Andrews got a whale of a tale to tell ya! Print E-mail
Wednesday, 26 November 2008 12:04

(Source: Mid Ocean News, 14 Nov 2008)

BERMUDA whale researcher Andrew Stevenson has a whale of a tale to tell Bermudians - and, unlike many fanciful sea stories, it's all true

Mr. Stevenson, an accomplished documentary film maker, travel writer and children's author who has written nine books and made one film, started the Humpback Whale Film & Research Project Bermuda in 2007.

 

The goal of the project is to better understand Humpback Whales as they migrate past by Bermuda from their winter feeding grounds in the Caribbean to the colder waters of Canada, Greenland and Norway where they will spend the summer. By documenting the journey and behaviours of the whales using state of the art high-definition video (HD) and capturing their sounds and whale songs using an underwater hydrophone, Mr. Stevenson has shed new light on the previously little studied mammal that pass by Bermuda's shores.

"I started the project in January 2007," said Mr. Stevenson. "It's a three-year project to make a film about the Humpback Whales that migrate by Bermuda each spring.

"In the almost two years that I've been doing this I've changed the name from the Humpback Whale Film Project to the Humpback Whale Film & Research Project.

"I did that simply because point zero one percent of my time is actually filming the whale. The rest of the time is studying them.

"I've spent over 500 hours on the water now observing them and their behaviours.

 

 

 

 

"Most of that time is literally spent watching them, listening to them and then very occasionally I'm able to get in the water with them and film them."

Mr. Stevenson says the goal is education and said Bermuda is unique when it comes to whale studies.

"Ultimately the project is intendeds to broaden our knowledge of our oceans and to produce a 30 minute documentary for Bermuda's school children about our marine environment," he said.

"Nowhere in the world do we know about their mid-ocean migration.

"The amazing thing is that here in Bermuda, as far as I know, we are the only place in the middle of the ocean in the northern hemisphere where we can observe and study the Humpback Whale from a mid-ocean platform.

"So Bermuda is unique and that's why we are studying them here."

Mr. Stevenson said at one point there were millions of Humpback Whales in all of the planet's oceans.

But because humans had hunted them to the point of extinction there are now only around 70,000 Humpback Whales left worldwide.

He also said that scientists have tried to study the Humpback Whale in Bermuda before but have given up after only a short time.

"The reason for that is because of the inclement weather at that time of year," said Mr. Stevenson. "In March and April we can still have those winter-type of storms and so if you're somebody coming from the States for a month and you can only get out twice a week it starts becoming exasperating.

"But for someone like myself who lives here, I can extend the season to ten to 12 weeks.

"The only time to see whales in Bermuda is at the end of February right up until the end of May. I am able to wait out the weather."

Mr. Stevenson described the first time he ever had close contact with a whale under water.

"In April 2007 after 300 hours on the water, having gone out in the most awful weather, and not having one minute of whale footage and spending a lot of money on the film equipment, I was getting a little dismayed," he said.

"Then one day I was out on the water and there was a pod of dolphins. I got in the water with the dolphins. I could tell there was something going on with the dolphins because their sounds were suddenly different and their body language was different.

"I looked down below and there was this Humpback Whale. This whale found me and he spent two hours with me."

Mr. Stevenson said his experience with the whale, who he nicknamed "Magical Whale", produced more questions than answers.

"What did I learn from my encounter with Magical Whale?" he asked rhetorically. "I still don't know all of the answers to that question.

"It wasn't just a casual encounter. This whale sought me out and he spent two hours with me, at times as close as two feet away. Was he listening to me?

"He spent a lot of time just lying underneath me with his head a foot or so away.

"Then he was just dancing and doing this ballet and I wondered whether he might be signalling to me.

"This was a whale that was communicating with me and I just felt I was not intelligent enough to get whatever it was that he was trying to say."

Mr. Stevenson has made some discoveries with regards to the Humpback Whales around Bermuda. "Guess what? Humpback Whales are feeding in Bermuda waters. Nobody would believe me but it was a local fisherman who told me this. We've got a very rich area around Bermuda's waters where you have these great upwellings pushing up whatever's down below 3,000 feet up to the top and this is what the whales are feeding on. It's opportunistic feeding because it doesn't happen all the time."

Mr. Stevenson said it was previously thought that whales do not feed in Bermuda at all. But he changed this view by dragging to collect some of the "upwelling material."

"I obtained some of the material and took it to the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences (BIOS) to get it analysed to find what was in it," said Mr. Stevenson. "It was full of Copepods, Decapods, fish eggs, fish and krill. This is exactly what the whale eats. The BIOS people said, 'Well, you must have been dragging for a long time because that's a huge amount of food in there'. I told them I'd only dragged it for about 20 seconds and I was only about two miles offshore."

Mr. Stevenson has also been recording the flukes on the humpback whales he encounters.

Much like a fingerprint, flukes are identifying marks on the whale's tale that are unique to each whale. He has been able to match nine flukes out of 120 he's taken to a database that keeps a record of whale flukes with Allied Whale, the marine mammal laboratory at College of the Atlantic in Maine.

Mr. Stevenson has a theory about why Humpback Whales come around Bermuda. "Why are the whales coming by Bermuda? It's not just feeding. We know that when the whales go back up north they go to their same locations and same bays and whale watching organizations recognize the same whales. We know the whales maintain site fidelity up north. However down south when they're breeding there is no site fidelity at all. They just get all mixed up. So the question is: at what point do they get back into their social units up north? Based on the research I've conducted my feeling is that they are doing that here in Bermuda."

Mr. Stevenson held two lectures for The Humpback Whale Film & Research Project this week at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Mr. Stevenson is also looking for volunteers to help catalogue, identify and match the flukes on the whales he has taken photos of with the database of whale flukes from the last 50 years comipiled by the international group Allied Whale.

People looking for further information can go to www.whalesbermuda.com If you see a whale in local waters please contact Mr. Stevenson at 777-7688.

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