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Whale and dolphin research expedition in the Caribbean

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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The three-month whale and dolphin research expedition, Ti Whale An Nou, started May 15, 2021 and the objective is to register the number of whales, specifically sperm whales, and the routes they take in the Caribbean. The results will be used to determine what is needed to protect these large mammals. This expedition is coordinated by the Caribbean Cetacean Society and is made possible thanks to the partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature Netherlands (WWF-NL) and the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA).

The name of the research project Ti Whale An Nou is a mixture of French Creole and English and it means ‘our little whales’. In the Caribbean, 33 out of the 90 known species of whales have been documented, which is more than a third of the world’s total diversity. This makes the Caribbean an essential habitat. The main objectives of this study are to assess population size, distribution, movements, social structure and vocal clans of Lesser Antilles sperm whales as well as improve knowledge on the other species. Vocal clans are social groups of whales that sound acoustically similar. The biggest threats to whales are noise from ship traffic or coastal development, pollution, hunting, and by-catch.

Migration and Numbers

The research of this expedition can make an important contribution to a better understanding of the population size and distribution of whales. Similar research has been conducted in previous years. The difference with this expedition is that the research area is extended and includes the region from Saba to Anguilla. Mammal presence and absence will be monitored in the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary, around Saba, Saba Bank, St. Maarten and St. Eustatius. By comparing the results of this expedition with previously gathered data, concrete follow-up actions for the protection of the whales can be planned. This research mission receives great support by not only DCNA and WWF-NL, but from Corail Caraibes, Orange, the EDF Group Foundation, Animal Wellfare Institute, and Parc Naturel Régional de la Martinique as well.

Importance for other Caribbean islands

This research will provide an understanding of the migration routes of marine mammals and therefore an opportunity to improve the protection of these animals. A stable population of whales and dolphins is an indication of healthy oceans. In healthy oceans, fish stocks are stable which is important for the fisheries and the economy on the islands. Furthermore, whales play a significant role in capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Each great whale isolates an estimated 33 tons of CO2 on average, thus playing their part in the fight against climate change.

Photo credits: Alexis Rosenfeld – all rights reserved

Nick and Caroline (Frogfish Photography) are a married couple of conservation driven underwater photo-journalists and authors. Both have honours degrees from Manchester University, in Environmental Biology and Biology respectively, with Nick being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a former high school science teacher with a DipEd in Teaching Studies. Caroline has an MSc in Animal Behaviour specializing in Caribbean Ecology. They are multiple award-winning photographers and along with 4 published books, feature regularly in the diving, wildlife and international press They are the Underwater Photography and Deputy Editors at Scubaverse and Dive Travel Adventures. Winners of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Photo-journalist of the Year for a feature on Shark Diving in The Bahamas, and they have been placed in every year they have entered. Nick and Caroline regularly use their free time to visit schools, both in the UK and on their travels, to discuss the important issues of marine conservation, sharks and plastic pollution. They are ambassadors for Sharks4Kids and founders of SeaStraw. They are Dive Ambassadors for The Islands of The Bahamas and they are supported by Mares, Paralenz, Nauticam and Olympus. To find out more visit www.frogfishphotography.com

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Missing Shark Week?

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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Get your fix in The Out Islands of The Bahamas!

A designated shark sanctuary since 2011, The Bahamas boasts some 40 species of sharks, and dozens of dive operators ready to help you live your own Shark Week adventure. Best of all, for US and Canadian citizens, when you book one of 35 participating Out Islands hotels, they’ll treat you to free round-trip flights or ferry tickets from Nassau! For European residents, there is a similar offer up for grabs – click here to find out more!

Shark highlights include:

Andros

On just about every dive in Andros, you will see a shark. The puppy dog-like Caribbean Reef Shark is the most prominent.

Bimini

Just a half-mile off Bimini, you’ll find endangered great Hammerhead Sharks and the occasional Bull Shark and Lemon Shark on shallow dives in Bimini’s warm waters.

Cat Island

Discover the world’s largest concentration of Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in the deep, protected waters around Cat Island.

The Exumas

Meet abundant (and mostly friendly) Nurse Sharks around the Exumas’ colorful reefs or resting under a dock.

Long Island

Visit the world’s first developed and still naturally unchanged Stella Maris Shark Reef. Dive and see the Bahama Grey Tip Reef Sharks (usually a dozen or more), an occasional Bull Shark, Nurse Shark, or Hammerheads.

For more information visit The Out Islands website by clicking here.

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Sharks move to deeper water as they mature

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

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A new study from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) showed that reef sharks utilize different areas of the reef throughout their lifetime.  Using baited video cameras, six different species of reef sharks were recorded around the northern Dutch Caribbean islands. These results will impact the design and implementation of shark conservation strategies for years to come.

Reef Sharks

Reef sharks play a critical role within the ocean. As a top predator, reef sharks help maintain the delicate balance within (coral) reef environments. In fact, research has found that reefs with healthy shark populations are more resilient and capable of withstanding the pressures of climate change, pollution, overfishing and diseases.

Juvenile Sharks

Understanding the dynamics of habitat use of local shark populations is critical when designing effective marine conservation strategies. This is exactly what the latest reef shark study from WUR hoped to achieve. Using baited remote underwater video cameras at 376 locations around the reefs of Saba, Saba Bank and St. Eustatius, fish ecologist Twan Stoffers and his colleagues recorded 126 different shark sightings.

Of the six different species recorded in this study, juvenile Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) and nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) were most commonly recorded.  Overall, they observed young sharks in shallow, more complex areas of the reef, whereas the larger, more mature, sharks were observed further away from the reef in deeper habitats up to 65 meter depth. Larger nurse sharks were frequently recorded in seagrass beds. The researchers were surprised that hardly any adults were observed over the course of the entire study.

Implications

This knowledge could have an important impact on conservation strategies for reef sharks and other endangered shark species. Since reef sharks use a variety of different habitats (both shallow and deeper water areas), creating an interconnected conservation network is vital for ensuring full protection throughout their life cycle.  Sanctuaries such as the Yarari Sanctuary (which includes the marine area around the Caribbean Netherlands) are an important step in creating a network of protected areas.  In addition, efforts such as the Caribbean Shark Coalition are important as well, because they work to build capacity for shark and ray research, policy and conservation within the Wider Caribbean Region.

Report your sightings

You can help contribute to the overall understanding of sharks and other species by reporting your nature sightings on sightings and photos on DutchCaribbean.Observation.org or download the free apps (iPhone (iObs) & Android (ObsMapp)).

Species reports by local communities and tourists are invaluable for nature conservation efforts to help increase public awareness and overall species protection.

DCNA, Observation International and Naturalis Biodiversity Center are working together to develop on automated species identification app for your phone for all species on land and in sea. Your uploaded photos are of great value to make this possible. For questions, please contact research@DCNAnature.org

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