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The fluke of a male sperm whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

October 30, 2002
Surrounded by Whales and Dolphins
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

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

The first couple of days out on a research leg are always a shock to the system, the roll of the boat, the confined space and of course the 'watch' schedule-a grim lottery at best. Whoever draws the dreaded midnight to 6am watches wakes in the morning with a groan of half hearted protest. None of us is ever able to get used to being awakened from a deep sleep in the early hours especially when we've been with whales all that day to say nothing of the previous two days.

Yesterday morning we reached the northern edge of the Seychelles Bank and by 5am had deployed the acoustic array. It was less than twelve hours since we had left port, and less than two hours later, we had heard our first sperm whale sounds, and within four hours had taken our first biopsy sample-a promising start to this, our fourth research leg, in the region. Such a flying start also provided enough motivation to disperse the fog that hangs over every crew member that is trying to adjust to a new watch schedule.

We are currently working in deep ocean water north of Mahe island, between Denis and Bird islands. The fast flowing current between these two islands combined with the upwelling of nutrients along the steeply rising wall of the bank, makes this an ideal feeding area for sperm whales and a number of other marine species.

Risso's dolphins are easy to recognize because of their rounded head and scratches all over their body.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Today we had a unique encounter with Melon-headed whales. The widely dispersed pod was made up of roughly 200 animals. Relatively little is known about this 7-9 foot long cetacean that tends to prefer the deep waters of the tropics and is traditionally wary of boats. . We spotted the black, rounded heads of these small whales as they accompanied Odyssey at a leisurely pace 'and spy-hopped' around us in every direction-looking us over, I suppose.. The speakers that broadcast all the sounds the hydrophones pick up flooded the pilothouse with their clicks and squeals-sounds so loud they masked the clicks of the sperm whales we were trying to track. It was actually a relief when they finally departed and we could once again focus our efforts on the sperm whales .

Although none came to the surface at the same moment we began tracking three sperm whales that we guessed to be males due to their impressive size and preference for solitude.

By mid-afternoon we spotted a large group of dolphins in the distance. Several approached Odyssey, others breached and slapped their tails. From their rounded heads and whitish appearance, we could immediately recognize them as Risso's dolphins. (The white coloring is a result of extensive scarring-presumably from two causes. Scars on their heads presumably come from their many battles with the squid they eat. Scars elsewhere on the body are probably from fights with each other. Although they have no teeth in the top jaw and only 4 - 14 pairs in the lower, these dolphins manage to inflict deep and heavy scratches on each other's bodies, resulting in the older animals having a distinctly battered appearance. Although like all Risso's dolphins but unlike most other dolphin species, they did not ride the bow wave of the Odyssey, However, many swam alongside us and followed in our wake. Curiously, several animals stopped together, formed small groups and then dove in unison. They then surfaced tail first, their flukes gently swinging back and forth in the air for several seconds. ,It was a humorous sight to watch 6 or 7 animals "waving at us" as we sailed by. Once we had passed them, they would immediately resume swimming in an apparent effort to stay with the boat. Although we have seen this species frequently, none of us had ever witnessed this kind of behavior before.

This group of Risso's dolphins put their tails in the air on a number of occasions and seemed to wave at us as we sailed by. This behavior has never been witnessed before by any of the Odyssey crew.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Yesterday, the sperm whales eluded us for most of the day, usually diving too far out of range for us to collect a small biopsy tissue sample from them. But the seas are calm, the trade winds have finally ceased and the crew must now only contend with a pleasant breeze and a few localized squalls-perfect weather in which to study whales.

Last night we encountered a second, larger cluster of sperm whales. We are tracking and collecting data twenty-four hours a day now. With such agreeable conditions we have managed to stay with a group of twelve whales all day. It is now sunset and all of us, though exhilarated look tired and a bit worse for wear (Our work on deck is finished for the day, but now all of our equipment must be packed away, the data collated and stored and reports written, not to mention the slightly more complicated task of tracking the whales through the night.

For now, we're exhausted and will sleep soundly between our night watches-while anticipating an early start at sunrise and a line of sperm whales blowing delicate plumes of spray off our bow.


Log by Genevieve Johnson

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