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Visiting scientist, Benjamin Kahn (right) scans the horizon for the blows of sperm whales with Odyssey science manager, Rebecca Clark.
Photo: Chris Johnson

March 9, 2001
Surveying Whales in Papua New Guinea
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey. We are currently surveying the waters of the Bismark and Solomon Seas in North Eastern Papua New Guinea. During this leg of our voyage, we are joined by Benjamin Kahn, the Principal Researcher of the Indonesia Oceanic Cetacean Program, APEX Environmental.

APEX Environmental has been actively conducting visual and acoustic cetacean surveys in Indonesian waters since 1997. Benjamin's work aims to increase the protective management for cetaceans in South East Asian waters. For example, as a direct result of his recent rapid ecological assessment cetacean surveys in Komodo, extensions to the Park's boundaries and additional buffer zones have been proposed by the management authorities in order to protect sensitive marine areas for cetaceans such as inter-island migration corridors. Benjamin discusses his interest in sperm whales and his participation in our unique survey in Papua New Guinea.

Benjamin discusses his interest in sperm whales and his participation in our unique survey in Papua New Guinea.

Well first of all, the ocean interests me specifically since I was a kid. If you start thinking about 'open ocean' then quite quickly you arrive at the sperm whale. It's such an animal of extremes - it's THE 'open ocean' predator especially for deep-sea ecology. So I've been interested in sperm whales for quite some time because of their role in open ocean environment but also because it is an animal of extremes. It's an exceptional deep diver, breathe-holder. It's got the biggest brain, 9.2 kg on average. It does all of these interesting acoustic behaviors. It's highly social and it's got a very interesting social organization as well where the males are highly migratory and the females have 'nursery groups' which are usually led by the adult female in a very similar way to African Elephants. So with the sperm whale you can combine an interest in oceans, in sailing, in boats, which is also a major passion of mine, with a lot of interesting biology questions ranging from migratory aspects to social behavior, ecology, population dynamics. It's a very hard animal to study. You might as well study an animal on another planet really. Out of an hour, a sperm whale will be at the surface for about ten minutes. That's when you are scrambling onboard trying to get all the data ad everything done - ranging from fluke photographs to length measurements to biopsy darting and the majority of those techniques are photographic and totally non-evasive.

Being onboard the Odyssey is a tremendous opportunity because the waters of Papua New Guinea are not thoroughly surveyed at all. So, to be onboard on such a state of the art research vessel with all of the acoustic equipment aboard and the software, the highly qualified crew and observers that we do around the clock, it's excellent.

I focus on the surveying aspects of this Papua New Guinea leg. In PNG, we think that there are about thirty species of cetaceans but that is only a regional estimate. We know a little bit about Melanesia, we know a little bit about Indonesia. There are major knowledge gaps within the waters of Papua New Guinea. For instance, in this voyage we will be going from coastal areas with spectacular reefs to oceanic basants to migratory passages to deep-sea trenches. The deepest part that I have seen on the chart is over 8300 meters and to have that in such close proximity to an active volcanic island makes the region very special. You can expect to see a great variety of oceanic marine life - cetaceans but other species like swordfish and marlin.

During the first five days of surveying Papua New Guinea, the Odyssey observed and gathered data from three large groups of sperm whales.
Photo: Chris Johnson

There's not much known about sperm whales in particular. In fact some of the most valuable data is still the old Yankee whaling data that is close to two hundred years old that tells quite a bit about abundance and distribution of sperm whales in particular.

I take every day as it comes. I think that every day is exciting because we are going into new territory. But, the survey has been designed so that we sample a really interesting variety of marine habitats including trenches and migration of corridors, suspected migrational corridors, as well as coastal areas and ocean basants. So, judging from those habitats, you would expect to see quite a variety of marine life especially on the interfaces between the two. I am quite looking forward to going through the passages and I'm looking forward to the trenches, the deep waters and the steep contours. I think that is going to be very interesting to see how one habitat changes to the next and if there are any distinct changes in the cetacean community or other oceanic marine life. It's a very good opportunity to look at coastal oceanic linkages because that's one aspect of marine biology and oceanography in general that we don't really know much about and don't understand properly.

There is a major knowledge gap on the ecological significance of Papua New Guinea's deep oceanic waters. It is estimated that there are 30 species of whales and dolphins in these waters, but we have no idea of exact species, let alone abundance and distribution. During the coming weeks we will be discussing the ecology of sperm whales in greater detail, along with other species we encounter.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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