Melinda Bolt's Diary


Monday, June 27, 2005 Sunday, June 26, 2005
Saturday, June 25, 2005 Friday, June 24, 2005
Thursday, June 23, 2005 Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Tuesday, June 21, 2005 Saturday, June 18, 2005
Friday, May 20, 2005 Friday, March 8, 2005
Tuesday, February 8, 2005  

Monday, June 27, 2005 Today, my volunteer comrade, Patrick, and I were given the honor of cooking two local specialties for dinner. The first is a seafood delicacy—conch, which is the local sea snail (Patrick has just described it as looking like a tongue coming out of a shell). The second is rum cake, renowned for its rich, syrupy taste.
 
Our instruction was to hunt and gather the conch before we could prepare it for cooking. That meant going and visiting the local fisherman on the local dock and paying for the already caught and cleaned seafood! Patrick and I were both finding this meal an amusing one to cook, as we had never seen or eaten conch prior to this trip.
 
The weather was so windy today that it was too rough to head out to the deep blue ocean. After a short interlude with the dolphins at Rocky Point, it was back to shore to clean the boat and camp until 2 p.m., when we would all head to the community beach clean-up coordinated by the Sandy Point Junior Environmental Camp and funded by the Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey project.   
 
At the environmental camp, children between the ages of five and nine are educated on the marine environment and local marine mammals through interactive activities and education sheets. This camp is run for two weeks during the summer break and is usually attended, on average, by 12 local Bahamian children.

Sunday, June 26, 2005 When in the office compiling the data entry, all encounters are posted on a calendar. Yesterday was the most successful encounter rates for this month and for the past few months. 
 
Shark sightings have become a daily event in the water. They have been mainly reef or nurse sharks, with an average length of 1.5 meters (five feet). A dead small shark also washed up on the beach today where we camp. It was great opportunity for us to all get a close look at a shark’s features. Last week they encountered a 5.5-meter (18–foot) hammerhead in these waters, but we have yet to sight him. 
 
This place is very quietly inhabited and untouched from the commercialism of our world. I can see the benefit of having such a long-term study conducted in an area that still is some time away from large development, yet will see increasing pressures for tourism and population in the years to come.
 
It is a perfect place to sight whales, as the Great Bahama Canyon is within one kilometer (.6 miles) of the shore at Sandy Point and is 4,285 meters (14,060 feet) deep. If you head farther southeast, you hit an area called Cross Harbour, and here the canyon is only meters from shore. The advantage of this is that within minutes, you can be in the deep blue of the ocean. The canyon is also an important migratory route used by whales. 
 
A hydrophone is another research technique used here, especially on days where it gets visually difficult to detect whales on the surface due to weather conditions (usually wind and wave heights).
 
A hydrophone consists of two microphones that detect sound from a frequency of 0-20 wavelengths per minute. Usually the sound is within a 9.7-kilometer (6-mile) radius of the boat. Sperm whales are at a frequency of eight to 10, but pygmy sperm whales hold a much higher frequency of more than 200.

Saturday, June 25, 2005 We record six encounters today, which is a fantastic result for marine mammal research. Many of the encounters were while we were conducting a transect, which is a random path that runs through the defined research study area in straight paths perpendicular or parallel to the island. 
 
We sighted the large pod of dolphins at Rocky Point (situated south of Sandy Point, where we are based). The group size was 15 today, and the dolphins were in a tight cluster but very mellow and in a resting state.  Quite often in this resting state, the dolphins all line up side-by-side in a very straight line and basically stay stationary.
 
One hour later, we gained a fantastic view of three dwarf sperm whales (Kogia sima) that surfaced only 100 meters (330 feet) off our transect line. At first I mistook them as dolphins, except that they were a very dark gray color. They dove for 13 minutes within a minute of our sighting them, rose, and then went down within a minute to rise again two minutes later. We sighted them again 15 minutes later, then sequentially again in 5 minutes and 6 minutes.  Each time they surfaced within the minute, giving us adequate time to gain some great photos of their fins. 
 
