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Scientists estimated the bull sperm whale to be 50-60 feet in length. This is almost two thirds the length of the R/V Odyssey!
Photo: Chris Johnson

November 3, 2002
Moby Dick of the Seychelles
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

Herman Melville once wrote -

    "Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse, having nothing particular to interest me onshore, I thought I would sail a little and see the watery part of the world." - Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey while surrounded by sperm whales.

The crew onboard the Odyssey feel there is no greater adventure than to explore and research the 'watery part of the world' while sharing the results of our scientific discoveries with the general public. Today the importance of our commitment to spending time at sea was reinforced when we, like the characters portrayed in Herman Melville's famous novel, encountered our own Moby Dick, an enormous bull sperm whale. However, our enthusiasm of such an encounter was of course, for an entirely different reason.

After five days at sea, we have barely travelled more than 10 nautical miles, for the density of sperm whales in this area is incredibly thick. So far, the clusters of five to ten animals have consisted mainly of adult females and sub-adult males and females, as well as a few scattered young bulls. However, today was a different story!

The Odyssey approached an area consisting of what we believed to be six sperm whales. As we travelled closer to the cluster on a northerly course, we realised that what we assumed to be the fifth and sixth whales was indeed a single huge whale. The biggest we have ever seen!

There is no mistaking a mature bull sperm whale. They may reach a length in excess of sixty feet. Sperm whales are also the most sexually dimorphic of cetaceans. The females are less than two-thirds the length of males at less than forty feet, and weigh only one third of the mass.

The four females surrounding the bull were dwarfed by his size. The crew scrambled to the bow to take a closer look and collect data. The size of this whale's head equalled the entire body length of one of the whales beside him. His girth fattened to proportions that could only be reached after decades of consuming copious tons of food, while his wrinkled skin was the color of a grey slate, not at all like the dark brown animals we are so used to seeing. With barely a ripple, he sank silently below the surface of the sea. We could see his body clearly next to the females, his distinctive white hue a contrast to the surrounding sea.

We saw this old bull several times today, we were also aware of his presence even when we couldn't see him. There was no mistaking his distinct widely spaced clangs through the acoustic array, our underwater microphones we tow behind the Odyssey to find and track sperm whales. His awesome presence was well advertised. Most likely his intention was to warn any potential challengers in the area that this was his turf and these were his females. He may also have been informing the females of his presence.

  • Listen to the sounds made by the bull sperm whale.
    Real Audio
      28k   64k

Later in the afternoon, the crew spotted several blows on the horizon. We turned the Odyssey's bow in their direction, and a line of fifteen sperm whales began to materialize at the surface. A remarkable exchange of codas travelled through the array and into the pilothouse via the audio speakers. Captain Bob Wallace immediately turned on the computer tape deck to record the sounds that are believed to be communication patterns made by sperm whales. We could only marvel at the sound and wonder about their meaning. What drama was being played out between these leviathans?

  • Listen to the click patterns (codas) made by the group.
    Real Audio
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We turned off our engine and sailed downwind with the group who were drifting together at the surface. Our Moby Dick appeared perhaps a little proud and smug amidst his 'harem'. The females seemed to constantly change and jostle for position, while others dove and swum beneath him, perhaps in an effort to be closest to him. As they moved around him, he continued on a steady, unhurried course. The slow rhythm of his massive tail flukes beat at a rate of one stroke compared to every three for the other whales. Occasionally he would lift his head a little, revealing the true extent of his extraordinary length, and each time he did so, the crew gasped in disbelief as though it were the first time we saw him. His almost 20 foot nose was covered in scratches and scars, some so deep that the water gushed out of them in mighty rivers. These scars were presumably made during battles with other males, as well as when hunting his preferred prey, squid. This would sometimes include Architeuthis - the giant squid.

This bull sperm whale that the crew encountered was the color of a grey slate - not at all like the dark brown animals they usually see.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The crew was simply in awe of this animal, the story of Moby Dick played on our minds as we watched him at the surface. Impossibly large bull sperm whales are not an exaggerated myth. We all witnessed first hand that there are still creatures large enough to take your breath away and to set the pulse racing.

We can only wonder what this whale has experienced, where he has travelled and what he has seen. He is surely one of only a few fortunate, or perhaps cunning survivors of his age that managed to elude the outrageous onslaught of full scale commercial whaling. Today, it is estimated that sperm whale populations are a mere 32% (Whitehead, 2002) of what they once were before the days of open boat and commercial whaling efforts. Large bulls were always the favored targets of whalers and as a result, today, males in their mature form are few and far between. Unfortunately, Sperm whales are once again the target of Japanese whalers. We can only hope our Moby Dick will never cross paths with any modern day whalers.

With some experience as a whaler, Herman Melville was also an author of some foresight and was among the first to suggest the possibility of the extinction of whales. He wrote:

    "The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc, whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff". - Herman Melville, Moby Dick.


Log by Genevieve & Chris Johnson

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