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In 1991 the Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey (BMMS), a project of the US-based Center for Whale Research, conducted a pilot study to learn about marine mammal occurrence, distribution and relative abundance. The results of this early work led BMMS to Abaco Island, in the northeastern Bahamas where there was an immediate conservation question to address.

 

Science-based conservation leads to ban of dolphin captures in The Bahamas

In the Sea of Abaco, ten bottlenose dolphins had been captured in 1989 for a new captive dolphin operation at Treasure Island (Guana Cay). The newly-formed environmental group Friends of the Environment needed to know how this capture operation impacted the local dolphin population and they asked for our help. In 1992 with funding from Earthwatch Institute, BMMS initiated a study to estimate the abundance of bottlenose dolphins in the Sea of Abaco. We learned that there were only about 100 dolphins, and concluded that local dolphin populations cannot sustain removals at that level. The results (published in a local scientific journal) led to the Government of The Bahamas to ban any future dolphin captures.

 
 
 
 
 
Discovering enigmatic beaked whales and their vulnerabilities

Beaked whales represent the world’s least known mammalian group. Despite their relatively large size (10-40 ft, 3-12 m), their cryptic, shy behaviour and use of deep ocean environments has made studying these whales extremely difficult; in fact, new species are still being discovered today!

The most exciting outcome from the 1991 pilot study was to discover that beaked whales regularly occur close to shore in The Bahamas. At that time, almost all information on beaked whale biology was compiled from dead, stranded animals. Here we had a chance to begin research on a living population! We began the world’s first photo-identification study of Blainville’s beaked whales and quickly learned that these whales are year-round residents to Abaco.

Since, the study of beaked whale ecology has become one of the primary focus of our research and we’ve made discoveries about their life history that are new to science. Filling these knowledge gaps has allowed us to learn how human activities, such as Navy sonar, are impacting these rare whales.

On March 15th, 2000 an atypical stranding of 14 beaked whales in NW Providence Channel (part of the Great Bahama Canyon) was caused by a U.S. Navy antisubmarine warfare exercise. Due to the rapid response of BMMS’ team, for the first time a direct link was established between the dead whales and the Navy activities.

Following this stranding, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission advised Congress to help facilitate research on beaked whales to determine why beaked whales are more vulnerable to Navy sonar than other species. The Bahamas was selected as an important place to focus these efforts for 2 reasons: the U.S. Navy operates an acoustic testing range here, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in Andros (also within the Great Bahama Canyon); and a study of beaked whales was already underway here.

As a result, our work expanded to include ship surveys throughout the Great Bahama Canyon which revealed the importance of this canyon as beaked whale habitat for approximately 3,000 whales. Yet within the canyon, there exist small resident sub-populations of less than 100 whales demonstrating their potential vulnerabilities to disturbance.

At AUTEC, we learned that exposure to sonar disrupts foraging behaviour and over the long-term may compromise vital life functions such as reproduction. These findings have led to recent changes in Navy procedures and mitigation for all U.S. Navy bases around the world.

 
 
 
 
  

Establishing a Bahamian organisation dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals

In September 2006, BMMS became the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO), a Bahamian non-profit organisation. Covered by an active Board of Directors, BMMRO’s dedicated staff, interns and volunteers continue year-round studies and outreach work with a commitment to advancing the conservation of marine mammals and their habitats in The Bahamas.

Our research focus has grown over the years from estimating the abundance of bottlenose dolphins to determining how many Blainville’s beaked whales (a poorly known species when we began) inhabit a large canyon. Through many collaborations, we have contributed to the understanding of species diversity in the wider Caribbean Region; ranging patterns, population structure, communication and social organisation of many species including beaked whales, sperm whales, and short-finned pilot whales; and documented the movements of manatees between the islands. BMMRO created and manages the Bahamas Marine Mammal Stranding Network to learn about causes of strandings to contribute to conservation of these species, and BMMRO has established on-going outreach programmes like our summer Whale Camp.

After 25 years, we remain dedicated to continuing this work and recognise the importance of community involvement. Please join us in our efforts through reporting sightings and strandings of marine mammals, volunteering to join our research and education work, or making a donation to BMMRO to help our work continue in the future.