Forty minutes later, we observed a different group of four dwarf sperm whales. One whale in this group had a fantastic marking on its fin that will provide a great identification opportunity. Sperm whales are known for their disproportionately large head, and the blowhole is positioned to the left. For the majority of sperm whale sightings in this area, it has been difficult to confirm individuals due to their short time spent on the surface, the lack of markings on the fins, and the inability to sight the flukes.  
 
A typical sperm whale will dive to depths of hundreds or thousands of feet and stay down as long as 40 to 60 minutes. They also spend periods of up to 10 minutes at the surface, shallow diving or “rafting.” Over the next 33 minutes, we saw these whales complete shallow dives and surface seven times.  Each time upon surfacing, they look motionless and a little like a harvested log due to their blunt and squarish head, but the color is gray and they have a very small fin.
 
Sperm whales get their name from an unusual shared characteristic called spermaceti (literally meaning “sperm of the whale”). Spermaceti is a liquid wax that fills the spermaceti organ in the head of these whales. This wax was valuable and used in commercial candle making during the 18th and 19th centuries, and later as a base for cosmetics (Source: National Audubon Society—Guide to Marine Mammals of the World). 
 
Continuing on with our transit, another hour later we had a very brief encounter with the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps). We knew it was a different species due to the shorter height of the fin and its position further back. This group was also a lighter gray with a pinkish color tone.  
 
The pygmy and dwarf sperm whales are among the smallest species to be called whales. They look very similar, but the pygmy is the larger of the two, and they both have fins that look similar to the dolphin. 
 
Our chief spotter for the day was David, the official Earthwatch photographer. He liked to think it was his good eyesight, but we all put it down to the number of whale watching and research excursions he has been on! Well, that’s our argument, and we are sticking to it! But the sighting competition has begun.

Friday, June 24, 2005 Today, we completed the data entry for the sightings recorded yesterday. This includes recording and conducting fin recognition on the dolphins. In eight years, the program has recorded 626 individual dolphins in the study area, which was commenced at Sandy Point in 1997.
 
We also assisted in making posters for a community beach clean-up to be run by the junior Sandy Point Environmental Camp, which is funded by the Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey. This will involve scanning the beach for rubbish. 
 
The day turned to lovely sunshine and calm waters in the mid-afternoon—a perfect time to conduct a community service beach clean up at Sandy Point. We put on the snorkel gear and headed south along the coast, finding interesting rubbish and marine life along the way. There is a lot of sea grass in the area, and this provides great habitat for the local conch species. The water temperature is extremely pleasant, averaging around 26° Celsius (79° Fahrenheit). Overall, the ocean was in pretty clean shape, although we still managed to fill a garbage bag in one-and-a-half hours. 
 
The evenings have become a very enriching time of cultural exchange and creative jamming sessions. The majority of the team consists of American teachers and students. Then there is one British researcher and me—the Aussie. Discussions are very interesting and educational. I might even be able to create an Aussie football team out of this mob yet, provided the sand flies let up outside!

Thursday, June 23, 2005 Today, we were given an office orientation. This was timely, as it was pouring rain outside. The heavy summer rains continued all morning. Needless to say, we were all slapping on the bug repellant as the sand flies were out in increased force.
 
In the office, we will be responsible for identifying the photographs taken from the day before and entering all the information compiled on the encounter sighting data sheet. To identify an animal, we look at the dorsal fin and match with it with catalogued photographs. 
 
I was asked to confirm the identity of the dolphin I encountered yesterday. I confirmed my dolphin observation was Tt88. Tt stands for Tursiops trumcatus, which is the Latin name for Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. I filled out an encounter form to record the experience.
 
This was an extremely exciting encounter, as Tt88 comes from the eastern side of the island around Marsh Harbour. The last time they had seen this dolphin was in 2003. 
 
Our head researcher, Diane, was extremely excited, as my observation confirmed her theory that there are some dolphins that travel around the northern end of the island and head south. They tend to travel either solo or in groups of two and hug the coast, as this is much shallower water and is a safer option. It is hoped that they then mingle with the groups found in the Sandy Point area. 
 
