Sperm Whales of DominicaLatest update September 9, 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?
The interior portions of Dominica hold breathtaking ancient forests that contain endangered and vulnerable parrots, amazing giant insects and trees the size of skyscrapers. Dominica is called the The Nature Island for a reason! If you hike up into the Northern Forest Reserve towards Morne Diablotin, the highest volcanic peak in the Caribbean, you will come to a cloud forest, in fact it’s the only cloud forest in the Caribbean. Temperatures are a bit cooler, it’s damp and usually raining a number of times per day. Two species of very interesting and beautiful parrots live here. One is the Imperial Amazon parrot or Sisserou which is the country’s national bird and also on the flag of Dominica. The other parrot is a bit more common in our travels, yet still on the IUCN red list as vulnerable. That parrot is the Red-necked Amazon or “Jaco” parrot. You can see descriptions of both birds on the sign in the photo here. When you’re hiking and start to see and smell oranges you know some Jacos have been in the area. They eat out all the seeds yet leave the juicy orange flesh. The Sisserou is listed as endangered and may be hiding in the gigantic trees like this one in the photo. Both parrots are endemic only to Dominica. On days off from the ocean or on weather days, you can find our groups hiking in these amazing and never-ending forests. This area is also a botanist's dream. My favorite fern is shown here against a tree, the texture is gorgeous. I probably have 100 shots of this type of fern from various hikes. I’m still searching for a chance to get a photo of a Sisserou and a good Jaco shot. The closest I’ve come to seeing a Sisserou so far in the wild, is a fast fly by with a flash of purple out of the corner of my eye. It's hard to prove I saw one with no photo, but I know in my heart I did. A person could get happily lost up here for a long time, quite literally in the clouds! Hopefully I'll have more time to spend here in this beautiful forest to find the Sisserou and more treasures of Dominica. Beauty surrounds us!
We want to know more about the food resources for these whales and since sperm whale food comes from extreme depths, little is known about the life history or exact species ID for sperm whale prey. We ran into a fisherman who was able to give us this photo of a rare deep-sea squid. The fisherman was convinced the whales were eating this species, since he found tentacles bitten off, has caught a few of this particular squid in various states of being eaten, and knew there were whales in the area, so we set out to confirm what type of cephalopod this was and to hopefully learn a bit more about its abundance and at what depth it lives at in the waters off Dominica. Of course, one could spend a lifetime studying cephalopods and so with the help of scientists at Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography Nova Southeastern University Guy Harvey Oceanographic Center and another institution, we think we have narrowed down and possibly given an ID to this mystery cephalopod. Kirk and Charles from NSU knew a specialist and our request for information made it all the way to a scientist in Washington D.C.! Michael from NMFS National Systematics Laboratory National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution was able to narrow down our mystery squid to two possible animal types. (Examples seen here on the right side of the photo.) The animal on photo left is our photo from the fisherman. After consideration of abundance, location and the photo we had, Michael was able to give us his best guess and we think the squid on the left from our fisherman could be O. robsoni, (the specimen animal in the top photo right of the collage here). However, since that squid is not particularly abundant, the odds that the sperm whales are eating this cephalopod for much of the time are limited, however we do know that a sperm whale of course could opportunistically eat O. robsoni and judging by the missing tentacles and story of the fisherman, that's likely the case. Adult Onykia robsoni or O. robsoni as we are referring to it here, reach a length of 470 to 885 mm ML and weigh around 24 pounds. Its tentacles are club with 13-16 pairs of hooks. (You know those scratches we see on all the sperm whales? Ouch!) The ID specimen seen in the O. robsoni photo here (upper right) was caught in a 685 to 700 m bottom trawl. So quite possibly the whale that was able to get a few bites down the hatch from this cephalopod, was at around that depth if we project. Michael also considered P. massyae (the animal in the lower right side of photo), based on reflection of mantle skin in comparison. Little is known about either squid since they live at extreme depth. Keep in mind our ID assumptions here are limited by photos and are the best possible guess since seeing this cephalopod in the wild at depth hasn’t happened yet to my knowledge. Specimens are only from deep sea bottom trawls or fishermen, as in this case. Many thanks to Kirk Kilfoyle, Charles Messing and Michael Vecchione at the above institutions for the ID help and for taking the time to help us shed light into the lives of these amazing whales!
