I'm sitting in Douglas-Charles Airport's cafe, selecting my favourite images from the last two weeks here in Dominica on our special permit Sperm whale swims. Two weeks ago, after the first two days with no whales seen or heard, i was wondering if this year's trips would be a damp squib compared to my last visit in 2016. I needn't have worried. From day three, the whales came to the party, with up to nine individuals, from three "units" or families, cavorting together.
On the second week, the group had in-water encounters with whales every one of the first four days, and a brief Pilot whale swim, though, to give them the full gamut of whale watching experiences, on the last day they were silent again.
Interactions lasted from 60 seconds, to 35 minutes at a time. Some days we travelled from the southern tip of the island to the far north searching until 3 PM, other days we found them in less than an hour and were back on the deck having tea and medals before 2PM.
2019's two weeks are both full already, there are spots left in 2020. See here.
Next month, we return to Dominica to spend two weeks snorkelling and free diving with the largest predator in the ocean, the magnificent Sperm whale. Of all the cool encounters I have had in 15 years of marine adventures, being a few metres away from the giant eye of these super-intelligent deep-diving hunters is somewhere in the top five.
Over 20 different Sperm whale families have been identified in the waters around Dominica, and there are about 10 that are seen regularly. Based on researchers’ images, It is known that they have been using these waters since at least 1984, but likely much longer based on their life history. Sperm whales can live to be older than 70 years, meaning they meet a lot of other whales over their lifetime. It would appear that families have preferences with each other, and these social preferences endure across decades, suggesting that individuals can remember each other despite long separations.
Researchers think this social recognition is mediated by distinct dialects of Morse code called ‘codas’. Each family has a slightly different coda repertoire, but also share coda types with the other units in the Caribbean. Shared repertoires delineate socially segregated ‘vocal clans’ – collections of units that share a similar coda dialect. Units which share the same dialect associate and spend time together and units that have different repertoires never gather together.
In the Caribbean, the '1+1+3' coda type, which sounds like 'Click-pause-Click-pause-Click-Click-Click', is unique to the region. It has been used for at least the last three decades, and is made the same way by all the whales use it, like a marker of Caribbean nationality.
For more info on our Dominica Sperm Whale trips, go here.
Fifty-five million years ago, a group of hoofed mammals began a slow move from shore to sea, in time evolving a set of extraordinary features to thrive in their new environment.
Today’s whales share many anatomical traits with other mammals, but the unique adaptations of species such as Physeter macrocephalus, the Sperm whale, illustrate how organisms can transform over time as they carve out their place on the planet.
The sperm whale's sleek shape is well-suited for deep diving, this species' specialty. Sperm whales can dive over 6,500 feet, remaining under water for more than an hour. Sperm whales dive deep into the ocean for prey like giant squid.
Unlike fish, which swim by moving their tails side to side, whales and dolphins move their flukes up and down. Sperm whale flukes are the largest, relative to body size, of any whale. The sperm whale's flippers, or pectoral fins, help the animal manoeuvre through water. They also share bone structure with the human arm and hand.
In fact, the bones of cetacean flippers are the same kinds of bones as in the human arm, with an upper arm bone, two forearm bones, and hand, wrist, and finger bones. In whales, fingers are elongated and may have additional bones. The joint between upper arm and forearm is immobile, creating an effective paddle.
Among sperm whales' (and other toothed whales') most amazing adaptations is echolocation, the use of sound to locate objects based on their echoes−and a way of navigating the world that is also used by some land mammals, including bats. The whales use this ability to, among other things, hunt successfully for deepwater prey, such as giant squid, their meal of choice.
To create sound, the whale pushes air through one of its nasal passages to a pair of flaps that vibrate to create sound. The sound passes through the spermaceti organ (in blue, top of the skull), bounces off an air sac, and is redirected to the whale's "melon" organ (in yellow). Called "junk" by whalers, this organ contains fatty tissue that transmits sound, focusing the pulses in the process and allowing sperm whales to direct, or aim, sound waves.
The sperm whale's head is actually an oversized nose, which in mature males can make up a third of the animal's body. Sperm whales use their uniquely shaped nose to generate sound.
At the crux of the whale's jaw, the lozenge-shaped yellow portion (shown above, right) is the "acoustic fat pad." As echoes bounce back toward the sperm whale, they are received by this deposit of fat in the back of the whale's long, thin jaw. The sound is then transmitted through the ear bones.
