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This vile contains bits of sperm whale skin or "sloughed skin". Sperm Whales, like humans, continuously shed their outer 'dead' layer of skin. Whenever possible during encounters with sperm whales, the Odyssey scientists and crew pick up this skin from the ocean and store it for further genetic studies.
Photo: Chris Johnson

December 15, 2000
The Battle for Tarawa - The Rainbow Runners Finally Leave
Rainbow Runners:Part V
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Log Transcript

Two transmissions back I mentioned the meeting we had about whether to collect a few or our rainbow runners. There was another interesting argument presented at that meeting which was that we might not be doing them a favor by delivering them to Tarawa where fishermen await, and therefore ought perhaps to try to devise some method of driving them away from Odyssey as we get closer. Just how to do this fell under the same heading as the mice who voted to bell the cat but could not find a way to achieve it. The idea that had the most adherents was to turn on the engine and speed up enough to leave them behind. Well, as chance would have it, we made just such a trial yesterday, though without having planned to.

Even though when travelling we stop faithfully every hour to listen attentively for sperm whale clicks (the loudest of which can be heard for several miles) it had been three months since Odyssey found sperm whales and successfully obtained biopsy samples from them. This was weighing very heavily on all our minds yesterday and we were genuinely excited when we awoke (in the perpetually stunning tangerine light of another equatorial dawn) to the sounds of loud clicks from a group of nearby sperm whales.

And so we spent the whole day with the engine on, changing direction frequently and moving at hull speed around the ocean hurrying in order to cover the long distances between the far flung members of this widely scattered pod of sperm whales, as we tried to collect samples. But did this dislodge the rainbow runners? Not at all. At day's end they were still right there with us even after the Odyssey had showed such prolonged fits of mad behavior. (So now I know, by the way, what it must feel like to be a school of porpoises when you get joined by tuna fish and you can't shake them off.)

As I have said, we spent the whole day trying to obtain samples. But we had no luck at all. This herd turned out to contain the shyest sperm whales I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot) Each group or animal submerged long before Odyssey got anywhere near it, usually while we were still well over 150 meters away. They did this even when we were sailing slowly up to them in a very light wind with the engine off. This went on all day, and by day's end people were riven with frustration. But it was also yesterday that our companion fish gave us the biggest surprise (and gift) yet.

Near the end of the day, Jacob went fishing and soon had caught the next rainbow runner in our allotted suite of six. And as he cleaned it on the aft deck and opened its stomach he found what it had been eating... bits of sloughed skin from the sperm whales from which we had spent all day trying to get bits of skin! (Several of us have collected sloughed sperm whale skin over the years, and it is unmistakable.) Although they will not work for assessing concentrations of contaminants, they are very useful for the genetic work. So we washed them off, put them in the appropriate preservative, labelled them, and added them to our collection of samples. I mean: if it hadn't been for that rainbow runner, we still wouldn't have had any samples from sperm whales for three months.

But today, having lost the sperm whales to silence last night, we once again awoke to the sounds of sperm whale clicks and this time Reb got a proper biopsy sample from one of them. I am now trying to figure out a way in which we can employ rainbow runners on a regular contract basis to collect whale skin for us. Incidentally, about mid morning today (the third day since my last report about the rainbow runners) we arrived at Tarawa and are now anchored off the main wharf, just inside the reef, where almost exactly 57 years ago one of the bloodiest battles of the second world war took place. Our now peaceful anchorage would have been at the very center of the very worst violence of that battle. But we, aboard Odyssey have avoided such horror simply by participating in a series of formalities with the harbor authorities, which are, in fact, still in process.

And while we have been doing so, the rainbow runners have finally left.

So I suppose that while the quiet process of having or papers signed and read is proceeding, that beneath the placid waters of this lagoon, our rainbow runners, our rainbow warriors, are battling their way across the reef, fending off attacks by its resident rainbow runners.

And that if they survive those battles, they will be trying in the days and weeks ahead, to consolidate their positions, while hopefully being successful in evading the mysterious weapons deployed by human fishermen who think that it is they who have conquered this atoll and are now well dug in, defending what they consider to be... their reef.

So who does own this reef? Is it the resident fish, the newly arrived fish, or the humans? I feel that it is Time that owns this reef, and that every visitor to it no matter how long in residence here is but a visitor and should respect and accommodate to the equal rights of all the other visitors.

This is Roger Payne, speaking to you from the quiet harbor at Tarawa Island where the appearances of peace are probably covering violent unseen struggles between parties that honestly believe that it is they who have earned the ultimate right to this place.

Log by Roger Payne

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