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A Blue Whale
Photo: Curt Jenner - Centre for Whale Research

January 16, 2002
The Jenner's of Western Australia
  Real Video
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Log Transcript

Genevieve Johnson:

While working on the Odyssey during the haul-out here in Freemantle, the crew have crossed paths with another whale research organization run by Curt and Micheline Jenner. The Jenner's head the Australian Centre for Whale Research and are a husband and wife scientific team who have been working off the west Australian coast for thirteen years. They live onboard their Research Vessel Whalesong with their two young daughters Tassie and Mika. The Jenner's spend half of the year with humpback whales off Exmouth in north-western Australia and the other half with the rare and illusive Pygmy Blue Whales of Rottnest Island to the south. Their work is focused primarily on improving our understanding of the migration and distribution patterns of these two species in order to enhance the management of their fragile environment.

Micheline Jenner:

We first started working with humpback whales in Hawaii and were bitten by the bug - we love whales. We then worked in the San Juan Islands for a year on an Orca survey. Primarily, we work with humpback whales off the west Australian coast (W.A.) and that is what we have been working on for the last thirteen years. Of course in our travels up and down the coast, we have run into a lot of different species, a lot of dolphin species, Indo-pacific humpback dolphins, common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, while we also get chanced sightings of sperm whales. More recently we've been quite interested in the Pygmy Blue Whales that we have been seeing feeding in the trench west of Rottnest Island and even more recently feeding off Ningaloo reef where we are actually studying our humpback whales further north.

Blue whales are the largest marine mammal, the largest animal on earth, they can reach 30.5 meters in length and are just huge! They are fantastic animals to see in the water, while in the Antarctic I saw a cow that was eighty feet long and a calf that was fifty feet long porpoising through the water at fifteen knots, surfacing in two minute sequences. That was my first viewing of true blue whales, I thought this is fantastic and if there is any chance for us to work with Blue Whales off western Australia then we ought to do this.

The whales that we are seeing here are Pygmy Blue Whales. So they are the 'little' big guys. The 'true' blue whales, they say the maturity of a male is 24-25 meters and a female slighty larger at 26-27 meters. But, then the whaling records say you can get a maximum of 30 meters long and I think that is 150 tons. It's just an enormous weight, a huge animal. Their very diamond shaped, very torpedo like, fast [and] streamlined. They are built for speed. There is no sort or 'puttering along' in the water. They move very quickly.

Micheline and Curt Jenner with children Tassie and Mika.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Pygmy blues are slightly smaller. The mature length for a male is 21 meters and a female, slightly larger at 22 meters. But that is still much bigger than a Humpback [Whale]. Humpbacks are 18 meters long. We are used to [seeing] humpbacks, they are the clowns of the ocean. They (Pygmy Blue Whales), are one and a half times the size of a humpback. We get quite impressed. We have seen over the years now, probably 5,000 or more whales and every whale I see is like the first one I have ever seen.

Pygmy Blues that we are seeing off of Western Australia in the trench, west of Rottnest [Island], we believe are feeding. The first couple of years, we were trying to work out what are these whales doing, where are they going, how many are they, how long are they here for. It looks like through a variety of collections, we have collected fecal samples now, we have collected krill at the surface and had the krill analyzed, had the fecal samples analyzed and indeed they are feeding on the krill.

They look like they are feeding at depth. The trench is very deep, up to 1300 meters where we are looking for them and working with them. We don't see them feeding at the surface. There is another Blue Whale project in Victoria [Australia], and they see them feeding right at the surface. Our whales dive down and do these huge circles, feeding circles and they are not going anywhere in one particular place or one particular direction.

The Southern Hemisphere population of true Blue Whales was thought to number between 160,000 and 240,000 in individual whales. That was including 10,000 Pygmy Blue Whales in that figure. Now it is thought that post-exploitation and with all other kinds of things occuring in the oceans that there is probably only 1,000 true blues in existences and 6,000 pygmy blues. So the population we have here in W.A. is a small reminent of what was available in the Southern Hemisphere. So a very important little pocket that we have here.

Curt Jenner:

One of the biggest mysteries we have so far with the new study, is that we have no idea where they come from, when they arrive in the Rottnest trench and we have no idea where they are going to. Historically, Pygmy Blue Whales have been seen as far north as Indonesia.

What we are hoping to do is get these whales, just as they are about to leave this feeding area, and see which way they go. Whether they go south, west or north, it is anybody's guess at this stage in the game. It will be until mid-April [2002] by the time we get these [satellite] tags on. In a similiar population off of Portland, the whales are leaving the feeding area at the same time. Last year we went over with our humpback tags, trying to tag a Pygmy Blue, off of Portland, Victoria, imagining that those whales go up towards the South Pacific. What we were really quite hoping is that we would find and important breeding or calving area where those whales were focusing their time during the winter months. That would be part of an extended push to get that Southern Pacific Whale Sanctuary opened up. Unfortunately, we had really horrible weather and we couldn't even find a Pygmy Blue when we went over last April [2001]. We have got it slated to go over this April and hopefully our whales here will co-operate and we will find out where these ones go as well.

A Blue Whale
Photo: Curt Jenner - Centre for Whale Research

The testing that the U.S. Navy was doing [in the Bahamas] as I gathered, was the low-frequency active sonar, from what I have heard being in Western Australia where there is not alot of news about that sort of thing. But, what I gather off of the web, is that it is extremely destructive and damaging and it has actually caused the death of several different species of whales. Obviously we are quite concerned in that the area we are working with our Pygmy Blues, in Western Australia, is the Australian Navy's main West Australian testing ground and exercise area. We have voiced that concern to the navy and their response has been quite encouraging. They have obviously seen the sort of negative P.R. [public relations] and negative images that have been generated by the catastrophe that has happened in the U.S. off of the Bahamas and don't want to have any part of that sort of thing. So what they have done, is basically contracted us, to provide them with enough information, so they don't end up in the same situation. They want to know exactly where the whales are, in relation to their exercise area, what time of year the whales are using that area and how they can avoid getting themselves into a situation similiar to what has happened in the Bahamas. The are not using low-frequency active sonar at this stage and don't know if they ever will. But even the general 'day-to-day' stuff that navies do like detonating bombs and light amunition fire, is potentially disruptive or very damaging to a whale underwater and the navy is very much well aware of that. Because this area has been identified from our previous two years of study as an important feeding area of the blues, they are quite keen in helping us deciding and determining when and where they can carry out their activities.

[Our research program] would be very similiar in logistics to the Odyssey is used to working. You are working a long way offshore, in potentially hazardous sea conditions with a very large animal that could potentially upset or sink you boat. So you have to be very careful, you have to be very aware of what you are doing and you have to have a keen eye for either the weather, or the animals behavior or both - all at the same time. Logistically it is a challenge but something that we love doing and obviously [something that] the people on the Odyssey love doing as well. I quite enjoy it.

Genevieve Johnson:

It is not often that the Odyssey crew get the opportunity to work alongside other whale researchers. Having had the chance to spend time together and discuss our work while in port, we are looking forward to keeping each other up to date about our work, weather conditions, and whale sightings over the coming months at sea. While Whalesong spends time in the shallower coastal waters working with Pygmy Blue Whales, the Odyssey will be further offshore searching the deep ocean trenches for Sperm Whales.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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