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A Whale of a Project

Monitoring the presence, distribution, and behaviour of humpback whales.

By Katharine Hart MSc., Cathy Bacon MSc., Turks & Caicos Islands Whale Project, and Amy Avenant, TCI Department of Environment & Coastal Resources ~ Photos by Katharine Hart, Deep Blue Charters, under SRP #2021-12-29-26

The Turks & Caicos Islands Whale Project (TCIWP) is a collaborative project between TCI’s Department of the Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR), Deep Blue Charters (a private boat charter company in Grand Turk), and independent researchers. The primary objective is data collection regarding the distribution and behaviour of North Atlantic humpback whales within TCI’s territorial waters. North Atlantic humpback whales migrate annually from feeding grounds in the north to the warmer waters of the Caribbean, which act as breeding and nursery grounds. The objectives of the TCIWP include the establishment of a long-term humpback whale project based in the TCI, developing a consistent presence and TCI-wide data collection through dedicated surveys, and citizen-based science.

A breaching humpback whale is one of the most majestic animals in the ocean.

For the 2022 season, data collection took place between January 22 and April 6, with a total of 55 surveys on 38 survey days. Data was primarily collected through vessel-based surveys and in-water observation, with GPS data, photographs and videography for identification, whale behaviour, and environmental parameters (e.g. weather conditions, depth) recorded. Over the three and a half months of surveys, three species were identified: humpback whales, Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis), and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). A total of 112 cetacean groups, comprising 288 individuals, and 108 humpback whale groups, comprising 243 individuals, were encountered during TCIWP surveys, as shown in the table below. 

In the 2022 season, mother and calf pairs were the most commonly encountered groups of humpback whales, followed by adult pairs and mother-calf pairs with an escort. Less frequently encountered were single whales, competitive groups of adults, and singing males. This season (2023), there appears to be a notable difference in the first few weeks, with a greater number of single adult whales being encountered and fewer mother-calf pairs.

Citizen science

Citizen-based science is a key aspect of the TCIWP, with the submission of photographs by whale watching operators and passengers contributing valuable information to the understanding of humpback whales in the TCI. At the start of the 2022 season, the TCIWP established the Turks & Caicos Islands Humpback Whale Catalogue (TCIHWC) in collaboration with DECR for photo-identification of whales in the TCI to facilitate matching of these whales to other areas in the North Atlantic. It is exciting to see members of the public getting involved, and to share the excitement when interesting matches or information about the whales is discovered through photographs and videos. We recently received a match to a whale who is 46 years old, which holds a record of being the longest time between the first and last sightings of an individual humpback whale! 

The TCIHWC now holds more than 330 individual humpback whales that have been catalogued, 292 at the end of the 2022 season. Ninety-six (33%) of those 292 individual humpback whales have been matched to another breeding and/or feeding ground. TCIHWC includes images dating back to 2008 and re-sightings to all known feeding areas in the North Atlantic. To date, matches have been made to multiple breeding and feeding grounds in the North Atlantic, primarily the Gulf of Maine in the USA, Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, Iceland, Norway, West Greenland, the mid-Atlantic region (consisting of Virginia Beach, New Jersey, and New York), and the Silver Bank and Samaná Bay in the Dominican Republic. Some individuals observed in the TCI were matched to Bermuda, although Bermuda is recognized as a mid-point during the whale migration between breeding and feeding grounds.

This is a photograph of TCI-96, known as “Pinball.” It was submitted by citizen scientist Denise Marotta and helped determine that Pinball did not have a calf at the time.

Identification of some well-known whales generates a lot of interest with humpback whale lovers both locally and on the feeding grounds. “Pinball” is an extremely popular whale and has been a repeat visitor to TCI for many years. In the 2022 season it was expected that she may potentially be seen with a calf. Through submission of photographs by citizen scientist Denise Marotta, it was determined that she was with other adult whales and was without a calf. Pinball was seen in the following weeks as part of a competitive group of adult whales and later with an individual male, or escort. It was exciting to hear reports from the feeding grounds in the north that she was looking particularly large in the summer months, and hopes that she was pregnant were confirmed early in the 2023 season when she was the first whale to be identified with a calf on the Turks Bank.

