passage to the monkey lips, which then shut. This creates a click noise which bounces off the air-filled sacs, through the junk and out into the water. It is thought that the whales might have the ability to change the shape of the spermaceti organ and the junk, which would allow them to aim where they send the clicks.”
Autumn majored in Environmental Studies and Communications with a minor in psychology from Stetson University. She is one of our conservation and ecology writers and a valuable member of the team. Click on the link below to read her exciting and fact-filled essay written for our upcoming Sperm Whales of Dominica expedition!
“Alluring Myths or Real-Life Conservation Crisis: Is There Still Hope for the Sperm Whale?”
Technology is an important part of our expedition. We utilize lots of camera gear and other technology in order to capture data about the sperm whales. A good time to start making sure you have all the right gear to do the job is at least 3 months in advance of departure and many times longer depending on what type of specialized gear you will need. Do you need to build something? Can a manufacturer or sponsor help you? Do they have what you need in stock? Just a few of the things you need to figure out, since once you are remote and in the field, the equipment you could be missing or support you need most likely won't be accessible. You need to be a "MacGyver" of sorts and also your own tech support. Figure out if you know how to use everything, bring manuals if you need to. Do you have all the components to build out your gear or fix it in the field? For instance, we're starting to test some new underwater housings and different lenses to make sure we have the right equipment for this expedition. We’re also making sure we have the right binoculars, wide angle lenses, housings for underwater cameras and small 4K video cameras shown here. We even need to make sure our backpacks and luggage are going to do the job, since the gear is expensive, it needs to be protected during travel. A lot of thought is put into how to attach the cameras to our bodies for instance, in case we get into a situation where we need to drop the gear we don't lose it to King Neptune! Think about what pieces to bring on spec and what backups to bring in case something breaks or doesn’t work right. What items to bring in order to fix gear could be as simple as super glue, rubber bands, zip ties, lots of different cords, attachments and duct tape, but could be more complicated like extra hard drives and heatsinks when we get to testing our computers and hard drives. Our 4K video cameras are used to capture sperm whale behavior, the still cameras are used to capture fluke ID and anatomy close-ups. The super wide-angle lenses are used to capture stills and video of sperm whale family groups because we want to see which whales are appearing in the social groups. Yet to spec out and prepare are computers, mobile devices, mobile databases, software, audio gear and usually many more cameras so stay tuned over the coming months!
One of our goals is to get to know the whales we are studying. We need to be able to recognize individual animals and document how they behave. This is the main reason we get in the water with the whales, it enables us to see what they are doing and how they are interacting with each other. Sperm whales are highly intelligent and look you squarely in the eye as they swim by you in the water. Their eyesight is thought to be very good and possibly used for hunting at depth in addition to using echolocation and the bioluminescence around their mouths as a possible lure for prey. Although we don’t get this close, this zoomed in photo shows a beautiful sperm whale eye from a female whale we saw on our last expedition. Follow along to learn about how we seek to identify individual whales and why that matters.
The waters off Dominica are a perfect location for potentially seeing sperm whale family groups due to a number of characteristics. Dominica's sheer underwater drop-offs create deep sheltered bays along its western
coastline. These deep coastal waters are the feeding grounds for the whales. The deep underwater drop-offs are a perfect ecosystem for the cephalopods which are the whales' food source.
Dominica is also an island that has remained fairly untouched by large resort development and industrial agriculture to date along the coast. We feel the lack of man-made pollution in the form of run-off has also enabled the area to remain pristine enough to support the large marine mammal and its food resources.
A number of years ago I set out to learn about and visit the sperm whales of Dominica. After years of working in the Caribbean on different conservation projects regarding coral reefs and having worked on large yachts and research vessels in the Windward and Leeward Islands, I knew my way around this area so decided to see what it would take to be able to find the whales and work with the Government of Dominica and local guides to interact with them. I felt and still feel like the Caribbean is one of the last accessible areas to be able to study these whales.
After a number of years in the making, January 2018 was our first expedition to Dominica. Now, almost another year later we will return with a larger team, more experience and will be spending two weeks with these amazing whales beginning in late December of 2018 and into January of 2019.
The story of the sperm whales off Dominica and other Caribbean islands is at first a tragic one due to Yankee whalers using these waters to hunt and kill whales. Check out this article, Yankee Whaling in the Caribbean Basin: Its Impact in a Historical Context, Romero, A. (2012).
Certain Caribbean islands did and some still practice whale hunting and yet now sperm whales are watchfully protected by the Government of Dominica and considered a national treasure. So that is incredibly important for the preservation of this species.
Although commercial whaling doesn’t happen in the Caribbean these days, man continues to undermine the health of sperm whale populations with underwater noise pollution, plastic pollution, water pollution, habitat loss, poorly placed shipping lanes and climate change. So, the more we understand about these whales the more apt and better equipped we will be to protect them from a policy and conservation standpoint.
The sperm whales of my childhood seemed to emerge from the pages of literature as monsters fighting with giant squid and yet the real-life sperm whales of Dominica are docile, highly intelligent and fragile creatures, just fighting to stay alive in an ocean that is becoming increasingly hostile for large mammals and all marine life.
As our team learns more about this spectacular species that is the second deepest diving marine mammal, has echolocation that can blow a human eardrum and kindly babysits their fellow family member’s calves, we hope to let the world know all about these elusive animals. Most importantly, we hope to transfer this knowledge into additional protection for sperm whales worldwide.
This expedition takes place in Dominica, West Indies making day trips out from the island. Each day on the boat we hope to see sperm whale family groups as well as an amazing number of other species of cetaceans such as false killer whales, pygmy sperm whales, melon-headed whales, short-finned pilot whales, Fraser’s dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins and more! We will be observing, photographing and researching sperm whale behavior, family structure and working with the Government of Dominica to learn more about this amazing species!
Since this expedition is planned for early winter we also hope to encounter an adult male sperm whale returning from a year in the open ocean. If we encounter a rare male, we will document how the members of the family groups respond in the presence of the large male and will be taking note of any changes regarding mother, other female and calf behavior.
We will have citizen scientists on this expedition who will be assisting with our work and look forward to having you join us virtually as we unlock the secrets of sperm whale family life and provide insights into the continuing survival of this vulnerable species on this amazing adventure!
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