Sperm Whales of DominicaLatest update January 18, 2019 Started on September 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?
Out of all the amazing things that are happening. This post is so dear to me! Allie Bighouse, a citizen scientist who is a sophomore in high school on our expedition series who is also an artist (check out her bio in earlier posts), drew this amazing field journal entry after seeing this beautiful female sperm whale. I am so excited to share this. Way to go Allie, you captured this whale's beauty and spirit and your drawing is inspirational. Teaching the next generation about ocean conservation is what it's all about and having Allie with us has been a joy for me. I'm so impressed with her progress in the water with the whales and blown away by her talent as an artist! Watch this young explorer go places as we follow her expedition experiences and also her budding career in whatever field she chooses. She's so talented I know she'll have her choice of many!
The Trident made it through many flights and TSA screenings to get to Dominica and every time I passed through a security screening checkpoint I had a good story for the agents. All who were very supportive of our mission and giving the Trident the A-OK to travel. So those of you out there thinking about world travel with this awesome ROV...it fits nicely into the overhead compartment of larger jets and with the hard case, goes in as curbside checked luggage on tiny jumper flights. I rigged up some mini lightweight dolly wheels that strap onto the case for long airport treks. Then those wheels are removable for walking onto the plane. Here's Trident on deck ready to go out to sea. The hard case keeps everything together and safe in flight until time to get in the water. The best part about traveling with Trident is the story you can tell when people ask, "What's in the case?" They can use their imaginations to conjure up images from the depths and it has sparked many conversations about endangered animals, education and exploration along the way!
In the land of giants! We encountered sleeping whales! We came up from the dive and all said the same thing..."It was like swimming in a whale garden." Some of the team also likened this sight to a "Stonehenge of whales". Sleeping about 15 feet under the surface, the 5 whales pictured here remained motionless except for their breathing and buoyancy control bubbles for hours.
A large female sperm whale passed close by my camera so I was able to get this shot of her fluke injuries. The damage done to sperm whale flukes starts when the animal is young and continues throughout its life. Pilot whales in the area as described by local fishermen could account for some of the damage. I've also witnessed false killer whales attacking sperm whale flukes as the adults are busy protecting calves. The whales surround the calves for protection as the predators circle the group, many times in a parallel formation defense behavior.
We arrived in Dominica to a windy and grey day. The landing in the small aircraft was adventurous to say the least. The Dominica landscape looks to still be recovering from the category 5 storm last year called Maria but nature is resilient and the mountainous island looks an emerald green color now with only the barren sticks from the older growth trees sticking out the top of the forest canopy. The photo here is from a lookout on the way to our base in Portsmouth. I'm writing to you now from under a crazy lace purple mosquito netting in a quaint mini mahogany cottage with about a million tree frogs and night herons making the most amazing sounds. I can hear the ocean in the distance. It's late, but time to prep gear for tomorrow. Battery charging likely will take into the wee hours in order to prep the cameras. It's taken 2 days to get here which isn't long by expedition standards but sleeping tonight will be welcomed. Internet is very sporadic and the nightly rains have started. The expedition and adventure have started on location now. Stay tuned for news from the field!
One thing all of our citizen scientists have in common is a love for nature, world travel and photography. Evelyn DeVault (known as Madhavi to her friends), and Scott Roberts are no exception. Hailing from beautiful Northern California, both Madhavi and Scott have been diving for around 25 years and love the underwater world. Shown in a photo here from one of their dive trips to the Solomon Islands, this couple has traveled extensively diving and taking underwater photography as they go. In Madhavi’s words, “We have both logged over 1100 dives and look forward to many more. We enjoy taking photos of the many incredible creatures that we have seen. We love nature in all of her forms and feel very excited about seeing these magnificent sperm whales!"
We are so happy to have both old friends and new who will be joining us on the Sperm Whales of Dominica expeditions to help participate in our projects. With our departure approaching in a matter of hours now, we are getting extremely excited at the prospect of introducing our citizen scientists to these magnificent creatures. We strive to help the whales and we know in the process that we are about to change our team’s lives as well. After you’ve been in the water with a family of sperm whales and lived with them for a number of days or weeks, your life will never be quite the same (in the best possible way)!
We’re so excited as we continue to introduce you to our amazing group! Janna Michele and Alexandra Bighouse are a mother-daughter team who will be working with us for this project. Involving families in research and conservation is a big part of what Shark Team One’s core programs are about, so we are thrilled to have Janna Michele and Alexandra onboard! Alexandra is on the left in the photo here and Michele is on the right.