Further confirmation of this sighting was gained later in the day when we were out on the boat at Sandy Point and observed Tt88 at Rocky Point. The dolphin was in between the two pods of dolphins and occasionally mingling within the two. The group size was similar to the previous day, with 15 identified. It was at that point we named Tt88 as the Beach Walker, or Beachy for short. Our expedition was cut short due to stormy weather conditions, so we headed back to camp.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005 I had my first encounter with a dolphin in the Bahamas early this morning. As I was walking along the beach before breakfast, a dolphin joined me in the shallows less than three meters (10 feet) from the shore. The dolphin had a distinctive diagonal scar marking on its left-side dorsal fin. It was chasing needlefish in the shallows and swam parallel to the shore with me for around 600 meters (1,970 feet) before continuing south but heading farther out to the ocean.  
 
The official business of today commenced with devising boat teams and dinner rosters—important things must always come first! When you have spent a day out on the ocean, food is high on the priority list upon return. With no messing about, we had a boat orientation, packed our lunches, and headed out to sea.  
 
Within 20 minutes of heading south, we were sighting two groups of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. The groups gathered together and were closely knit over the 73 minutes that we observed and recorded the dolphin behavior. In total, we observed 19 dolphins in the pod. This was a very impressive number and included four calves that were incredibly playful and put on a show for us. The average group size of bottlenose dolphins in this area is 10.   
 
During dolphin encounters, there are a number of things that need to be observed to aid the research efforts. First, we fill out an encounter sighting data sheet, which captures information that includes species, group size, location, tide, photographic frames, start and end times of the encounter, and visual identifications of the mammal species. The next form to be completed is a habitat use data sheet. This form is completed every 15 minutes within the encounter to record time, latitude and longitude, water temperature, weather conditions, sea state, wave height, cloud cover, tide state, and animal behavior. 
 
While in the area, a large passenger/freight ferry passed straight across our path and where the dolphins rest and feed. The ferry’s designated path is actually much farther out to sea and has been agreed upon with the researchers and the marine transport industry. The dolphins did not seem too bothered, though. 
 
From here, we headed out to sea in water approximately 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) deep.  As the afternoon drew on, the weather started to get terrible and the water very rough, which made it very difficult for whale sightings. Even so, we managed to have a brief encounter with a dense beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirolstris). It was on the surface as we approached, then it must have taken a deep dive, as we were unable to find it again.  
 
We were all very excited, as dense beaked whales are rarely observed. This research camp has recorded 50 observations year-to-date prior to our arrival. The dolphins have only just recently been sited at Rocky Point, and a beaked whale had not been sighted for some time. We certainly felt we had had a highly successful day. 
 
In the evening, we were given a presentation on sperm whales in the Great Bahama Canyon by one of the researchers, Meagan Dunphy-Daly. This provided us with a great overview of the research findings to date, how to identify whales by their tail flutes, and the types of species sighted in the area.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 Well, 24 and a half hours of flying time are completed over a 32-hour duration. Jetting off from Miami International Airport was such an entertaining sight. The departure lounge to the Bahamas is in a separate area downstairs. At the foot of the escalators, I was greeted by live Bahamian music and people in leis giving away popcorn and cotton candy (fairy floss in Australia). It was a very festive mood and a very impressive welcome to the beginning of the trip.
 
Soon I was boarding a small aircraft and heading to the Bahamas. Almost as soon as we ascended, we were descending again—with a successful touchdown at Marsh Harbour, Abaco Island.  Once through the tiny customs office, you were literally outside on the pavement.  It was time to find the local Bahamian transport and arrive at the rendezvous point to meet the rest of the team. 
 
First up, it was a great pleasure to meet my colleague Vance Fergason, who works for Alcoa in Texas as an Alcoa Business System manager.  Over then next 30 minutes, the troops of widely varied ages and backgrounds started to gather, with the majority from different parts of America.  In that time, they were all given a great education of the complete Alcoa business, from refining to rolled and aluminum products. We had a lot of laughs over the American and Australian pronunciation of the product—aluminum verses aluminium. 
 
Our fantastic team of 12 was complete when the researchers arrived. The project is headed by Diane Claridge, who was born in the Bahamas and has been on Abaco Island with this research project since 1991. We picked up food supplies and then headed to camp at Sandy Point, a one-hour drive southwest. 
 