Literature Cited and photos as credited in graphic. 1.) Vecchione, Michael, Richard E. Young, and Kotaro Tsuchiya. 2011. Onykia (Onykia) robsoni (Adam, 1962). Version 20 March 2011 (under construction). http://tolweb.org/Onykia%28Onykia%29robsoni/19975/2011.03.20 in The Tree of Life Web Project. 2.) Vecchione, Michael and Richard E. Young. 2014. Pholidoteuthis massyae (Pfeffer, 1912). Version 21 January 2014 (under construction). http://tolweb.org/Pholidoteuthismassyae/19854/2014.01.21 in The Tree of Life Web Project, http://tolweb.org.
Presenting the first ROV drone footage of sperm whale family groups! We’re so thrilled to show you this video about our Sperm Whales of Dominica expedition series from the eyes of the Trident ROV! Use of the Trident is already beginning to help us unlock discoveries of sperm whale behavior. Notice the calf swimming around under the adult whales learning how to dive! That behavior is something we wouldn't see without the Trident. We are also hoping to make discoveries about sperm whale interactions with other types of cetaceans and observations about how the groups travel together.
We’ve been working on all the aspects it takes to achieve a video like this for months and we’re over the moon with the results! Many thanks to everyone at Sofar Ocean Technologies, National Geographic Open Explorer and all the other S.E.E. Initiative sponsors. A big shout out to David Lang for his vision and to the other founders and leaders at Sofar Ocean Technologies as well. Thank you to Madeleine Foote and everyone who makes National Geographic Open Explorer possible. Sharing moments like this is what it’s all about! Thanks to our team responsible for helping to get the footage we shot here; Kelly, Andrew, Jenna, Dafar, Stephanie, Allie, Michele, Nigel. Huge thanks to the support team at Sofar Ocean Technologies; Nicole, Joseph, Mike, you guys rock and everybody else at Sofar as well. We couldn’t have done it without your patience and support. I have to say, I get chills when I watch this video! It’s just so humbling to see these massive, gorgeous animals in their element and how they move and behave in their family groups through the eyes of this cool technology!
James Cameron we hope you’re watching because we think this is pretty momentous and we thought of you and your work in exploration. After seeing this footage for the first time, I said to the team, “Wow, the possibilities are endless! I don’t think anyone else has done this before…THIS is what it feels like to really explore!” To find something that no one else has seen, or to see something in a different way and then be able to show it to people so they can experience it! Pushing the envelope, using technology, finding ways to study whales, battling the elements, just locating whales that still exist in our troubled oceans are all massive feats. The best part though is the hope and knowing we can make a difference, that’s the inspiration and what drives us! Through science, exploration and education, the S.E.E. Initiative is making outstanding contributions to the world of conservation through technology. Prepare to get chills and watch these incredible whales on their journey through the eyes of the Trident ROV! The power of images and their impact on the human heart has unlimited potential for the conservation of species! -Angela Smith
Team member Rick took this beautiful shot of a calf swimming under its mother. This is a very young calf. In the last post I describe calves stimulating milk ducts which could be the case here but we’ve also seen young whales head to this area of the female’s body for protection, putting its head in this position as if to say, “Mom, I’m here, don’t worry". In addition, nursing is thought to be both a feeding and social function. In this shot however, judging by what was happening in the surrounding waters, this little calf is most likely seeking refuge under the large female. Calves are also seen in a number of other positions alongside their mothers or the other females who babysit the calves. Of course, most of the life of a young whale revolves around feeding time! Sperm whale calves are born at around 13 feet long and nurse for two years or could continue to nurse for up to eight years. The lighter colored mark on the head of the calf is skin sloughing off. This happens throughout a sperm whale's life. What a great capture of sperm whale behavior and a rare photo of an extremely young calf from one of our amazing citizen scientists. Thanks for this beautiful shot Rick! The majesty and intelligence of sperm whales is just out of this world and we are learning a lot about their complex social lives.
