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A spinner dolphin.
Photo: Chris Johnson

November 6, 2002
Researching in Productive Waters
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

Researching in productive waters.

Over the past few days, we have encountered several groups of whales, both large and small, and as I write this we have an energetic group of Bottlenose dolphins riding the Odyssey's bow wave - their shrieks and whistles resonating throughout the pilothouse via the speakers that broadcast everything our underwater microphones hear.

A few days ago, we left a group of 20-30 sperm whales that included at least one very large male. After obtaining tissue samples from most of this group, we continued to head southeast along the steep 2,000-meter wall of the Seychelles Bank in search of a new group of sperm whales.

We did not have to wait long. That night Chris heard a single faint click on the array at 1am. By 2am, he had found the author of the sound, and the Odyssey was once again in the midst of sperm whales with animals in every direction.

The weather continued to work in our favor. We had sunny skies and a light breeze the following morning. This allowed the crew to be out on deck beneath the hot tropical sun for most of a day collecting data.

Genevieve and Judith stand next to the tip of a tentacle from a very large squid that was found floating near a group of whales.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Early yesterday morning, a spectacular sunrise brought all of us on deck before 6am, cameras in hand, just as Odyssey was inundated by a group of Pan-tropical spotted dolphins. They made several close passes, often turning on their bellies to eye us as we photographed them and took data. They seemed as curious about us as we were about them. And then, as the morning wore on, groups of bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales took turns joining us.

But the best was yet to come.

As more dolphins leapt in the distance, we stayed on course, diligently tracking sperm whales. But our apparent lack of interest didn't deter the dolphins and they soon surrounded us. It was then that Judith shouted from the observation platform "These are spinners!".

There is no mistaking spinner dolphins. They are distinct from all other species-the most aerial and acrobatic of all dolphins, which gives them a style all their own. Spinner dolphins don't just leap out of the water, they spin in cork screw fashion while airborne, sometimes making two or three complete rotations before splashing back into the sea. Can there be a more joyful sight to behold than a group of 100-200 of these dolphins all spinning at once around the Odyssey?

Although thus distracted, we reluctantly turned our attention back to the task at hand-tracking and biopsying sperm whales. As the day wore on the seas became progressively calmer until the wind speed dial rarely displayed so much as a single knot of wind. The surface of the sea became a mirror with the reflection of the Odyssey shimmering back at us - the tiniest ripples dying away to nothing.

The Odyssey moved steadily between groups of whales as they lay motionless 'logging' together at the surface. As we approached a group of five, the seemingly endless roll of an enormous back revealed another gigantic male. The huge spermaceti organ broke the surface as the smaller females moved cajolingly around him. As one of the females drifted toward the bow, she appeared to open her mouth. We could see the whitish coloration and row after row of ivory teeth in the open bottom jaw. As she came closer, we realized she had not opened her mouth at all, but that it was deformed. The tip curled upwards so sharply her mouth was held permanently open! Had she broken her lower jaw at some stage, or was this a defect she had had from birth?

A calf headed straight for the Odyssey, before it dove under the bow.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Whalers, including some we met in Albany, Western Australia, have reported the capture of large, mature, sperm whales with jaws that have broken and reset at right angles to their proper alignment. There are even reports of whales whose lower jaws were missing altogether. This means that sperm whales must be able to cope without the use of their lower jaws - an observation one must now add to the other great mysteries of the sea: How do sperm whales capture their prey?

The whale rolling beneath us seemed to be living proof that a healthy, functioning jaw is not absolutely necessary for feeding. This female was as fat as any of the others, indicating that she was not having any problem getting enough to eat. Also, the jaw didn't sway from side to side as it might have, had it been damaged recently. It appeared instead to be rigid, indicating that it must have been broken months or years earlier and had probably repaired in the meantime, though in such a way as to look useless for catching or gripping a meal.

There was a brown shearwater off our port bow that did not seem to be having any difficulty feeding either. It was pecking at something large that was floating on the surface. As we came closer, we could see it was long, thin and of a deep burgundy color. At 2 feet, 2 inches long and 4 inches wide (66 by 10 centimetres), it was the end of a very large tentacle that only a short time ago, had belonged to a very large squid. We have frozen it for shipment back to the United States where genetic analysis may divulge more about its pedigree.

The calm conditions we are experiencing are making our work at sea more productive since it gives us excellent views of the animals from both below and above the surface. In addition to the many Sperm whales we saw today we also saw a manta ray plus a large sailfish that swam lazily through a pod of dolphins right next to the Odyssey-his (or her) bright blue dorsal fin or "sail" fully erected-giving us a superb look.

As the southeast trade winds die down, this entire northern area of the Seychelles Bank is becoming an increasingly productive area. As we track the whales day and night, they don't seem to leave this general area. Instead they move in long slow circles, 20 miles in diameter - apparently feeding.

We saw another very large male sperm whale today. He was accompanying a cluster of immature animals that included a mother/calf pair. As we drifted at some distance from this pair the calf suddenly changed course and headed straight for the Odyssey. As we all watched in fascination from the bow, the little whale came closer. Was it curious to see what we were, or had it mistaken us for a larger whale? When it was about a meter from the starboard side of Odyssey, it seemed to have second thoughts about approaching our mammoth steel hull and, literally did a backflip at the surface-a backward somersault-that started it on its hasty return to the adult it was with.

The crew remained busy taking data on the numerous marine mammals species encountered this week. Anouk records behavioral data from a group of sperm whales.
Photo: Chris Johnson

This afternoon we left this second group in search of more whales along the eastern side of the Seychelles Bank, and last night we heard yet another sperm whale 'click train'. As we listened to the sounds through the speakers we guessed that this new animal was another large male. Females and sub-adult sperm whales make 'clicking' sounds while large males make sounds reminiscent of a ladle hitting hard against a large metal pot-clicks we call 'clangs'. We longed to witness the meeting between what we guessed to be two large males competing for females in the same area. Soon another whale became audible far off our stern, and then a third.

This research leg has proved to be one of our most successful so far in our 5-year global expedition. Has the Odyssey happened upon a sperm whale breeding ground? Only time will tell.

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


Log by Genevieve & Chris Johnson

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