Genevieve captured this brief fluke from the deck using a video camera which left researchers wondering - is it a 'true' blue whale or a pygmy blue whale?
Photo: Genevieve Johnson
February 13, 2002
True Blue or Pygmy Blue Whale?
This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.
Yesterday, we were 95 nautical miles west of Geraldton, Western Australia when we first sighted the blow. A single massively tall column of vapour reaching high into the late afternoon sky over two miles away. The animal producing this blow was definitely not a sperm whale.
As we drew closer, we could see an enormous head break the surface, the two immense blowholes exploded in exhalation. The broad, flat 'U' shaped head then disappeared and was followed by a huge bluish/grey mottled back that rolled and rolled until revealing a tiny dorsal, finally the magnificent broad flukes of the tail lifted, water cascading off the trailing edges. As the whale slipped beneath the surface, you could actually hear the crew start to breath again.
It was a blue whale, the first of the Voyage, we could scarcely believe it, we have been waiting for this moment for two years now.
By blue whale standards this animal was relatively small at about 50 feet. It is highly probable that this animal was in fact a pygmy blue whale, a species studied in Western Australia by Curt and Micheline Jenner that is thought to feed in this area. It is believed that 'true' blue whales once reached lengths of 110 feet and weighed more than 200 tons, though no such giants have been left alive. The pygmy blue whale reaches a maximum length of 80 feet, however much work needs to be done to clarify the differences between these two groups.
Chris Johnson describes his view of the whale:
"As soon as I heard that Rebecca saw an extremely large blow in the distance, we knew that it was not a sperm whale. So to capture this moment for later analysis I chose to grab my still camera to take pictures because it gives us such a high-resolution image that captures so much detail. I immediately put on a harness and shot up to the crow's nest, a viewing platform 88 feet above the deck of the Odyssey. This is the best seat in the house. It gives you an amazing vantage point to view the entire body of the whale.
First Mate, Joe Boreland quickly followed me up to help the crew get a bearing on the whale and we weren't disappointed. The head rose out of the water when it took a breath and the blow seemingly shot up to the sky. It is important to photograph the head because it is one way to positively identify the blue whale. It was a spectacular view.
We won't know whether the animal was a 'true' Blue or a Pygmy Blue whale until we get the film processed in Perth but we can't wait for the results..."
The whale stayed at the surface for between 5-10 minutes before diving for 15 - 20 minutes. It appeared to resurface at approximately the same location, which may indicate a feeding pattern. As the whale swam across our bow, we were startled by the sheer intensity of the sound generated by the blow, a result of the impressive volume of air being forced from the lungs under pressure. Whales exchange 80 - 90% of the air supply in their lungs with each breath; humans by contrast exchange only 10 - 15%. It is impossible to comprehend the enormity of such an animal until it swims alongside your boat.
Originally, these animals were out of reach of whalers due to their sheer speed, however, whaling techniques were sufficiently refined with the invention of the exploding harpoon and steam-powered boats in the 1860's. This allowed whalers to target the swift rorquals for the first time, with blue whales being the primary target. Modern whaling allowed for rapid global expansion of the industry and by 1925 floating factory ships with their associated catcher boats could hunt and process whales simultaneously.
"Since the (advent of modern whaling), it has been chased as no whale was ever chased before, and for decades hunters of the seas have prized the blue whale as the mightiest game on the planet."
- J.T. Ruud, Scientific American.
Chris uses a still camera to capture this unique encounter giving
researchers an image with the greatest amount of detail.
Learn more about Chris and Joe in
Meet the Crew
Photo: Joe Boreland
Blue whales were thoroughly decimated by the commercial whaling industry, and it is difficult to estimate how many are left. All great whales swimming the world's oceans today are the lucky survivors, or descendants of survivors of the human war against whales. No species highlights this truth more poignantly than the blue whale. The fact that we were fortunate enough to encounter one of these highly endangered animals is put into perspective by this frightening statistic.
Antarctica was home to the world's largest population of blue whales, originally there were probably more than 200,000, present day estimates put the population at 450 animals, only two tenths of a percent of the original population.
Many challenges lie ahead and blue whales are yet to show signs of recovery in most areas of the world. The likely resumption of commercial whaling is a real threat as people may be tempted to exploit blue whales in order to reap short term benefits even though history has taught us that they are poor candidates for exploitation, (as are all great whales) due to a long life span and low reproductive rates. Other less visible threats are more difficult to document such as marine pollution including toxicants and entanglements. Though there is some cause for optimism, with increasing populations in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico and along the coast of California.
The future of these, the largest animals ever to have lived is summed up by the following quote,
"There will again be whales of this size if mankind is successful in conserving the depleted and fragmented stocks. I shall not however, be here to read about those greatest ones, for my generation has hunted down the whales and it will be my grandchildren's generation which (I hope) will see them return.
- Victor B. Scheffer, marine mammologist
So did the Odyssey crew see a 'true' blue whale or a pygmy blue whale? Stay tuned for more.
Log by Genevieve Johnson