DoE: Large marine animal sightings a welcome sign

Whales, sixgill shark thrill

Recent sightings of a sperm whale and its calf, and a large sixgill shark, surfacing in local waters are encouraging signs that demonstrates Cayman’s rich diversity, the Department of Environment’s Tim Austin has said.

Austin, speaking with the Cayman Compass on Wednesday about the two sightings, said he was pleased to see the public’s excitement about the diversity of Cayman’s marine environment.

“We do have a great diversity of animals and species here,” he said. “So it’s nice that people get to see them and that they are there and they are not driven away by constant activity, shipping, development, or the things that have impacted these types of species in other areas of the Caribbean.”

The two whales were spotted off Seven Mile Beach last week. Their casual swim was captured on video by Grant Jackson and was posted online by Red Sail Cayman.

Austin said whales are not an unusual sight in local waters, but seeing a sperm whale and a calf together is a rare occasion.

“I think any whale sighting is probably very special, and typically a mom and a calf together is even more of a unique and very fortunate thing to be able to get to see, especially as close as the people were with the video that I saw,” he said.

Austin said he believes anything that highlights how incredible the marine environment is around Cayman and in the Caribbean is very important.

“It’s encouraging to see this and to see that there are whales out there and using our waters,” he added.

The DoE deputy director said he believes social media has played a big role in spreading awareness and appreciation for the environment.

“People can now pretty much post something instantly and then it gets spread around. But I also think people are really interested in this stuff. So, you know, you forward on stuff you think is cool or you think is interesting – the unique marine environment, the unique species that you see in it,” Austin said.

The deputy director was also quite interested in the sighting of a sixgill shark this week since those animals can only be found in deep waters of 800 feet or more.

Most sharks have five gills while this species has six, hence the name.

Local fishing enthusiast Dominick Martin-Mayers and his crew filmed the shark. It got hooked in the end of their fishing line out at South West Point.

In the video, posted to Martin-Mayers’ Facebook page, the men could be heard exclaiming when they saw the shark.

In the video, the shark is seen flipping around as it nears the boat, then it turns over, opens its mouth and snaps the line before swimming away. The shark could be seen turning in the water and bumping close to the boat before breaking free.

The shark was a surprise to the fishermen as they were expecting a big fish on the other end rather than an apex predator.

Mark Orr, DoE’s chief conservation officer estimates the shark’s length at 10 feet.

Austin said sixgill sharks are not often found near the ocean surface and “there’s still very little known about them because they basically live in such deep water and out of sight most of the time”.

The first sighting in recent memory, he said, was back in 1987 when renowned shark researcher Eugenie Clark, known as the Shark Lady, came to Cayman and, using a submarine, found sixgills.

While Austin said the DoE has not conducted formal research on the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, which limited access to local waters and saw the barring of cruise ships, anecdotal evidence shows the marine environment is rebounding.

For example, he said, the DoE has started to see turtles nesting in beaches where they had never been seen before.

“We are seeing less activity on the North Sound, meaning clearer water, so you see more starfish. There are lots of things that probably tangentially are related to the fact that we’re not having such heavy use of the marine environment and it just goes to show that the environment can respond appropriately if it’s managed appropriately,” he said.

“It can recover, or it can stabilise, so that’s encouraging in that regard as well,” he added.

Austin is urging the public to report any unusual observations by emailing [email protected] so they can add them to the marine animal sightings database.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now