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Visiting scientist, Dr. Frank Bonaccorso, is the Chief Curator of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery.
Photo: Chris Johnson

March 12, 2001
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Garove Island in the Bismarck sea, Papua New Guinea. We are extremely fortunate to have Dr. Frank Bonaccorso join the Odyssey for this leg. Dr. Bonaccorso is Chief Curator of Natural History at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery. A Naturalist, who has specialized in the study of bats since 1971, resulting in over 25 publications. he is most enthusiastic about being a part of the Ocean Alliance cetacean research in Papua New Guinea, as it is a pioneering effort in these waters. Dr. Bonaccorso is currently working on a manuscript entitled, 'Preliminary Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of Melanesia: Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises, and Dugongs'.

Although Papua New Guinea is a nation made up of six hundred islands and many people make their living from the sea, very few Papua New Guineans realize that there are great whales in the waters of 'PNG'. They may be familiar with some of the smaller inshore dolphins or dugongs, but they are very surprised to learn that there are big whales. They thought that these animals were from far away, something they learn about in books only. An index that I use to learn about how familiar people are with whales, is whether they have a name in their local 'tok ples' or language for whale. There are eight hundred languages in Papua New Guinea; most of these languages don't seem to have a word for whale. In fact, it took me quite a few days of talking to my colleagues at the National Museum before I could find one person that had a name for whale. Here on Gerove Island, where we are spending the day, people do have a local name, and that local name is 'Tiworaworakakulu', which is a very interesting sounding local name, as many of the local names are for animals.

For the last couple of years, I have been interested in trying to increase the awareness of people of Papua New Guinea for their marine mammal fauna. I have been working on a book dealing with the marine mammals of Melanesia in general, but focused on Papua New Guinea. During that research, we have been able to confirm that there are twenty-two species of cetaceans in Papua New Guinea waters, and that we think that there are seven additional ones probably here, based on distribution in surrounding seas, with records from Australia, Indonesia and other surrounding island groups.

It is very interesting that the Odyssey, in only its first couple of days in Papua New Guinea waters, confirmed the presence of a Sei whale, for which we had no confirmed scientific records before. So that's one less species that I have to go about finding in the future.

There are over 800 languages throughout Papua New Guinea, most having no word for whale. Here on Gerove Island, where we are spending the day, people do have a local name for the sperm whale - 'Tiworaworakakulu'.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Part of what I am doing in my general research and conservation awareness program, deals with the advocacy of marine mammals. We are trying to get groups like the Office of Environment and Conservation people more aware of what the animals are that are in their waters, what are some of the problems in regards to conservation.

Being onboard Odyssey has given me a first hand opportunity to learn a lot more about the natural history and behavior of cetaceans; by first hand experience, by seeing the animals, by hearing them on the towed array and the recordings that are being done, by seeing them underwater on the bow camera. So this has really opened up a lot more vistas for me and hopefully I will be able to do a better job of writing this book.

I might mention that in the past couple of decades, in fact, there has been very little research on cetaceans in Papua New Guinea. The presence of the Odyssey here, perhaps for several months, is going to be the longest study on marine mammals since the mid-1970's, when there was a national survey done on dugongs. Virtually no work has been done on whales and dolphins at all, so this is really a landmark opportunity and I hope that it's going to have such interesting findings that many more marine mammalogists will come back and continue the programs of research and environmental education with cetaceans.

Over the next few months the Odyssey will be surveying the waters of Papua New Guinea. We hope to gather further significant data regarding the abundance and distribution of various whale and dolphin species in the area.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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