Team member Allie Bighouse drew this beautiful representation of a female sperm whale and calf. Her field art is amazing! We see calves swimming with females in this position and one theory is this behavior like Allie mentions, is done to stimulate milk by bumping near the mammary slit. There are some other theories as to why this behavior happens as well, but a number of scientists agree this could be a mammary “bump” similar to milk releasing stimulation done by other marine mammals. New evidence is surfacing all the time as to what is exactly happening during these very interesting female and calf behaviors. We can frequently see calves doing all sorts of interesting movements. They appear very agile since they are so small in relation to the large females and move fairly swiftly among their family group. At certain times they appear almost acrobatic with stretches, curling movements and bumping into family members.
I particularly love the movement in this drawing and of course the story it tells. Allie is currently in high school and is talented beyond her years. She has already completed college coursework and her passions include art and science. Allie’s contributions to this expedition series have been outstanding. I tell our citizen scientists to help us by doing what they love and their passion always shows through. Use your best skills to help save vulnerable species, no matter what your profession or area of study is. By doing what you love and what you excel at, you are bound to make a big difference in your own life as well as help the animal or species you are working to save. I’m looking forward to following Allie’s career. I know she will succeed in whatever she does and I think the memory of these amazing whales will be with her for a long time. Thanks Allie for your help and the whales thank you too!
I thought we would let you hear some sperm whale vocalizations! I took a clip of our last video and dubbed in some whale voices from the same day. How many different whales can you hear? The clicks represent groups of whales, young whales, old whales, all sizes of whales. The audio clip is from a few seconds of one afternoon out in the blue water off Dominica. Sperm whale codas (patterned series of clicks) have led scientists to propose that sperm whales belong to cultural clans, have different coda types in different dive phases, and a number of other fascinating discoveries. Most of our citizen scientists have never heard a sperm whale before let alone be in the water to hear these magical sounds up close. A number of scientists are doing amazing work unlocking the science behind sperm whale vocalizations and what they could mean. On this day, in this brief snapshot, we heard whales from all over and by determining where the clicks are coming from, we can tell which direction the whales are swimming in, so we can go find them. Most days the whales can be heard, however we’re seeing patterns for flat, calm, hot days when the whales can’t be heard and think they could possibly be on the other side of the island staying cooler on the Windward side during those days. Whether that behavior is a product of climate change would remain to be seen in the patterns, but it’s an interesting hypothesis for now. Sadly, in the days of whaling, the heavy knocking of the sperm whale vocalizations was one of the ways whalers also knew where to find the whales. In that era their voices helped lead to their demise, now their voices may unlock clues to their complex social structures and how whales have distinct cultures. Cultures in this sense can be associated with traditions if we personify the analogy. How whales produce these sounds is equally as fascinating and is one of the things I teach our citizen scientists about while they are on this expedition series. Have a listen and just imagine how rich this area is with whale density and literally whale “culture”. We’re humbled to be in the presence of these super intelligent animals!