This is what happens when all you eat is giant squid.
For more info on our Dominica Sperm Whale trips, go here.
Infographics courtesy of © AMNH/5W
Photo taken under permit from Dominica Department of FIsheries
We were recently at the excellent NAD Lembeh Resort to check it out. The dive guides are superb, the 2 divers per guide ratio unique in the area, the boats super spacious and well-organised, the blackwater dive is an excellent was to see some weird and wonderful juveniles, the camera room the best in the business, and the resort staff are impeccable. We saw numerous species of octopii, half-a-dozen species of frogfish, and too many shrimp species too count.
Here are a few shots from a 5-night private liveaboard charter we organised for a small group of clients. As well as the rich marine life, we took them hiking on RInca Island to see the Komodo Dragons, and to Padar Island for it's amazing viewpoints. The number of turtles we saw was impressive, and the manta cleaning stations delivered too.
In June we did a one-week inspection of Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve lodges and camps. At 55,000 km sq, Selous is the largest wildlife sanctuary in Africa by far, and with lakes and ecosystems created by the mighty Rufiji River flowing through the it, has some wonderful birding as well as huge elephant and hippo populations, buffalos, lions, leopards, crocs, a variety of plains game, and some scarce rhinos. Thanks to the river and lakes, all the lodges offer boat based game-viewing in the afternoon, and walking safaris are also easy to arrange.
I've just finished editing my wildlife images from our June site inspection tour of the conservancies of Lewa, and Ol Pejeta in central Kenya, and Mara North, Naibosho, and Olare-Motorogi conservancies bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Erroneously, some potential visitors look down on the conservancies bordering the Mara National Reserve, the state-run reserve, and think them an inferior safari destination. The conservancies are in fact the prime locations for wildlife viewing as they only have a limited number of lodges or camps on them, only half-a-dozen each, compared to over a hundred and thirty for the National Reserve, ensuring a much lower number of tourists and vehicles. There are no white minibuses here, and these reserves are the choice venues for film-makers and professional wildlife photographers.
Not only is the wildlife viewing superb, but the conservancies work closely with the communities whose land they lease, and provide incomes for many local families, as well as allowing grazing in times of need. The conservancies and camps have trusts that build schools, clinics, and develop grassroots projects that empower women and youths.
Ever dreamt of diving dramatic walls or coral gardens without another dive operation around? If you are going to Africa, Pemba could be the place for you.
A few shots from the varied diving in Chole Bay, from a macro muck dive to the big fish experience of Kinasi Pass and the numerous coral gardens,, there is something for everyone. In season the shallow wall outside the bay is fun too, and the west coast has seasonal Whale shark snorkelling. .
Some shots from a couple of days diving from Kendwa, Zanzibar with a 60mm macro lens on a Panasonic GX-8. It was quite the scorpionfish family festival.
Although revered by the ancient Egyptians in their religious artwork and jewellery, present on all continents except Antarctica, not many people know how important these excrement-eating insects are.
f ever you find yourself doubting whether or not you love your job keep this in mind; all these insects do is shuffle poo around, and eat it. Sounds pretty, well, shitty, but the dung beetle is so pivotal to so many ecosystems.
This is especially true among the great herds of Africa, which drop a staggering amount of doo doo.. Dung beetles are more than happy to pick up little bits and roll them around, distributing fertiliser and the seeds it can contain more evenly among the plains. Burying the droppings also has the added benefit of removing a food supply for flies, helping to keep their populations in check.
What's so good about eating dung? Well, African elephants have very inefficient digestive systems, only extracting around 40% of the nutrients from their diet, so there is plenty left for the dung beetles.
If you have ever been on game drive or even a walk in the bush you may have noticed these peculiar creatures, low flying with a loud buzzing sound and closely resembling a hovering helicopter. They always seem to be coming right for your face and somehow look as if they moving in slow motion.
Dung beetles are mainly broken down into 4 groups:
Telecoprid, Endocopri, Paracoprid, and Kleptocoprid.
Telecoprids roll balls of rounded dung. Endocoprids lay their eggs in a pile of dung. The Paracoprid digs down below dung and the Kleptocoprids, well, they steal balls of dung!
n relation to its size the dung beetle is not only the world’s strongest insect – it’s the world’s strongest animal. When moving balls of dung, a Telecoprid can pull around 1,000 times its own bodyweight – that’s the same as a human dragging six full double-decker busses along a road!