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Kim Gruetzmacher processes tissue samples in the R/V Odyssey lab.
Photo: Rebecca Clark

January 3, 2002
A New Year with Sperm Whales
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson of the R/V Odyssey. While on its first research leg in Australian waters, the crew of the Odyssey were fortunate enough to experience New Year while surrounded by sperm whales.

Leaving port in 30 knots of wind the Odyssey sailed from Fremantle on the evening of December 27th. We headed to an area known as the Perth Basin, 50 miles due west of Perth. We decided to start our search here, since sperm whales tend to be found in areas where deep water and ocean currents meet steeply rising topography, creating nutrient rich upwellings. These upwellings are feeding areas for squid, the principle prey species of sperm whales.

The acoustic array was deployed when we reached deep water at 2:30am. The array is 10 meter long oil filled tube housing two microphone units, and is towed either 100 or 300 meters behind the boat. This array allows us to locate and track sperm whales, night or day in good or bad weather by detecting the regular clicks these whales make.

Sperm whales were first heard during Captain Bob Wallace and Emile Bennington's watch the next night. They heard the whales at 12:30 am and started tracking them using a computer program called "Rainbow Click", this tracking software is displayed on a monitor directly in front of the helmsperson. It was very exciting and rewarding for the crew to locate a group of sperm whales less than 48 hours into the first leg of a new study region, in a new country!

The group of 16 whales were tracked throughout the night and the crew were up at 6 am to start a day of data collection. The day dawned cold and wet, and although the wind had calmed down to 20 knots, there were many whitecaps and a lot of spray in the air. Once the sun came up we could locate the whales at the surface due to their blows, or exhalations, but would occasionally lose them behind large swells.

The blowhole of a Sperm Whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

These weather conditions however, were not enough to discourage the elated crew from gathering data. We managed to collect acoustic recordings and photos for individual identification studies. In addition, we were able to collect small biopsy samples from three different whales for toxicology and genetic studies.

We continued to track this group of whales the following night as the wind and swells increased, by the dawn of the next day we were encountering waves up to 3 meters tall. While this made working with the whales more difficult we stayed with them and contiuned our studies through December 30th and 31st, collecting a variety of data along with two more biopsy samples. As the Odyssey crew assembled on the bridge to bring in the New Year, the more typical sound of popping champagne corks was replaced by the reassuring clicks of sperm whales surrounding the boat.

On January 1st, 70 miles west of Perth the whales turned north directly into the wind and waves and conditions became unworkable, as the whales headed north without us we looked at our data and saw that the whales had traveresed the face of the underwater canyon for the past 45 miles.

This first research leg in Australia has been both challenging and rewarding. For some of the crew this was the first time that they had seen sperm whales, let alone had the opportunity to track a group for several days. This amazing experience more than compensated for the uncomfortable sea conditions.

We see this as a fortuitous beginning to our research time in Australian waters and hope that this coming year will be as successful as the last. So stay tuned!


Log by Rebecca Clark & Iain Kerr

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