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One sperm whale breaches in front of a group of six.
Photo: Chris Johnson

December 1, 2002
Tracking Whales Around Aldabra
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

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

The Odyssey crew is heading for Aldabra, an isolated atoll at the extreme southwest limit of the Seychelles island group. It is said to be a rugged, remote and arid atoll, where sharp, jagged limestone terrain and impenetrable vegetation dominate a landscape that rises abruptly from the ocean floor some 3 kilometers below. Why on earth would we be inclined to travel 600 nautical miles southwest from Mahe to survey such an area? Aldabra is described as an 'Eden', an unspoiled wild world that has survived the ravages of man over the centuries. It is one of the clichéd - 'ends of the earth' popular writers often refer to, a fragile living laboratory that is likened to the Galapagos Islands in the eastern tropical Pacific. An opportunity to research in such a place is offered but once in a lifetime, if at all.

Almost unbelievably, a standard five-day passage from Mahe suddenly doubled in duration thanks to the presence of 'Boura', a cyclone with an average wind speed of 90 knots. Earlier in the week, Boura decided to take a parallel course some 8 degrees south, but was predicted to head northwest. This would see us rendevous in two and half days just north of Madagascar. It was heartbreaking for the crew when Rodrigo, our captain and a veteran of 2 cyclones, decided there was no choice but to turn back east, we simply couldn't risk a cyclonic encounter.

We reluctantly sailed back over the path we travelled only hours before with such anticipation and exuberance. We hoped almost in vain that Boura - her course and been predicted to go northwest by meteorological experts for several days - would miraculously turn south. Adding insult to injury, our mainsail sustained a large tear, which kept Mark and Yasmin, out mate and deckhand, busy sewing for the entire day.

First Mate Mark Preedy repairs the damage to the main sail sustained in high winds.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The mood on the boat was solemn. This was an opportunity to survey a little known area for sperm whales that we have looked forward to ever since we first arrived in the Seychelles. We almost lost hope entirely before Chris checked the weather online one last time. With a grin from ear to ear, he printed out the weather map and handed it to Rodrigo. The cyclone turned south. The crew were on deck in an instant, we pointed Odyssey's bow west, and once again headed for Aldabra.

The crew barely contained their enthusiasm at the prospect of spending time researching in this isolated area. The Seychelles government has requested that in addition to looking for sperm whales in the waters surrounding Aldabra - little is known about the remaining populations since whalers hunted them by the thousands, we are to conduct a marine mammal survey to assist in determining how many species of cetacean frequent the remote Aldabra group.

With the weather conditions finally having turned in our favor, we began our circumnavigation of Aldabra late yesterday evening. Our first trip takes us around the 40 mile circumference of this volcanic island at a distance of two miles, the second will be five miles offshore allowing us to survey a wider area, documenting every cetacean species encountered, of course our greatest hope is to find sperm whales.

It is always a risk to travel such long distances in the hopes of finding sperm whales in remote, unstudied areas. If none are found it can be an expensive exercise in terms of fuel and program costs. It would be easier to study and gather data in areas that sperm whales are known to frequent and quite often that is exactly what we do. But sometimes it is necessary to take calculated risks, for if whales can be found in new areas, the rewards in terms of new data collected can be spectacular for all involved. This is something the Ocean Alliance with the research vessel Odyssey has proven again and again.

A large male sperm whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

A mere eight hours after beginning our survey, we picked up the distant but distinct clicking sounds of sperm whales on our acoustic array, the underwater microphone we tow behind the boat. At dawn this morning we had our first glimpse of the group, it appeared to be made up of mature females and sub adult animals, all of which stayed together in a close social gathering throughout the morning and late into the afternoon. While tracking and collecting data from these animals we were also made aware of two large males in the area by way of their distinctive 'clangs' - a term used to describe the loud, widely spaced clicks of mature males which we could hear through the array. These large males are more illusive and tend to spend more time below the surface roaming between receptive clusters of females and in between times they often fall silent. We were fortunate, however, in that we did see collect biopsies from both of them. An exceptionally valuable addition to our data set.

The crew has also been granted special permission by the Seychelles Island Foundation to explore, document, film and photograph on the island of Aldabra for two days. At this point we consider ourselves to be among the most fortunate researchers in the world.

Stay tuned and share the experience of Aldabra with the crew of the Odyssey over the coming days.


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