Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bahamas Expedition: Our Bahamian Colleagues - The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization

This post was written on July 7 by Dr. Kathleen Hunt.

Today was a stormy day, so we stayed on shore on Great Abaco Island. Roz and Scott headed into town (a 1.5-hour drive to Marsh Harbour) to get supplies, while I took the opportunity to learn a little more about our collaborators at the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization (BMMRO).

 The Bahamian Beaked and Sperm Whale Team - Left to Right: Roz Rolland (NEAq), Matthew Grammatico (BMMRO Intern), Diane Claridge (BMMRO Exec. Dir.), Charlotte Dunn (BMMRO President), Kendria Ferguson (BMMRO Education Officer), Pernellya Jolly (BMMRO Intern), Christina Roberts (BMMRO Intern), Kathleen Hunt (NEAq) - seated Scott Kraus (NEAQ), plus dogs Bruno and Harry.

Based at Sandy Point on Great Abaco Island, the BMMRO has been conducting long-term research on the marine mammals of the Bahamas for over 20 years. One of their specialties is long-term research on several species of deep-diving whales that live just offshore here, and that are quite difficult to study elsewhere. The BMMRO's two lead scientists are Diane Claridge (also BMMRO’s Executive Director) and Charlotte Dunn (BMMRO’s President). Both are native Bahamians. Diane has been studying beaked whales and the other marine mammals of the Bahamas since 1991. Her specialty is beaked whale population ecology. Charlotte's been working here since 2004, and her area of expertise is beaked whale communication. Both biologists divide their time between field work here in the Bahamas, and advanced studies at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, where both are pursuing doctorates.

A major emphasis of the BMMRO is education and outreach to local Bahamians. Diane and Charlotte run marine-mammal-focused summer camps, internship programs and school programs. They've recently hired a full-time staff member, Kendria Ferguson, who does education and outreach to local schools (as well as assisting in the research). In the last six months, Kendria's visited "every school on the island, every age" to talk with the school children about marine mammals. Kendria brings photos, videos and sound recordings of the whales, to introduce the children to their whale neighbors. She says that the local kids typically don't even know that there are large whales living right offshore. Kendria says, "Some of the kids have fathers who are fishermen, and those kids have often gone out on the boats with their dads and seen dolphins. So, some of the kids have seen dolphins, and maybe a manatee close to shore. But they have no idea about the whales! Sometimes it turns out that some of them have actually seen a whale, but couldn't really see what it was and thought it was just a dolphin that was in deep water for some reason." Kendria says that most Bahamians don't know that the Bahamas have whales.

The BMMRO also has an active internship program for local teenagers. Right now there are three new interns living and working at the BMMRO field station: Pernellya Jolly, Christina Roberts, and Matthew Grammatico. Today they told me a little bit about their background and why they're here:

Pernellya Jolly, 16 years old, lives on Great Abaco Island very close to the BMMRO. Pernellya says that she applied to the BMMRO's internship program because she's interested in being around scientists and learning more about science. Ultimately she'd like to pursue a career in health or medicine. She is also interested in the animals, and enjoys being out on the boats. Yesterday she came out on the sperm-whale boat with Charlotte and me. Pernellya spent the entire day perched in the bow of our little boat, patiently scanning the water for whales, and though we never found a whale, she insists that she enjoyed the day on the water anyway.

Christina Roberts, also 16, is from New Providence, the capital city of the Bahamas. Christina already knew a fair bit about marine mammals before coming to the BMMRO; that's partly because she was a member of Young Marine Explorers program, an environmental education program for young Bahamians. It was through the Young Marine Explorers program that Christina found out about the BMMRO. Christina's gotten hooked on marine mammals and wants to become a marine biologist, maybe even a marine mammal veterinarian.

Matthew Grammatico, 17 years old, was born in Nassau but now lives on Great Abaco. He joined the BMMRO internship program because, as he puts it, he "wanted to do something different" with his summer than most teens do. Also, like Pernellya, he liked the idea of being around scientists and learning more about how science works (he's interested in majoring in chemistry when he goes to college).

None of the BMMRO's three interns had ever seen a whale in their lives before coming to the BMMRO. For all three of them, their first whale sighting was a dramatic one--a huge sperm whale that they spotted on July 3, just before we arrived. They all say they loved seeing the sperm whale up close.

Matthew then added that he really liked seeing the beaked whales yesterday, and wouldn't mind taking a quick turn at the snorkelling, to get a close-up look. "But I don't want to be the person who swims down to get the fecal sample," he added--wise words indeed!

Kathleen Hunt

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