The Sei whale kept a steady pace with the Odyssey off the starboard bow.
Photo: Josh Jones
February 23, 2001
Encountering a Sei Whale
This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea.
I had the sunrise watch this morning. The sky was clear and the water calm, and I had a feeling that the day might bring something special. It was Rebecca who first saw the blow-on her early afternoon watch. She described it as tall and thin-obviously the blow of a large, baleen whale, specifically a rorqual. As we drew closer, Rebecca could see that it was a Sei whale. Rorqual whales include the blue whale-the largest animal that has ever lived. The word Rorqual means 'furrow' which refers to the extensive ventral grooves beginning underneath the jaw and extending well behind the flippers. These fast swimming, streamlined whales were the main prey of the modern whaling industry and many populations are severely depleted or have disappeared all together.
Remarkably, the sei whale stayed with the Odyssey for the nearly two hours, paralleling from time to time both port and starboard beams, breathing periodically and keeping a steady pace between 4-5 knots, at times approaching to within meters of our bow. The Odyssey and the whale seemed to be accompanying each other... moving unhurriedly across the ocean, side by side. There have been accounts of whales traveling with boats for extended periods throughout maritime history. Whether our experience today was actually such a case, or rather just a whale continuing on its originally intended course, I cannot say. After nearly an hour at our side, the whale dropped behind us 4 to 500 meters.
We stopped the Odyssey and I slipped into the water in the hopes of obtaining a sample of slough skin for genetic analysis. (Whales, like humans, constantly shed their outer layer of skin, large pieces can often be found in their wake) Perhaps the whale would approach me! With mask, fins and snorkel, I imagined what I must have looked like from the whales' perspective, legs dangling below the surface in an endless expanse of gentle, rolling swell. There I floated, waiting, hoping, staring, straining my eyes, praying for just a glimpse of this spectacular animal. The anticipation was almost unbearable, I held my breath, daring not breath, less I scare the whale away.
Suddenly a roaring blow from behind, I whipped around, put my head down and there she was, emerging from the blue haze, head on, and about 30ft away. Then she turned side on, and looked as though she had stopped swimming and was observing me as intensely as I was observing her. Those few moments seemed to last an hour, her head, her eye and her long slender mottled body, moving effortlessly past me. I was shocked by how narrow and streamlined she looked below the surface. Then she turned, engaged her powerful tail, and was gone.
After the Odyssey had picked me up, we started the engines and resumed our course, and there she was, beside us again, keeping a steady pace just abeam. From the crows nest Chris and Josh could see her broad, flat rostrum inches below the surface, then a tall explosion of air and water as she blew, just as she broke the surface, followed by the huge girth of her rolling body. She had seemed as slender as an arrow underwater, but at the surface her enormous size was evident. (And to think there are two other rorquals the fin and blue whales that are bigger than sei whales.)
Between breaths she remained under water for between 30 seconds and two minutes. Because her enormous tail made a visible disturbance on the surface known as 'footprints', we were able to trace her path below the surface.
Although I was in the water with her a second time on this unforgettable afternoon, it was all too soon time to resume our course. We turned the bow in the direction of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. And as for the Sei whale? She kept the same course she had held with us, and we watched her intermittent blows until we lost sight of them far in the distance.
Log by Genevieve Johnson