J. Michele Bighouse graduated with honors from BGSU with both a Bachelor of Science degree and Masters in Business Administration. During college, her research included studies of the Great Lakes and the invasive effects of Round Goby and Zebra Mussels on benthic macro-invertebrates as well as ecology research in Belize, Guatemala and San Salvador. Michele is an avid scuba diver, continuing her travels around the world to document our changing environment and stay involved in marine biology and conservation efforts. With a lifelong passion for wildlife, science and protecting the environment, Michele uses photography to capture the brilliant beauty of our world, both underwater and above the sea. She strives to present perspectives on nature that will encourage viewers of her work to preserve and protect our planet. Michele is extremely excited to be participating in Shark Team One’s Sperm Whales of Dominica research expedition aimed at preserving this remarkable species. She is especially thrilled to be able to share her passion for marine biology and scientific research with her 15-year-old daughter, Alexandra Bighouse, during this valuable scientific trip.
Alexandra has not only earned a spot as one of the top students in the sophomore class at her high school, she has also just completed her first semester of college coursework at Bowling Green State University. Some of Alexandra’s many passions include travel, dance, theater, music, art, literature, and science. She is a talented artist having had numerous works selected for exhibits at a variety of venues, as well as a gifted writer, having won both local and regional writing competitions. Though only a teenager, Alexandra has already traveled widely, from China and Hong Kong to England, France and the Netherlands. Like her mom, Alexandra is interested in marine biology (along with every other science) and is grateful for the vast opportunities Shark Team One’s Sperm Whales of Dominica research expedition is making available to her. Alexandra is looking forward to expanding her knowledge and appreciation of this magnificent species while contributing to our conservation and research efforts. Watch for more news and observations from this talented mother-daughter team as we set off on expedition in just a few days!
Departure is getting close now, so I'm packing everything that has been prepared over the last number of months. Check out the photo and here are some ways that I've found work well to make the packing go smoothly and most importantly, make it so you (hopefully) don't forget anything. Top left photo: have lots of gear to choose from, especially important gear like masks. This can be done at the store, but in this case, I’ve created my own mini dive shop in the Shark Team One office in big metal shelves and that works best for me. Having smaller bags to put cords and camera pieces in is also key and I have lots of them to pick from as well. Top right photo: you've picked out the best gear for the job, in this case it's a black mask for photography (less outside light coming in the sides) with a small lens ratio area for fast on the go clearing if water should start to come in. (There's no time to stop and clear a mask when you're swimming alongside a sperm whale.) This selection process gets repeated for each piece of dive gear and on to camera gear, etc. It's a lot of work but worth it to have gear that you know works and is the best for the expedition circumstances. Bottom left photo: have on hand and take lots of ways to connect things like carabiners and zip ties. All these won't come with me, but they are in the basket ready to choose from and I can think through what needs to be attached to what. Examples of things that need to be attached to something else are; cameras to my dive belt, cameras lashed to the boat, bags attached to other bags for carrying purposes and the list goes on. A waterproof dive flashlight always comes along since it also doubles as a land flashlight. Last photo on lower bottom right: use clothing to wrap around gear to save room and protect things. In this case its lightweight sweat pants wrapped around a snorkel. Net dive gear bags, small and large get nested and packed into bigger dive gear bags. Let the packing begin!
We’d like to introduce you to Richard Troberman, one of our citizen scientists on the Sperm Whales of Dominica expeditions! Richard is a world traveler on a mission to create awareness for the marine environment. He is pictured here in beautiful Raja Ampat with a “Stop Shark Finning” t-shirt showing his commitment to saving marine species! In his own words, “In the 20+ years I have been scuba diving, I have been fortunate to travel to incredible places around the globe, meet wonderful people, and see amazing things. But during this time I have also seen large scale destruction of coral reefs and other habitat, and a dramatic reduction in shark populations and other aquatic species. I want to do everything that I can to help reverse this horrific and senseless decimation before it is too late.” As you can tell, Richard is passionate about conserving the environment and we are looking forward to working with him to do just that. Richard will be assisting with photography, gathering data and a number of other aspects of our work, as we strive to create awareness for sperm whales. We are super excited to welcome Richard to our Sperm Whales of Dominica expedition team!
Here we are testing our new OpenROV Trident kindly sponsored by the S.E.E. (Science, Exploration, Education) Initiative! Thank you OpenROV, National Geographic, Open Explorer and partners! This amazing ROV will be used for sperm whale research on our upcoming expeditions in Dominica!
Here Kelly and I are testing it in a pool to make sure we learn how to pilot this awesome piece of technology before the team heads out to Dominica. What an amazing opportunity and experience this will be! We love it so much and are really excited for the prospects of what we can capture while out in the field, so stay tuned! Make sure to watch the video here to see us learning and our first piloting runs with the Trident! We can't stop smiling or talking about how awesome it is. This is going to be EPIC!
