A report from an Earthwatch volunteer.
I envision the Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) defending the young, elderly, and ill from predators by connecting their heads encasing the awe-inspiring Spermaceti
organ (of which its function is still to be proven) facing together in a circle, their caudal fins outstretched into the ancient, salty waters. This is known as the Marguerite
defensive formation. What a simply clever mechanism this whale (equipped with the largest brain in all of the animal kingdom) has adopted! We humans, like the whales, must protect
the innocent, vulnerable gemstones of the Earth before time permits otherwise. As a collective civilization, we must evolve into animal and environmental warriors.
Fortunately, the Earthwatch Institute's "Dolphins and Whales of Abaco Island" provided the ideal opportunity to expand my passion for Cetaceans by surveying a local population of
Oceanic Dolphins, Dense Beaked Whales, and the majestic Sperm Whale, among others including the Humpback Whale and Orca Whale. Moreover, the coupling of Grand Bahama Canyon with Little
Bahama Bank allows a diverse range of species to thrive. Throughout the ten days of volunteering, my teammates and I had the privilege of witnessing Eagle Rays, Nurse and Lemon Sharks,
Sea Hares, Starfish, Flying Fish, Barracuda, Needlefish, Conchs, Queen Triggerfish, Gorgonian Sea Fans, and Eels. Pelicans, Egrets, Herons, Frigates, and Vultures were often above us;
while terrestrial species such as lizards made for welcome company. However, the highlight from days out on the open ocean was when I spotted a pod of Sperm Whales in the Grand Bahama Canyon
area. As the team followed the traveling pod, a surreal sensation flooded me. These creatures of the deep, with a unique knowledge that rivals, perhaps even surpasses that of humans,
swam almost directly in front of our research vessel! With records illustrating their ability to dive up to two hours at ten thousand feet, their classification as the largest toothed
whale (Odontoceti), and as the single cetacean to house the Spermatceti Organ, their grace and power overwhelmed me. A series of exhalations at the surface preceded a deep dive where the
raising of the caudal fins exemplified each individual sounding. Traveling in pods, yet foraging alone, the Sperm Whale permitted us to record data as we approached each individual. By
listening to their vocalizations (clicks) on the hydrophone the Earthwatch team, under the direction of Captain Diane Claridge, were able to track the elusive marine mammal. One memorable
occasion included a Sperm Whale who gave the illusion that it was sounding. After a few still, quiet moments, this master of the deep breached, reentering the deep blue waters on its right
side. Time seemed to stand still when visiting the kingdom of these heavenly entities. Returning back to the research station was bittersweet after the myriad of Sperm Whales shared the
afternoon with us. Yet, the beginnings of a glorious sunset beckoned us to return to land.
Furthermore, the entire Earthwatch team was sincerely grateful that Diane Claridge and Charlotte Dunn opened their home to us. Hearing each other's stories over a scrumptious meal two
members had skillfully assembled drew our kinship closer. Much was to be reflected upon at each day's conclusion. Field trips included snorkeling near mangroves at Cross Harbour (where
I came across the skeletal remains of an unidentified species), by a sunken sea vessel and submarine, and off of Black Rock Island. Also, we bodysurfed on two occasions at a nearby beach.
In addition, we reveled in an afternoon of sea kayaking to a mangrove system where numerous species of wildlife were encountered and where we confronted a Blue Hole. Fortunately, we swam in
another Blue Hole which sparked our imaginations as to what creeped and crawled in caves and tunnels beneath! Moreover, a friendly local man who owned an approximately forty foot cigarette
boat gave us a tour of the area. It came as a surprise when we were in the midst of the ship used in the film, Pirates of the Caribbean II! Last, we tied our bowline to the stern of a research
Catamaran affiliated with the University of Miami where we received a tour of the vessel's facilities and technologies from the Captain and where a graduate student spoke to us about the Gorgonian
Sea Fan which was the topic of their studies.
When days called for indoor work due to rough sea conditions, the team would rotate between data entry and the identification of a local community of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops
trucatus). Collectively, we learnt the differences in identification between Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, Dense Beaked Whales, and Sperm Whales. While Bottlenose Dolphins are identified
by utilizing the dorsal fin, a Beaked Whale is identified by viewing the upper thorax where Cookie Cutter Sharks leave bite marks. Sperm Whales are identified by their caudal fins. Puzzling
together who was who involved patience and a keen sense of observation which I whole heartedly enjoyed. Chores included weeding the researchers' vegetable garden, planting seedlings for the herb
and vegetable gardens, cleaning the research vessel, "Chimo", and participating in a beach clean up where I found the remains of a deceased sea turtle. All of these tasks, we learnt, are
necessary for the maintenance of a research centre. Furthermore, a slideshow presentation was conducted by Diane Claridge regarding the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization's conservation
and research accomplishments and goals. Diane was kind enough to burn a slideshow to a disc highlighting Beaked Whale research of the area to personally take home.
Days began and ended with leisurely strolls along the white, sandy beach directly in front of the researchers' home. Sally and Bruno, the scientists' dogs, would accompany me as the sun rose
and set. Our last day was completed with a photo slideshow created by a staff member which rekindled many humorous memories. Dinner and dancing at Nancy's, an intimate restaurant located in
the town of Sandy Point, and owned by a local man, concluded our evening. After our festivities culminated, I saw a shooting star amoung the plethora of cosmic stars after emerging outdoors
from the restaurant. While walking home, I directed my flashlight to the stars. Each ray of light seemed to be an extension of my hand and therefore I literally felt as though I was reaching
for the stars.
"Dolphins and Whales of Abaco Island" has motivated me to accomplish my mission in life: to become a scientist and advocate for cetaceans, specifically the Sperm Whale, who so desperately needs
our help. From them, the human race can acknowledge our faults and accept our power as Homo sapiens to empathize after gaining knowledge and to then lend a hand to the beings we share Planet
Earth with. Finally, this trip allowed for a time of reflection and inspiration. I think of an excerpt from a poem which reawakens the human mind and which personally guides me to fulfill my
ultimate career potential.
"From space, the planet is blue.
From space, the planet is the territory,
Not of humans, but of the whale."
Team 1 Earthwatcher,
Kaylee was an earthwatcher from the 9th - 19th January, 2007