I’ve been working on this video for you to show a small bit about what a day in the life looks like on expedition. You can see how we get into the water, how we time our jumps to photograph the whales and what we might see while we’re in the water with the whales. You’ll see a family group and the most amazing footage of a rare and extremely friendly sperm whale encounter. We also wanted to thank our sponsors with this video who have been so kind and generous. A lot of the gear we use to represent these amazing organizations, initiatives and brands are shown in the video. Each piece of gear is a critical part of the expedition and is hand-picked to provide the best and most durable products that hold up to extreme conditions. Other sponsors provide services and technology in the background, so we can process data and keep going with our research. They are all key to our work. This is the first time this footage of the friendly whale has appeared anywhere so I’m really proud to post it here on National Geographic Open Explorer first. Having this moment with this female whale, and I’m going to say kindred spirit even though that’s personifying, was life altering to say the least. She looked through me and into my heart as if to say, “Follow me human, and you better make a difference to help us!” The encounter will definitely be going down in the books as the most amazing thing that’s happened to me in the ocean and probably in my life. So, sit back for the next 5 minutes and watch us in action. Jenna, one of our citizen scientists filmed me in the water at a certain point which is highly unusual, since I’m always behind the camera. The first set of whales in this footage includes a number of young calves swimming toward another group of whales in the distance. When you get to the part with the female whale checking me out, see if you also get chills, like I do every time I see this footage. You can see her turn her head to the side sizing up the small human with the strange device on her face (camera plastered up to my eye), as I hope to not miss a moment of this encounter. Also, check out when she looks at the camera before turning to swim alongside me. The way she is able to articulate her head with her body is really interesting. Then, follow her eye as she swims off, they are so expressive! Bask in the moment as I did.
Many thanks to National Geographic Open Explorer, Sofar, the S.E.E. Initiative for all their support and sponsorship of the Trident ROV. Thanks also to Cressi for dive gear and all of our other sponsors mentioned in the video and everyone who makes these expeditions possible by supporting our mission. We’re so proud to represent all of these amazing organizations and brands. Kudos to every citizen scientist, volunteer, explorer and extreme adventurer who ventures out with us into deep blue water to document these whales. It’s breathtaking, it’s commando, it’s serene, it’s frantic, it’s a labor of love, it’s life changing! It’s all of those things and more. The world needs more serene sperm whale moments and people need to know these amazing animals exist out there and how to protect them from human stressors such as plastic pollution, fishing gear entanglement, land-based sources of pollution, overfishing of their food sources and impacts of climate change. Do a few small things no matter where you are like don’t purchase single-use plastic, don’t use pesticides, don’t contribute to the demise of overfished species when buying seafood or stop eating seafood. Basically it all boils down to thinking about what impacts you will have as a human on the environment before you purchase, eat or do something. Start making new habits. Even if you live far from the ocean these every day actions can help save these whales! Enjoy the video! Hope it inspires you to help protect critical species by changing your life for the better of the environment and makes you feel totally amazing like I do when I’m in the water with these gentle giants!
In analyzing this photo of a sperm whale dorsal hump, we can not only see a lot of scrapes and round marks that are most likely caused by the deep sea squid this sperm whale has been hunting, but we can also see a type of sea louse! Each whale species has its own species of lice. Eww is right! Although along with the “eww” factor is some interesting science because sperm whale lice not only are specific to sperm whales but are even thought to be specific to the sex of the whale since male and female sperm whales live such separate lives, their ectoparasites (parasites living outside their hosts) also may need to be suited to how and where the whales live. For instance, female sperm whales live in warmer climates and male whales travel to the Arctic, so their parasites also need to be adapted to be able to survive those different habitats. This is a female whale so this louse could be Neocyamus physeteris. Not much is known about sperm whale parasites since capturing specimens is difficult. We do know they must be supplied with a never-ending resource of skin to eat and we don’t see a lot of them on this population of sperm whales so far. This dorsal hump also shows shedding of skin which happens naturally and is thought to be, among other factors, a mechanism to shed parasites and anything else that may cling to a whale’s skin. Although you may be itching by now at the thought of something creepy looking clinging to this whale, the study of parasites in biology can lead to important host species saving discoveries such as cases where parasites have adversely impacted the health of marine mammal populations. Here’s a study that goes into a lot of detail about all types of whale parasites for those of you out there interested or possibly studying this subject:
Hermosilla, C., Silva, L.M.R., Prieto, R., Kleinertz, S., Taubert, A. and Silva, M.A. (2015). Endo- and ectoparasites of large whales (Cetartiodactyla: Balaenopteridae, Physeteridae): Overcoming difficulties in obtaining appropriate samples by non- and minimally-invasive methods. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife. 4, 414-420. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213224415300237.
