A pilot whale spy hopping.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson
April 11, 2002
Who is Watching Whom?
This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey as we sail around Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia.
We are leaving the rough waters of the Southern Ocean behind and are heading north toward the more hospitable sea conditions offered by the Indian Ocean.
Our last two weeks surveying the old whaling grounds off the continental shelf 30-50 miles south
of the town of Albany, have been extremely successful. No one had surveyed this area since
the conclusion of whaling, so we were uncertain as to whether any sperm whales had endured the whaling era,
we have now learned that there is indeed a surviving and hopefully growing population.
Apart from sperm whales, pilot whales have also become a familiar sight for the Odyssey crew. We encounter
these sleek black animals on a regular basis. We see them moving in schools or clans made up of several
hundred animals consisting of individuals of both sexes and all ages. Weighing up to 3 tons, the largest individuals may reach
20 feet in length. Instantly recognizable by their bulging foreheads: a giant acoustic lens filled with oil, which long ago caused fishermen to call them
"potheads", they also have long flexible flippers and elegant dove grey patches on their throats and backs.
Our usual encounters with these animals are relatively brief, they approach the boat to a safe distance of a few hundred meters,
and then move off, leaving us longing for their return.
The primary food of the pilot whale is small squid that congregate in incalculable numbers
in deep water, usually well away from the shoreline. As this is also the preferred hunting
ground of the sperm whale and where the Odyssey tends to spend the majority of its time at sea,
this is the most likely explanation for the frequency with which we encounter pilot whales.
A Pilot whale porpoising towards the Odyssey.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson
Yesterday's meeting, however, was a little different from most. We were heading toward a sperm whale blow almost 1500 meters away,
when at 400 meters off the starboard bow we spotted a hoard of pilot whales porpoising at top speed toward Odyssey.
These animals were spread over 180 degrees and our estimates put their number at over 150 animals. The sperm whale in
the distance was our main priority, so we continued on, past the black mass of small whales, which slowly began to fall
behind. But they followed diligently in our wake.
This behavior was unexpected as we had never before experienced such interest from pilot whales, but what occurred next was even more astounding.
The sperm whale off our bow had sounded, signaling the beginning of a dive that may last for an hour or more. We slowed the boat to an idle,
turned off the engine and began to record the loud echolocation clicks of the sperm whale that had now begun its hunt. Meanwhile, the pilot
whales immediately picked up the pace and were advancing rapidly. Some were bursting through the faces of waves in what appeared to be an
all out effort to catch up with us.
The entire crew were on deck and within a few minutes the whales were upon us, surrounding the Odyssey entirely within very
close proximity. And then the whales began to 'spy hop'- raising
their heads vertically out of the water, 50Š100 heads bobbing up and down like black balloons.
The primary function of such behavior is to enable the animals to inspect what is going on above
the surface, in this case, a sailboat full of people. It was interesting to note that when these animals
lifted their heads, they did so with their throats facing the boat, indicating that they probably have
binocular vision. Sperm whales, whose vision horizontally is blocked by their huge noses, do the same
thing. We often see them rolling on their sides so as to bring one eye above the waterÕs surface when
near Odyssey as well as spy-hopping with their heads in a vertical posture.
During this whole time, the pilot whales appeared relaxed One animal swam on its back at the surface
blowing bubbles and spitting streams of water. This continued for almost an hour by which time our sperm whale had resurfaced and it was time to
leave the pilot whales and join him. Finally, we parted company.
A Blue whale crosses the bow of the Odyssey.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson
The following morning as we sailed north, we sighted another whale that has become more familiar to us since entering Western Australian waters.
No more than 150 meters off our port beam was the towering blow of an enormous Blue whale. We had no idea how long it had been there, but it did
not appear to be perturbed in the slightest by our presence. Perhaps this was because our engine was off. We rolled the jib and centred the mainsail,
which slowed us to 2 knots. The whale dove, and then reappeared off our bow, It headed directly toward us and then passed in front of us twice only
a few feet away. It was almost as though we were a car stationed at a railway crossing watching her enormous body sweep by like a slow moving freight
train. It appeared as though she had chosen to investigate our vessel. Once again, as with the pilot whales, we were wondering who was looking at whom?
It is overwhelming experiences like these that make us wonder what our interactions with whales around the world could be like if
given a chance to interact peacefully with humans. Perhaps cetaceans would choose to seek our company on their own terms more often.
Log by Genevieve Johnson