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Two sperm whales swim across the bow of the Odyssey.
Photo: Chris Johnson

May 9, 2003
In Awe of Whales
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

In regard to sighting cetaceans in Sri Lanka, the past two days have been outstanding. Throughout almost every minute of the day and night, we were within visual or acoustic range of at least one, but often several species of whales and dolphins. Without a doubt, these have been some of the most successful days of the voyage so far.

We are currently researching along the southeast coast where it is certainly a relief to be away from the major shipping lanes of the southwest.

Yesterday morning at 12.30 am, we detected the familiar clicking of another group of sperm whales. The echolocation clicks of these animals are fast becoming the theme of our research in Sri Lanka - an area that contains one of the largest concentrations of sperm whales we have seen since the 'Voyage of the Odyssey' began over three years ago.

By daybreak, the crew was on deck ready to spend another day surrounded by whales. We estimated the group to contain 20-30 animals. This included a mature adult male, several adult females, sub-adults, juveniles and at least one very small calf. The group remained within sight of land during their dive cycles, only three miles off shore and adjacent to Yala National Park; an area famous for its elephant herds, leopards and saltwater crocodiles. It appears the marine as well as the terrestrial environment is brimming with wildlife in this area.

We spent the entire day with the group as they continuously circled the edge of a 3,000-meter deep, underwater canyon approximately twelve miles long and two miles wide. However, sperm whales were not the only cetacean species we found. At midday, a massive 30-foot blow alerted us to the presence of the largest animal ever to inhabit the earth - a blue whale.

A Bryde's whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

By early afternoon, we collected tiny tissue samples from 17 whales, before encountering a large, mixed group of risso's and Fraser's dolphins. As the sunset, Odyssey was inundated with an estimated 400-500 spinner dolphins. Several smaller groups approached the bow in waves, but would only bow ride for a few seconds before diving deep. Considering the huge numbers of dolphins we see in Sri Lankan waters, it is surprising that so few are interested in riding the pressure wave pushed forward by Odyssey's hull. Instead they tend to be extremely wary of boats and maintain a safe distance at all times. During our stay in Sri Lanka, the crew has learned that more than 10,000 dolphins are killed every year, either as accidental bycatch in fishing nets or as directed take from an illegal harpoon fishery. No wonder they are so cautious around boats. All cetaceans are protected in Sri Lankan waters, unfortunately the law is not enforced, and therefore, the killing continues.

Last night, we drifted above the canyon, enjoying the chorus of clicks, squeals and whistles being generated beneath Odyssey. We awoke this morning to the clicks of foraging sperm whales through the pilothouse speakers, a view of the enormous blows of several blue whales and a very small Bryde's whale. Bryde's whales are the least migratory of the balaenopterids and are restricted to tropical and temperate waters. The little whale immediately approached Odyssey appearing very curious; we were concerned this was a calf that may have lost its mother. After several minutes of circling us, the whale defecated, indicating that it is feeding and fending for itself and was most probably very recently weaned. We were able to collect a fecal sample that will be analysed in order to determine what this species of whale is feeding on. The orange color of the faeces suggests it is feeding on some kind of small crustacean.

In addition to three species of great whale, we also sighted Risso's, Spinners, Fraser's and Bottlenose dolphins. The fact that at least seven species of whales are present in this habitat, suggests that it is a productive ecosystem. This is probably the greatest concentration and diversity of large and small cetacean species the crew has encountered since the Galapagos Islands.

After our experience of the past week, there is little doubt that the waters of Sri Lanka are extraordinarily rich in diversity; few regions in the world can boast such productive waters. The exceptional number of cetacean species found here may offer a unique opportunity for benign, non-invasive research to be conducted by both local and international scientists. To have such a wide variety of species so close to shore may also afford an ideal opportunity for the implementation of a highly successful whale watching industry. However, success in research and industry can only be attained when cetaceans are adequately protected, existing laws are enforced and offenders actively and publicly prosecuted.

A massive 30-foot blow alerted us to the presence of the largest animal ever to inhabit the earth - a blue whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

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


  • So far during their time in Sri Lanka, the crew has found many whales in the Gulf of Mannar - Read the Odyssey report.
  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Three years ago in the Galapagos Islands? -> Real Video: > 56k > 200k

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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