Cetacean habitat in the northern oceanic Gulf of Mexico Academic Article uri icon


  • Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are diverse and abundant upper trophic level predators in the Gulf of Mexico, a semi-enclosed, intercontinental sea with a total area of about 1.5 million km2. The objectives of this study were to better define the habitat of cetaceans in the northern oceanic Gulf of Mexico. An integrated methodology was used that included visual surveys and hydrographic collections from ships. Near real-time sea surface altimetry from the TOPEX/POSEIDON and ERS satellites was used during ship surveys to determine the location of hydrographic features (e.g., cyclones, anticyclones and confluence zones). Archival satellite sea surface altimetry data were also used to retrospectively determine the location of hydrographic features for analysis with earlier cetacean sightings. We estimated zooplankton and micronekton biomass using both net and acoustic sampling to indicate the amount of potential food available for higher trophic level foraging by cetaceans. Nineteen cetacean species were identified during ship surveys. Cetaceans were concentrated along the continental slope in or near cyclones and the confluence of cyclone-anticyclone eddy pairs, mesoscale features with locally concentrated zooplankton and micronekton stocks that appear to develop in response to increased nutrient-rich water and primary production in the mixed layer. A significant relationship existed between integrated zooplankton biomass and integrated cephalopod paralarvae numbers, indicating that higher zooplankton and micronekton biomass may correlate with higher concentrations of cetacean prey. In the north-central Gulf, an additional factor affecting cetacean distribution may be the narrow continental shelf south of the Mississippi River delta. Low salinity, nutrient-rich water may occur over the continental slope near the mouth of the Mississippi (MOM) River or be entrained within the confluence of a cyclone-anticyclone eddy pair and transported beyond the continental slope. This creates a deep-water environment with locally enhanced primary and secondary productivity and may explain the presence of a resident, breeding population of sperm whales within 100 km of the Mississippi River delta. Overall, the results suggest that the amount of potential prey for cetaceans may be consistently greater in the cyclone, confluence areas, and south of the MOM, making them preferential areas for foraging. However, this may not be true for bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins and possibly Bryde's whales, which typically occur on the continental shelf or along the shelf break outside of major influences of eddies. © 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

altmetric score

  • 6

author list (cited authors)

  • Davis, R. W., Ortega-Ortiz, J. G., Ribic, C. A., Evans, W. E., Biggs, D. C., Ressler, P. H., ... Würsig, B.

citation count

  • 119

publication date

  • January 2002