Neocyamus physeteris photo thanks to: Oliver, G., Trilles, J-.P. (2014). Crustacés parasites et epizoïtes du Cachalot, Physeter catodonLinnaeus, 1758 (Cetacea, Odontoceti), dans le golfe du Lion (Méditerranée occidentale): Crustacean parasites and epizoits of sperm-whale Physeter Catodon Linnaeus, 1758 (Cetacca, Odontoceti), in West Mediterranean Sea. Parasite, 7 4 (2000) 311-321. Sperm whale photo by Janet Molchan, citizen scientist for Shark Team One.
Some of my most fulfilling moments on expedition are when students get in the water for the first time with the whales. If there’s ever a question as to why I do what I do, seeing the faces of students, listening to their reactions, watching them learn and ultimately afterward hearing about their dreams of saving our oceans, has got to be the equivalent of getting a Nobel Prize when it comes to feeling like your life’s goals have been achieved. This photo was taken by Jonathan Willis who is 11 years old! It is of a young female whale that appears in the expedition series multiple times. She is sometimes on her own and very curious, as she was on this day. Jonathan’s contributions to our projects are vast thanks to his amazing photography skills, knowledge of marine science beyond his years and his unstoppable wonder at the natural world around him. This young man has a complete lack of fear when he’s in the water with these large marine mammals and I really think this whale was also fascinated with Jonathan’s size and movements. This photo has gone on to help us in our conservation outreach campaigns and will be used to show other students and children what can be accomplished by citizen scientists and photographers of any age. Jonathan’s take on the world around him is contagious and in one conversation after I asked him what he thought about being in the water with the whales he used the word “magnificent”. Now, every time I get in the water with the whales that word comes to mind and it really is THE very best way to describe a sperm whale. To me the word also captures the essence of how humans need to feel about vulnerable wildlife before they can do anything about saving them. We need to be inspired, filled with awe, fall in love and focus on their intrinsic value beyond all else, because those feelings are at the core of what drives people to protect our oceans! Ironically this photo also captures me taking a photo of the whale in the background. I guess you could say it symbolizes the younger generation looking across to the older. Jonathan’s family are superheroes for supporting his dreams and I can’t help but get a little misty since that’s exactly what my family did for me at his age. A big part of our programs are all about teaching and training the next generation. Kids are our future and really our only long-term hope to save the world's oceans before it’s too late. Thanks for this awesome capture Jonathan! You can be my dive buddy and expedition photographer anytime!
Here is an interesting compilation our citizen scientist Janet photographed and assembled for us. Over a number of days, she observed the dorsal hump of many different whales. Sperm whales have a low hump instead of a dorsal fin. “Knuckles” or crenulations on the dorsal ridge stretch from the dorsal hump to the tail stock. Male and female sperm whales can be distinguished by size and genital area differences and sometimes females have calluses on the dorsal hump, which are thought to occur about 85% of the time. Males almost never have them. Many times, markings or injuries are also seen on the dorsal humps. Those could be from hunting or animals that attach themselves to the whales briefly or over periods of time. While taking surface shots, looking for calluses or not, can give an idea of sex in the whales. In this case, due to the known population structure of these family groups, most likely all these whales are adult females with the exception of calves which also appear in the photos. However, since we did hear a male whale, a male dorsal could have also been photographed. Analyzing the photos to look for calluses, markings and injuries is what the lesson here is about. Later on, we’ll be looking more closely at shapes of markings and any injuries on the dorsal humps to see what can be learned about the ecology of sperm whales and any insights into the other animals they may be interacting with, such as prey or parasites. We also want to know if we see any human-related injuries since sadly these whales spend their lives near to cruise ship and tanker lanes and as Dominica grows we want to increase protection for these whales. One of the missions of this project and of our organization Shark Team One is to help protect endangered species in a changing world, so evidence of human inflicted injury can be used to help influence policy. We use this method for a number of our projects with other species as well. Sometimes I think we are similar to undercover detectives or forensic police in the human world, it’s just that whales, sharks and other species on the brink of extinction don’t have a voice, so you need to provide them with one. No matter what you are studying, what you do for a living, or wherever you are, find a way to give animals, especially endangered species a voice. It can certainly help save this blue planet and its amazing creatures!