The island is surprisingly very flat and very sparse with vegetation.  There are thinly populated pockets of native fir trees through the center of the island, and Marsh Harbour is as its name suggests—a marshy mangrove area. 
 
One incredible practice here is if a crab happens to run across the road (which is actually quite frequent) while you are driving along the main road, the locals will hit the brakes, jump out, and attempt to catch the crab with either their hands or coconut tree bark.  It’s quite a sight when you are driving through the middle of the island!
 
We arrived in camp in time to be provided with an orientation and safety talk, and then we all settled in for the evening…to become a feast for the sand flies! They had come out to play after the heavy rain and were determined to ensure no one was going to rest or sleep comfortably.

Saturday, June 18, 2005 The time has come, the bags are packed, and I am now headed for the United States of America. Let the airport hopping begin! I start with Perth to Sydney, then to Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami, finishing in Marsh Harbour, Abaco Island. The longest flight is 13 hours and 20 minutes. The final leg of the trip is a quick one-hour-and-15-minute flight from Miami to Marsh Harbour.

Friday, May 20, 2005 I organized a meeting to share information among the three Western Australia Earthwatch fellows from Alcoa, and I created an article (1MB) for our company newsletter.

Friday, March 8, 2005 Here is a newsletter article I wrote about being selected to participate in the Earthwatch program.
 
Well, I was bouncing off the walls and the ceiling and found it very hard to absorb it was true. I received an email that stated: “…Congratulations! I am truly pleased to be able to advise that your application to participate in the 2005 Alcoa Earthwatch program has been successful and you will be heading off to the Bahamas to work on Dolphins and Whales….”
 
I had to read that sentence again….”Congratulations! I am truly pleased to be able to advise…you will be heading off to the Bahamas to work on Dolphins and Whales….”
 
It was hard to believe that the email was meant for me until I opened a link that listed all the 2005 Alcoa expeditioners—and yes, my name was on that list. My excitement exploded—a dream come true. Now, I would just like to point out that in this state, it becomes very hard to focus. Your excitement is overwhelming, and it just wants to burst from within you, so of course the first thing you want to do is share the news with others, so I did just that!  
 
Later, as I looked down the list of the 2005 Alcoa expeditioners, I felt blessed to be given an opportunity to share with 14 other fellow Alcoans. My Alcoa expedition colleague is Vance Fergason from Texas.
 
I am the communications team leader at the Pinjarra refinery and have recently been involved in a role that is building a production increase to the Pinjarra refinery with an encompassing approach to sustainability. This has involved educating people on the importance of equitable considerations of economic, environmental, and social impacts and opportunities.
 
Being an Earth watch fellow, I am now given the opportunity to more formally assist in conservation research that is improving our understanding of, and developing environmental solutions to, changing habitats and unique precious environments. I have a particular interest in the marine environment, so I am very excited to be studying marine mammals and the marine ecology in the Bahamas.
 
I have previously conducted conservation research of threatened loggerhead turtles with the Department of Conservation. This department is also well versed in the behaviors of bottlenose dolphins of Monkey Mia, in the Midwest region of Western Australia (WA). It would be fantastic to share some of the findings and learning CALM has discovered in WA with research officers in the Bahamas, and I look forward to facilitating some of these research learning opportunities between the two organizations.  
 
So with the expedition heading off in June, I am now in the weekly countdown to making a difference and assisting in the conservation of our marine environments.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005 Today I was informed that I had been selected as a 2005 Alcoa Earthwatch fellow.  I expressed my pure delight and excitement by spreading the news to everyone. I am really grateful to Alcoa for this wonderful opportunity to represent the company and contribute to our goal of building a sustainable future.

I look forward to sharing my experiences. I have already begun sharing the program objectives with those around me, and I think my excitement is spreading. One person is already considering joining the expedition and assisting the Earthwatch effort!

Photo Gallery


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Alcoa Article


Read an Alcoa article about Melinda and three other Australian Alcoa employees.go

Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
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Dolphins and Whales of Abaco Island


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
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