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A blue whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

March 12, 2002
Seeing Blues Whales
  Real Audio
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Log Transcript

This is Roger Payne newly arrived in Fremantle, Australia, happy to be here, and speaking from aboard the Odyssey.

The crew has been seeing blue whales-a small population feeding near our position off the west coast of Australia. The excitement they conveyed to me when telling about their encounters was palpable-their words tumbling over each other. I know how they felt, for I'll never forget the first blue whale I saw close up.

I had helped organize a whalewatch trip in Sri Lanka, the first such trip in that country, and we were on a harbor tug from the deepwater port of Trincomalee. The Government Fisheries establishment had borrowed it for the occasion and we hadn't even cleared the harbor before we came upon blue whales and soon a large female rose directly in front of us. The captain of the tug cut his engine and we drifted slowly closer to where she had paused momentarily, lying before us huge and still in the water. Although by then I had probably seen as many whales as anyone alive, this creature made me feel I had never seen a whale at all.

I was up the tug's mast with an excellent view as it eased forward silently yard by yard. When you are very close to a whale and see it from a good vantage point, every yard adds striking vividness and detail to what you are seeing-the scene seems to be creating itself before you as color and contrast deepen, and modeling and texture start to manifest themselves. The whale is no longer just a dark outline but becomes a living, moving, breathing, creature-something not distant and aloof but present and alive!

As this transformation was taking place before my eyes, it was the size of the whale's tail that shocked me: I was completely unprepared for it. I had never seen a tail remotely as large. And as I gazed in amazement at it the whale did the impossible: she moved that tail flatwise through the water. It was simply inconceivable to me that mere mammalian muscle could develop the power necessary to achieve such a feat. If you were an engineer and had to specify a system to get the vastness of that tail to move flatwise through the water with enough force to push the more than 100 ton body of the whale forward, your blueprint would probably call for a hydraulic piston as large as those that operate the biggest cranes. But even then you might worry that the strain of moving such an enormous surface in the sea would cause the piston to flex and vibrate horribly under the load. But the whale moved her tail with such an excess of power and grace that it seemed an optical illusion-a magician's trick.

Now the Odyssey crew has encountered three of these animals off the western Australian coast in the past month. It was not the tails but the blows of these whales that shocked them. A large blue whale has a blow that towers 50 to 70 feet above it (imagine lying back in the sea and blowing a plume of spray upwards with enough force to drive it the height of a seven story building). That's what a blue whale does. The crew told me they had had to convince themselves that their eyes were not playing tricks on them.

A blue whale feeding.
Photo: Courtesy of Flip Nicklin

But everything about a blue whale is on such a vast scale it makes one's imagination seem like some worn out, bankrupt thing. In a large blue whale the heart weighs about 4000 pounds (2 tons) and probably pumps about 60 gallons of blood with each beat. Its valves are about the size of a hubcap-a child could crawl through the aorta (the largest blood vessel leaving the heart) and a trout could swim comfortably down the arteries and veins. So here is a new way of studying the anatomy of an animal, by dispatching children to transit its aorta, or fish to navigate its circulatory system.

The big question, of course, is what has driven these animals to become so huge? That is a question I will try to answer tomorrow.

Meanwhile, this is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey.

Log by Roger Payne

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