Happy faces here as we use the OpenROV Trident and check out the video at the end of the session! This is either right before or right after I actually screamed out in amazement and delight as I saw the whales in the frame on the controller for the first time! Finding a whale in the vast blue with the eyes of the Trident is super amazing! I thought we got my happy dance and screaming out on video, but am kind of thankful we didn't since I think I may have embarrassed myself for the near future once people saw it. Thanks to Jenna and Andrew shown in the photo here as team members helping organize and use the Trident. Also, the rest of the team off frame here driving the boat, watching whales and Stephanie documenting this momentous moment so we could share it with you. So now that we have the hang of this, it's practice, practice, practice, getting a workflow together for the video and seeing if we can capture more frames with whales! Lots of work ahead.
Many thanks to everyone near and far who are working so hard to get the OpenROV Tridents into the hands of people like us. Many more thanks too to the people, companies and organizations who are helping us technically, financially and everything it takes to make this happen. You guys all rock! I never thought my love of the ocean, science, exploration, education, conservation and filmmaking would be combined so perfectly as it is in this photo at this very moment in time. If you are reading this and you have a dream, follow it and make it happen! The road is long and it may not always be a straight path to get to where you want to be, but steer toward your goal and give it everything you’ve got. Shoot for the moments you can remember as making a difference not only to your mission, but to yourself. You'll know which ones they are and they may also involve the screaming out in delight and happy dance. Way to go S.E.E. Initiative, Open Explorer and OpenROV! Excellent work setting an amazing example and making a difference!
Getting the OpenROV Trident in the water is SO exciting! Here's a photo of Jenna and I operating the ROV near a family group of sperm whales. Stephanie documented some of the action by taking this shot. There are more folks helping out of frame as spotters and making sure the Trident is safe on entry and when we take it out of the water. The photo shows the concentration on my face and you can see the suspense in Jenna's body language. It's pretty tricky and super exciting all at the same time! We don't want to get too close and are not sure what the whales will make of the ROV. We're also still learning how to drive the ROV. Jenna is helping as a spotter as well and feeding information back to me about the location of the whales. For all attempts so far using the Trident, we have stayed passive in the background so we don't disturb the whales. Super exciting what technology can provide to the researcher. We are in the water with the whales a lot, but having a way to use technology to enter into their realm is an amazing tool that we hope to use to gain different knowledge and exciting discoveries. We are about 13 miles off the coast of Dominica. You can see the island in the background of the photo. The team has done a great job with the Trident runs. We've been using a number of us; one to operate with the controller, one to hold the tether (topside wifi unit) and one person that takes the ROV in and out of the water and watches for issues when we bring it back to the boat (so the seas and wind don't sweep it under the boat) since the water conditions are usually windy and choppy. We are on a big boat so spread out like a sports team, everyone with a job that's planned out in advance. Many thanks to all involved at National Geographic Open Explorer, OpenROV and the S.E.E. Initiative! Thanks too to our awesome citizen scientists and volunteers! We are getting the hang of this exciting research tool and hoping to make a big difference for these amazing sperm whales!
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!
Contribute to this expedition
Thank You for Your Contribution!