2012 05 5- One of our 4 interns describes her three weeks with us Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

We had four interns this year working with us. Leah Crowe has experience with Allied Whale matching humpback whales, as well as experience with aerial surveys of right whales in Florida. She works also as a naturalist on whale watching trips in New England. Here is her interpretation of her experience with whales in Bermuda:

"The first thing you can't help to notice about Bermuda is the water. Beautiful turquoise shades close to shore, rich blues as you motor away with the sand holes popping out to you. The best thing about this water is its clarity. If I remember right, people were saying visibility down to 50ft. This makes a big difference when watching whales. Being able to SEE where whales are makes a world of difference.

April 9th was my second boat trip in Bermuda and my first voyage out to Challenger Bank. We encountered maybe 20 whales that day, but a pair of humpbacks stood out to me. For about 20 minutes we had a whale belly up lob tailing. Not unusual to see an animal continuously repeating a behavior at the surface. What did stick out to me was as the whale created this commotion, another one approached and idled by - the large, white flippers glowing brightly about 10 ft off the lob tailing whale's left side. This companion whale didn't budge, not even to breath. In water of less clarity, you would have thought that whale long gone, not on standby right under a swinging 12ft fluke. I was surprised that once this whale approached the signal, the lob tailing continued for the 20 minutes we were there. If this signal were meant only to beckon a companion, you would have expected it to stop once approached. It makes me wonder how many times this may be happening, but we just can't see it up north. It could never happen, or happen all the time, but the murkiness keeps that secret for now.

The whales around Bermuda do enjoy their disappearing act. There were many times when we thought the whale that had dissolved into a sounding dive had a slightly different dorsal than the whale we caught on the following surfacing, but we would never see the two at the surface together despite them diving and surfacing in the same area. So why coordinate alternate breath cycles? This is where Andrew's sand hole rubbing hypothesis may come into play as there is no need to synchronize behavior if you're independently grooming for the time being.

I had two really stellar days on the water that I would like to share here.

Spectacular Day on the Water I: April 15th. We ended the day with a 2.5 hour follow of what converged into 10 - 12 whales moving together in a synchronized breathing and diving pattern. They aligned in almost a chevron formation with a pair of stragglers moving along "the edge" of Challenger Bank. Were they feeding? Preparing for migration? I don't believe any of those whales were seen in our usual spots again in the days that followed. Interesting observation on this follow was that the same whale lead the dive every time except once, and a consistent individual surfaced bubble streaming each time. When we tried to intercept them for video footage, the whales weren't having it - they evaded us on each attempt. Their course seemed deliberate, yet unpredictable and varied. We also encountered 5-10 bottlenosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and a very solid fecal sample we presumed could come from nothing smaller than a whale (thanks for the use of your bucket, Bob). So WAS this an assemblage of feeding adults?

Spectacular Day on the Water II: April 20th. Dolphins everywhere, certainly a sign of good luck this day. And lucky for us, they were associating with a pair of humpbacks. The dolphins showed interest in our boat for a while, coming over and riding our bow. But as soon as the dolphins took off, it was the whales' turn. One of the pair was significantly more curious about us than the other. At one point, with the curious whale stretched directly under Roland Lines' 23 foot boat, the nose pointing off the port side, tail end off the starboard, you could see the companion hovering directly underneath (thank you, clear water of Bermuda). It is worth it to mention we were in 1600ft of water. Our curious whale came within feet of the boat, bringing its head up spy hopping toward us. This whale then took our stern and began flipper slapping, with the companion standing by cautiously. Some social bubbles were blown, but eventually this pair took off in a fluking dive, giving us an opportunity to glimpse into the identity of the timid companion. Interestingly enough, about 15 minutes later, now in 2000ft of water, this same pair caught our attention with a breach, and we watched them surging to the surface again accompanied by 15-20 bottlenose dolphins. These later behaviors would indicate to me a bout of feeding, but regardless, were they just taking a break from their business in the deep waters to toy with us at the surface?

Now even the days I haven't mentioned here were enlightening and I am very fortunate to have spent a month exploring the migratory waters of North Atlantic humpbacks. I hope to be back next season and help again with this wonderful project. Talking with the team all April, we're building castles in the sky. Ideas of airplane surveys and at-sea living over the crown make our hearts race. There is so much potential in Bermuda for humpback science.

I do want to mention that as wonderful as my whale experiences were, the people of Bermuda are truly remarkable. There is an inspiring amount of generosity and sincere interest surrounding this project. I can't say "thank you" enough to all the people who took me on a boat ride, gave me a bed to sleep in, fed me, forced my arm to drink more wine (never hard to do), and were just generally happy to show me a great time on a great island. Thank you!



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