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The calm sea allowed the crew of the Odyssey a clear view of the sperm whales below the surface of the sea.
Photo: Chris Johnson

April 18, 2003
Whales in the Gulf of Mannar
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey off the northwest coast of Sri Lanka.

It has been over twenty years since Hal Whitehead and Jonathan Gordon led a research team aboard the vessel 'Tulip' to study sperm whales. The pioneering work carried out by the researchers was not only the first on sperm whales in Sri Lankan waters, but the first comprehensive study on living sperm whales using benign techniques conducted anywhere in the world.

For the past twenty years, civil unrest in Sri Lanka has prevented scientists from studying the unusually large number of sperm whales and other great whale species that Whitehead and his team documented in these waters.

The Odyssey crew departed Colombo and headed north late yesterday afternoon with great anticipation and high hopes of finding whales. Early this morning we passed over the edge of the continental shelf into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mannar. Almost immediately, Mark, our First Mate, heard the clicks of sperm whales through our acoustic array - an underwater microphone we tow behind the boat to listen for whales. It was 3am and still over three hours until sunrise. As the distance closed between Odyssey and the whales, we estimated their number to be in the vicinity of 15 - 20 animals.

Today, the Odyssey was surrounded by sperm whales.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The crew awoke to a blazing red sunrise and barely a ripple on the surface of the sea - perfect conditions for collecting data. Then the whales began to surface, one after the other until we were surrounded. We found ourselves among a widely scattered group of what appeared to be immature animals. By midday we had collected small tissue samples from most of them. The ideal conditions afforded many opportunities for photo identification work to be carried out. The seas were so still, it was as though we were looking through a window into the world of the whales below. Without so much as a puff of wind, the mainsail hung limp and the Odyssey floated, becalmed amid the whales. The only audible sound was the lapping of the water against the backs of the logging whales, the peace occasionally shattered by the massive exhalation blows of the animals - the fishy smelling mist settling over those of us perched on the bow.

As we continued travelling north along the shelf, the structure of the group began to change. We saw mature adult females - (these are easily identifiable by the callosities on the tip of the dorsal), accompanied by immature and juvenile animals, as well as tiny calves. As we drifted alongside a group of three, a small calf broke away and headed toward Odyssey, perhaps out of curiosity. Rolling on its side to get a better look, the calf passed beneath the bowsprit, followed by a larger whale, presumably the mother. The bumps, ridges and twisted distortions of the huge nose were clearly visible. The eye sat low beneath the smooth forehead and the small paddle shaped fins were tucked in neatly against the wrinkled body. The view was stunning.

As they day wore on, Captain Bob continued to steer the Odyssey and her crew in the direction of the whales. Every so often, the distinctive 'clangs' of an adult male were audible through the speakers in the pilothouse, though we were yet to see him at the surface. Finally, as the sun sank lower, an enormous blow alerted us to the bull. At over 50 feet in length, he lazed motionless at the surface, there is nothing in the natural ocean big enough to cause him any concern.

By day's end, the crew was exhausted from the oppressive heat, but elated at having collected 31 tissue samples from a an estimated 35 - 40 sperm whales - more samples in one day than on any other during the Voyage of the Odyssey so far. While scanning the surface for blows, we also managed to find and collect two squid specimens, we are hoping these samples will give an indication of what the whales are feeding on in this area and valuable information on how manmade toxicants are moving up the food chain.

A squid - the primary food for sperm whales in this region.
Photo: Peter Teglberg Madsen

The expedition led by Hal Whitehead in the early 1980's was conducted over three consecutive years, during the months of January through April. The Odyssey crew will be searching for sperm whales in Sri Lanka until July. We have no idea if the groups of whales recorded twenty years ago are found here seasonally, or are resident all year round. The next few months will give us a much clearer picture and further insight into the lives of sperm whales in Sri Lankan waters and their distribution and feeding habits in the Indian Ocean whale sanctuary as a whole.


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