While images of tail flukes are the most desirable in terms of photo-identification, the project also encourages the submission of dorsal fin photographs, as these can be valuable when matching whales. The image at right was submitted by Lee Munson with Big Blue Collective in February 2022. The unique dorsal fin of this mother with her calf allowed her to be identified as TCI-205, “Ventisca,” from the Gulf of Maine feeding ground.

     Identification of whales can also be made through unique markings, scars, and physical damage. The image at left is a screenshot taken from a video submitted by Michael Monfore, clearly showing unique damage to the tail stock of this female humpback whale. From this scar, the whale was identified as TCI-204, or “Angie”, from the Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador feeding ground, seen early in the season on the Turks Bank with a calf. Angie and her calf were encountered again later in the season.

     Even if you think your images may not be useful, please always submit them! As seen here, we can use them to help identify individual humpback whales and gain valuable knowledge about the whales coming to TCI.

New and exciting data

It is a thrill and an honor to witness a humpback whale using its powerful tail fin to launch themselves out of the water (known as breaching).

Since the submission of our 2022 Scientific Research Report to the DECR, a manuscript titled: “First documented humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) photo-identification match and round-trip migration between Iceland and the Turks & Caicos Islands,” has been submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for publication. This manuscript details the first reported match between Iceland and the TCI and includes information regarding the individual humpback whale’s (TCI-36, also known as na12473 in the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog) round-trip migration, which took place within one year. It was photographed in Iceland and re-sighted 88 days later, approximately 6,224 km away, in the breeding grounds off the TCI. It was then photographed in Skjálfandi Bay, Iceland, approximately six months later, 6,229 km away, showing a round-trip migration of approximately 12,453 km between the two locations. This manuscript includes an image taken by a citizen scientist, Lee Munson, who was included as a co-author. 

Watch, don’t touch

The Turks & Caicos Island Whale Project would like to remind those on the water that we are in the realm of humpback whales and we need to respect them and give them space. Following too closely or approaching whales can be dangerous and cause behaviour changes that could have long-term consequences for the whale population here.

Please contact tciwhales@gmail.com or DECR for more information on best practices and guidelines for interacting with cetaceans in the TCI. 

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank our captain, Captain Kellison Talbot, for his unwavering commitment and expertise throughout this and previous seasons. 

We would like to thank the operators and whale watch charter companies that submitted videography and photographs to the TCIHWC during the 2022 season. The operators include: Deep Blue Charters, Ocean Vibes—Grand Turk Shore Excursions, Reef Divers, Flamingo Divers, AquaTCI, Big Blue Collective, Salt Cay Divers, Dive Provo, Diventures, and Navis Charters. 

We’d like to thank and recognize the citizen scientists who graciously shared their images and videos with us: Aailyah Oudman, Ann Hawkins, Bruce Hyde, Bryony Rushton, Christine Hughey, Connie Dalziel, Denise Marrotta, Dominique Wright, Edward Wright, Jill Mumford, Jim Frey, Joanne Buddle, Karin Rödl, Kaylam King, Kelly Edmonds, Kyle Furness, Lee Munson, Lou Middleton, Mat Slattery, Melinda Volkert, Merche Llobera, Michael Schofield, Mike Monfore, Myhoa Bird, Nancy Johnson, Philip Shearer, Richard Langhorne, Roddy McLeod, Rosalie Bergeron, Shelley Jensen, Tasia Simons, and Tazmara Gowans.

Katharine Hart is a marine biologist and co-owner of Deep Blue Charters on Grand Turk. Cathy Bacon is a marine biologist based in the United States. Both are lead researchers for the Turks & Caicos Islands Whale Project. Amy Avenant is the DECR Environmental Education and Outreach Coordinator.



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