Marine mammals are among the top predators in the Exuma Sound, diving deep to target fish and squid living within the twilight zone. However, the full range of species that occur here is still unknown, as is their behavior in an environment that is free from sonar and heavy boat traffic. Comparing behavior in this relatively pristine environment to nearby regions more affected by anthropogenic stressors is of interest to the US Navy and others, particularly as deep-diving whales are among the most likely to strand after intense sonar activity.
Preliminary surveys have shown that poorly studied marine mammals of conservation interest occur in Exuma Sound,
including Blainville’s, Cuvier’s, and Gervais beaked whales, pilot whales, dwarf sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, killer whales, and more. While these species have been studied elsewhere in the western Atlantic, our knowledge of them in the southeastern Bahamas is entirely lacking. Thus, documenting sightings and understanding the role that these species play in the ecosystem can support the placement of marine protected areas in the future and help us better mitigate anthropogenic disturbance. To do so, we intent to conduct a series of projects that shed light on the following:
Using Cutting Edge Technology to Uncover Whale Hotspots
How can new technology be used to identify important whale habitat? Through the use of a fixed- wing drone and a side-scan sonar, we can greatly increase our search area in finding these animals and locating important foraging habitats throughout the Exuma Sound.
Seasonality & Migratory Behaviors
When and how far do these species travel? Are they Bahamian residents? What are critical habitats for them in the Exuma Sound? What environmental variables predict their occurrence here?
Trophic Ecology & Nutrient Transport
What are the dominant prey species for cetaceans in Exuma Sound, and what role do marine mammals occupy in the pelagic food web? Further, what role do pelagic marine mammals play in the transport of nutrients from deep waters to the surface?
What characterizes natural diving behavior in beaked whales and how are those behaviors impacted by sonar activities on the US Naval Range in the Tongue of the Ocean (“AUTEC”) compared to the Exuma Sound?