Meet a few more of our citizen scientists! Stephanie and Nigel are a couple who currently live in North Carolina. We’ve worked with them on previous expeditions so are super excited to be meeting up with them again in a few weeks in Dominica! With a background in natural resource management, Stephanie Richardson has worked as a zoo keeper, an aviculture intern as well as a sea turtle intern conducting in situ research on a barrier island off the Gulf coast of Florida. Stephanie is also an underwater photographer and follows her passion for dive photography. Nigel Clarke grew up on and under the waters off North Carolina and is also an avid traveler and diver. We’re looking forward to working with Stephanie and Nigel who will be helping us capture photography, video and spending time doing daily data entry while we’re on expedition. According to Stephanie, Nigel is her, “fish spotter and marine megafauna attractor", so you can tell that the couple make a perfect team and we’re so glad that they are on ours! Nigel and Stephanie have been champions of our cause to protect endangered species and ocean ecosystems for a number of years. Their help has been invaluable. You’ll be hearing more about them and seeing this dynamic duo in action while we’re in the field!
Sending a whale-sized thank you!!! We are so honored to find out that our expedition has been selected for the S.E.E. Initiative! The S.E.E. Initiative was created for the science, conservation, exploration community and provides OpenROV’s Trident drones to document fieldwork and research! This Trident will be an invaluable tool for research and communication! Thank you so much to the S.E.E. Initiative, OpenROV, National Geographic and to the Open Explorer community for following our work! You are our eyes to the world! We're so excited to share our experiences, discoveries and adventures with you! Stay tuned for exciting updates as we receive and start testing our new OpenROV Trident and get ready to do some serious exploring!
Here are some links to read more about this incredible initiative: "National Geographic Announces Initiative to Donate 1,000 Underwater Drones to Explore the Ocean" http://press.nationalgeographic.com/2018/10/15/national-geographic-announces-initiative-to-donate-1000-underwater-drones-to-explore-the-ocean
"The Science Exploration Education Initiative is a pioneering effort to explore the ocean..." https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/initiatives/see
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts and FINS to the S.E.E. Initiative, OpenROV and National Geographic for this amazing opportunity!
Here are two of our citizen scientists we’d like you to get to know! Janet and Susan Molchan are world traveling, scuba diving and conservation conscience sisters who will be working with us for the first time and we can’t wait! Janet is pictured on the right-hand side in the shot here and Susan on the other. Janet enjoys wildlife, sports, travel, and underwater photography. She loves nature and realizes the importance of habitat protection. When she's not scuba diving and traveling, you can find her reading about science and her favorite author is David Quammen. David Quammen is of course a beloved National Geographic writer and if you haven’t read his books check out such titles as "The Best American Science and Nature Writing" and "On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition". Susan Molchan, grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and couldn’t wait to learn to scuba dive. She became certified at age 16! Susan has enjoyed marine life all over the world for decades and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland and works as a psychiatrist. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, so is also looking forward to some of the land-based exploration we plan to do on this expedition. Like her sister, she also loves to read. Both sisters are champions of our cause to help save sperm whales and to create awareness for issues facing endangered species and our oceans!
The photos here show Janet and Susan in their element, in dive gear and under the sea! We are excited to welcome these caring and knowledgeable citizen scientists and accomplished underwater photographers to our team for the January expeditions. Keep an eye out for their photos and impressions in our field notes.
We’d like to start introducing you to more members our team! They are an amazing group of scientists, conservationists, photographers, divers and citizen scientists. Many hailing from South Florida where we are based when we’re not out in the field. Jenna Cole is pictured here, Jenna has also worked with us to save endangered whale sharks off the Yucatan! For this expedition, Jenna will be helping us get to know the amazing sperm whales of Dominica. Here’s a bit more about Jenna in her own words, “I was born and raised in South Florida and have always had a deep appreciation for animals and the natural world, especially the ocean. I attended Santa Fe Community College where I received my Associate of Science degree in Zoo Animal Technology. Shortly after graduation, I spent 3 years working as a zookeeper before deciding to attend the University of Tampa where I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Science/Biology. I then worked as a marine mammal trainer for 2 years before returning to zookeeping. I am a travel enthusiast and have been fortunate enough to be able to travel all over the world including Africa, Peru, Amazon River, Greece and the Mediterranean Sea which has afforded me the amazing opportunity to see so many different species in their natural environments. I do my best to spend as much time as possible either in, on, or around the sea and also enjoy spending time in the national parks in my own back yard.” Jenna is a champion of our mission to help save endangered sperm whales and an invaluable member of our Sperm Whales of Dominica expedition field team! You can see by the photo that Jenna works with and has a big passion for many types of endangered species!
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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