29.01.2019 – Foragers on the high seas
As we left the marina of Calheta this morning, our vigia Carlos informed us of a dispersed group of Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) hunting 6 nautical miles off the coast of Jardim do Mar. While the waters outside the marina were virtually placid, conditions further out at sea were rather choppy making it difficult for our crew at sea to locate the animals. Sperm whales, however, don’t mind windy seas and we finally found two individuals of the herd in our search area. Unfortunately for us, the animals were more interested in the large cephalopods lurking in the deep than their eager spectators at the surface and both animals lifted their enormous flukes to engage headfirst into the dark ocean as we approached them.
We decided to continue our search on calmer seas and headed back to the waters outside Calheta, hoping to find a group of dolphins. While our search for more cetaceans turned out to be unsuccessful, we managed to see a small raft of foraging Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus puffinus). The Manx shearwaters are one of several marine birds from the charismatic Tubenose (Procellariiformes) family that visit the island of Madeira. All Tubenoses are highly pelagic, monogamous birds who annually return to their mate during the breeding season before becoming dedicated parents to a single offspring, to whom both parents carefully tend to.
The fact that all Tubenoses only have one chick per year makes them one of the most vulnerable bird taxa that used to face high levels of persecution on the Madeiran archipelago back in the day and now suffer from the effects of fishing activity, light pollution, habitat destruction and invasive species such as rats, cats and livestock. The establishment of natural parks on the island and active conservation measures to protect the colonies have proven to be quite successful, with several populations gradually recovering. This fortunate turn of events enables us to meet some of these impressive species out at sea during different times of the year.
The Manx shearwaters, for one, are estival breeders in Madeira and can be encountered between the months of January and July in scattered rafts, sometimes in the company of other marine bird species. They also happen to be one of the most long-lived birds within the family with the oldest animal on record boasting an age of 55 years! Of course with age, comes wisdom and experience in energy efficient flight, social skills and hunting strategies. Makes us wonder how old the hunting shearwaters we encountered today were, as they comically stuck their heads into the water, searching for prey.
By Paula Thake
Sightings of the day
10:00 Sperm whales