Captain Wiljem Zitman: How to Identify Marine Mammals in Their Environment

February 6th, 2014

Last Tuesday, January 21st, a crowd of local fishermen, boat captains, and amateur nature enthusiasts gathered on the terrace of Casa Pasa to listen to former sea captain and naturalist Wiljelm Zitman deliver a captivating presentation on the identification of marine mammals in their environment. Capt. Zitman’s talk introduced the wide diversity of cetaceans that can be found frequenting the waters off the Azuero peninsula and the techniques that can be used to recognize them.

A group of spinner dolphins c. Wikimedia Commons

A group of spinner dolphins c. Wikimedia Commons

Identifying a fleeting whale or dolphin from the rocking helm of a boat can be a real challenge, even for experts. Capt. Zitman explained that there are techniques that are used to lump groups of closely related cetaceans together, giving the casual observer an accurate way to classify what he or she has briefly seen. Observing an animal’s behavior is one of the most important keys to identification. The Common Dolphin, like the Spinner Dolphin, is highly gregarious and often associates with pods that number in the thousands. Bottlenose dolphins and spotted dolphins, on the other hand, form smaller groups. Physical characteristics such as color, size, beak and melon shape, dorsal fin placement, and the shape and size of the blowhole all help classify these mysterious creatures.

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Humpback whale c. Wikimedia Commons

Capt. Zitman left plenty of room for anecdotal discussion. Several fishermen realized that what they may have been calling pilot whales were in fact, false orcas. Others grew excited when they learned that humpback whales weren’t the only behemoths they might find: Fin and Sperm whales, as well as Orcas, have been spotted off the coasts near Pedasi.

The audience grew excited and left the presentation beaming with energy and enthusiasm. Capt. Zitman’s talk undoubtedly left a positive impression on locals, as most of the crowd hung around afterward, eager to ask questions. Knowing how to correctly identify an animal and its behavior is an important step in its conservation. Hopefully these skills will be transmitted through generations to come.

Field Guide to Marine Mammal Identification

Capt. Zitman’s Presentation here (in Spanish), complete with descriptions of different identifying traits

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