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Dominica Journal: The Sperm Whale Project

March 25, 2013

Our main objective in coming to Dominica was to observe sperm whales in the wild with the benefit and guidance of local researchers and guides. Because of its is unique Caribbean geography (and bathymetry) Dominica is one of the few places on Planet Earth that you can observe sperm whales in an ocean environment near land and in relatively protected and calm warm water. For much of the last decade researchers under the direction of Shane Gero and Hal Whitehead have been studying a resident population of about 20 family groups that live in the region.

 

Sperm whales are highly social animals and, like elephants, form large family units made up principally of female family members with juveniles. Social units are required to share in the protection and rearing of young sperm whales as adult whales must dive to great depths to feed and youngsters cannot dive deeply for a number of years after birth. They are often accompanied by relatives who act as "care providers" at the surface while mom dives for food. Principally squid in the dark ocean depths.

 

We were very fortunate to acquire permits from the government of Dominica and get to sea with ground operators who have been part of The Sperm Whale Project team for a number of years. Most of the individual whales we observed were known to our guides and even had names and a family lineage which we learned. Male sperm whales come of age around their tenth birthday and at that point leave the family unit to join bachelor herds who travel the ocean mostly in northern climes nearer to the ice to feed and generally "learn" to be the man. Unlikely that male whales return to their home path in later life but studies of this are as yet unknown. Among the beautiful interactions we experienced we did connect with a near mature young male of 8 or 9 years who provided a spirited encounter (now posted) on YouTube on our channel - aleutiandream.

 

VIDEO: Whale Tale: Face to Face with Earth's Largest Predator

 

Lady Atwood and her two daughters 

 A young male uses echolocation to determine JJK's intent

 

Objects appear farther away than they actually are. 

 

Massive male Sperm whale nomad who showed up one day. Estimated to be 50 ft in length and about 40 tons. He was double the size of any of the females we saw.

 

 

Mysterious oceanic shark. Possible Silky Shark however rarely seen in these waters.

 

 A school of Short finned Pilot Whales!

The view from below. Sperm whales engage their binocular vision by turning belly up to engae both eyes on activity (like us) at the surface that seems unfamiliar.

 

 Pam takes it all in.

 

 The Team for our adventure

 

Sperm Whales are identified by the distinctive markings on their flukes. These are always caused by interactions with orca, pilot whales or in some cases cookie cutter sharks. researchers use these fluke shots to keep track of who's who.

Young male stops on the surface to further investigate the curious humans 

 Mother with very young calf

Females checking us out 

 

Rare glimpse of Pygmy killer whales

 

 School of 40 - 50 Pygmy Killer whales appeared and caused the Sperms to disappear for 24 hours

 

 

Up close and personal at the surface. Amazing!

 

 

Sperm whale "spyhop" to check us out

 

 

Sperm whales stay on the surface for about 12 - 18 minutes then dive to the depths to feed for about 45 minutes. We spent a lot of time searching for spouts and listening for echolocating sounds at the bottom using hydo-phones

 

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