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LatestPhoto
A Map of the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

July 29, 2002
Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary
  Real Audio
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Indian Ocean.

Today, the crew concluded an exciting and successful one and a half months of sperm whale research in the waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). This morning we are sailing at a swift 7.5 knots as we leave the Chagos Archipelago in our wake to embark on a 1,100 mile journey due west toward what will be our next area of research - the Seychelles.

We spent a relatively brief period time in the BIOT but we hope to return later next year. The researchers recorded both high cetacean abundance and species diversity in this relatively unknown area. We collected tiny tissue samples from 16 sperm whales, the first ever taken from these animals in the Chagos area. These samples are an invaluable addition to our expanding global data set.

During our research, we recorded twenty six sightings of other marine mammal groups including bottlenose, striped, pantropical spotted, and Risso's dolphins, as well as pilot whales, orcas and two unidentified species from the rarely seen Beaked whale genus, Mesoplodon. With practically no information available as to the distribution and abundance of the marine mammals in this area, we are thrilled by the species we have observed.

Although the Indian Ocean is known to be home to several species of toothed and baleen whales, minimal cetacean research has been conducted here, particularly in the BIOT. One of the features making the Northern Indian Ocean such an interesting area in which to conduct research is that unlike the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans it is landlocked to the North, which allows no chance for whales to migrate to Arctic waters. Some experts believe that this may have lead to the evolution of unique whale populations-perhaps even to new species.

The humpback whale and the humpback dolphin are examples of two species that have been shown to be genetically distinct from other migrating populations of the same species in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Continuing research is revealing that the isolated waters off Oman - an area of ocean bordered by Oman and Iran, may host unique populations of dolphins and large whales that are resident all year round.

It was recently revealed that unknown to the rest of the world, illegal whaling activity by the Soviets in Omani waters in the 1960's, devastated the humpback, Bryde's, and sperm whale populations. Thankfully, Oman's unique humpback whales somehow managed to survive this slaughter.

In 1979, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared the Indian Ocean north of 55 degrees south latitude as a whale sanctuary. At that time, most Indian Ocean populations of large whales had been well and truly devastated by commercial whaling activities. The impressive Indian Ocean sperm whale populations had been almost exterminated from areas such as the Seychelles back in the 19th Century by Yankee whalers, and by the latter half of the 20th Century, modern whaling had brought all large whale species to the point of near biological collapse. For many years, the ban by the IWC (the International Whaling Commission) on factory ship whaling for baleen whales in the Indian Ocean north of 40 degrees south latitude yielded partial protection for some species. However, as the once robust populations of baleen whales in Antarctic waters also began to disappear, Japanese and Russian whalers began the search for grounds with more plentiful whales and they began to work just to the North of the main Antarctic feeding grounds. Thus, prior to 1979, hundreds of Bryde's and thousands of Sei whales were taken by factory ships along the southern boundary of the Indian Ocean sanctuary at 55 degrees south latitude. During this time, Japan repeatedly pressed for factory whaling restrictions to be lifted, and in the 1970's, the Soviet fleets continued to annihilate sperm whale populations that were not protected by the ban on factory ship whaling north of 40 degrees south latitude. The widespread slaughter included thousands of females and family groups together with juveniles.

LatestPhoto
Pan Tropical Spotted Dolphins bowriding the Odyssey.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Although too late to keep many intact social groups of sperm whales the creation of the Indian Ocean Sanctuary came just in time. It was created because representatives of the Seychelles government led representatives from 16 other nations, in proposing that the Indian Ocean be declared as a whale sanctuary - a designation that was adopted by the IWC and remains in force today.

The Southern Ocean, consisting of most of the area south of 40 degrees south latitude, was declared a whale sanctuary by the IWC in 1994. The main argument in favor of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary was to protect the Indian Ocean's whales when they migrated south to feed in Antarctic waters. Unfortunately, Japan has chosen not to respect the majority opinion of the world and the intent of the IWC's conservation decisions and today, continues to kill over 500 Minke whales a year in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary under the guise of science. Some of these whales are believed to migrate north into the Indian Ocean in winter. Japan continues to try to dismantle the Indian Ocean Sanctuary and to block additions of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, indeed her whalers object to all whale sanctuaries, and continue to mobilize opposition to any conservation measures they can. Their latest strategy in this regard has been to attract support within the IWC from small nations through international aid incentives.

For most countries, the declaration of the Indian Ocean Sanctuary has signalled a new era in cetacean studies and has since stimulated a great deal of research in this least known of the three oceans. Following an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) funded aerial survey, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (the WWF) funded a project to study sperm whales in the Indian Ocean by supporting a multi-year research expedition by the 'Tulip', a sailing boat ten meters long. Hal Whitehead led the research, and Roger Payne (who had been on the committee that founded the Indian Ocean sanctuary) was also involved. Whitehead had a student, Jonathan Gordon; together they created major new insights into the social behavior, communication, migration and mating habits of sperm whales. The research methods they developed during this project involved acoustic and photo-identification work and the collection of faecal matter for use in elucidating the diets of sperm whales. These methods set a standard for benign research techniques on this species that has subsequently been adopted by researchers from many other nations.

Since the 'Tulip' project, cetacean research in the Indian Ocean has continued to expand, and other Indian Ocean states such as India, Sri Lanka, and the Seychelles, have conducted their own research. However, as with cetaceans all around the world, there is still much to learn. Continuing support for the Indian Ocean Sanctuary will provide an increased opportunity for all cetaceans to recover. In addition, it will allow projects such as the 'Voyage of the Odyssey' to continue its innovative research, and to reveal important new information about the whales of the Indian Ocean.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

 
 
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