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Two white-tailed tropicbirds take to the air as Odyssey approaches.
Photo : Chris Johnson

April 30, 2004
The Gulf of Aden
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Gulf of Aden.

A week ago, we left the Arabian Sea, sailing into the waters of Yemen and the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf of Aden is a 600 mile long corridor that connects the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea. At the entrance to the Gulf, the island of Socotra stands like a sentinel. Once within 100 miles of this 70-mile long island, the number of seabirds visiting Odyssey increased dramatically.

Tropicbirds are a favorite of the crew and are among the most beautiful and graceful of seabirds. Generally, it is not difficult to identify them. There are three species of tropicbird, the white-tailed tropicbird, the red-tailed tropicbird and the red-billed tropicbird, which as their name suggests, frequent the tropical and sub-tropical latitudes of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They are all distinctive, medium-sized black and white birds with remarkably long, delicate tail streamers and when viewed from below, their wings appear almost translucent against the sky. Tropicbirds are mainly pelagic, feeding on flying fish and squid, in fact, they are so well adapted to life at sea, they are barely able to walk on land. Their short legs are adapted for diving and swimming and are placed well back on the body, causing the bird to topple forward when it attempts to stand. They visit islands only to breed and nest in hollows on the ground - which makes them highly susceptible to introduced predators. Perhaps the birds we are seeing nest on Socotra Island.

We spotted a pair of tropicbirds resting on the sea surface with their tail streamers raised. As we approached, we identified them as white-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus) because of their white tail streamers, short black eye stripe and orange bill. The birds gently bobbed up and down with the swell, taking flight within meters of Odyssey. They circled aloft for several minutes before departing, and we bid our elegant companions farewell.

Boobies are often seen resting on floating debris. These three Masked boobies looked somewhat bewildered as Odyssey sailed by.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) are one of six species of booby and are also a regular and welcome sight where the Indian Ocean meets the Gulf. These are large, narrow-winged seabirds with cigar shaped bodies and long tapering bills - a body perfectly designed for plunge diving. Boobies spend the majority of their lives at sea, and seem to relish the opportunity to rest on floating debris. The other day we approached three boobies drifting on a piece of wood, looking rather bewildered at the sight of Odyssey.

Sailing deeper into the Gulf, we entered areas well known for pirate activity. Yachts are always advised to sail in a convoy to minimize the risk of attack. For the past week, we have enjoyed the company of an Irish owned vessel called Thunder. Thunder is a 75-foot long Oyster, Captained by New Zealander, David Jackson. Since entering the Gulf, Thunder remained within one to two miles of Odyssey, electing to stay with us - the Odyssey being a much slower vessel. The crew is exceptionally grateful for the company of another boat throughout this notorious passage, and is indebted to the crew of Thunder for their generosity and good will.

Odyssey Captain Mark Preedy -

    "There is no question the crew of Thunder sacrificed time, and perhaps their own safety by this selfless act. Not only did their presence provide reassurance, but it lifted crew moral tremendously. The sacrifice made by Captain Dave Jackson exhibits a kind of character rarely encountered these days."

Yesterday, as Thunder sailed two miles off our port quarter, Chris and I were on observation watch when we were startled by a sudden, roaring 'whoosh'. Stunned by the emergence of a large pointed rostrum not more than 20 meters off our beam, we yelled down to the rest of the crew - "We have a Bryde's whale (Balaenoptera edeni) next to the boat". This was a large whale, a mature adult, but where had it come from? We had scanned the horizon for the previous hour, seeing no sign of this animal until he was right beside us.

Despite Odyssey being a far slower boat, Captain David Jackson and the crew of the Irish owned yacht Thunder, chose to sail with us in convoy through the Gulf of Aden - an area notorious for pirate attacks on yachts.
Photo : Chris Johnson

The whale rose and blew again, the slight breeze directing the fishy vapor to settle over our bodies. The exhalation was followed by a sharp inhalation and a broad rolling back, a small curved dorsal fin was our last view of the whale before it submerged.

No matter how often you see whales, each encounter is crammed with the excitement of the unknown. You never know how the whale will react to the boat, or what behavior it will exhibit. We come across Bryde's whales fairly regularly compared to other baleen species. Usually, they dive, take a brief look at us, or show absolutely no interest at all. However, this whale seemed curious. With the engine off, Odyssey drifted slowly with the wind and the whale stayed with us, circling us for several minutes. First rolling on its side directly beneath the bow sprit, then moving to the stern and back to the bow again before reclaiming its place abeam of us. We slowed to a virtual stop, the whale also stopped and 'logged' beside us.

Mark called Thunder on the radio and they slowly sailed closer to Odyssey. Once within a few hundred meters, our companion left us, heading directly for Thunder. The Bryde's whale drifted beneath their bow for several minutes, the crew experiencing their first close encounter with a whale, a moment they said they would never forget.

Over the VHF radio, Captain David Jackson reflected on the sighting -

    "Thanks guys, that was brilliant. We have few experiences to compare with being investigated by a Bryde's whale passing inches below our bow"

The Odyssey crew was thrilled for the crew of Thunder. Offering them a glimpse into our world and the whales we study was the least we could do to repay their kindness.

Situated eighty eight feet above the decks of the Odyssey in the crow's nest , Chris photographs the Bryde's whale through the rigging as it roles on its side to investigate us.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Tonight we are passing through Bab el Mandeb - the 10 mile wide entrance to the Red Sea. The crew will remain on double watches while navigating the narrow channel that accommodates exceptionally dense ship traffic.

The crew is relieved to have completed a safe passage through the Gulf of Aden. Following a quick stop over in Eritrea to refuel and replenish our dwindling food supply, we sail north to the Suez Canal and finally, after a month long journey, we will enter the Mediterranean Sea.


  • In December 2003, on a passage sailing from the Seychelles to the Maldives, a mother-calf pair of Humpback whale rode the bow wave of Odyssey for 4 hours. Read more about the experience
  • While surveying the waters of Kiribati in December 2000, the Odyssey was accompanied by a school of Rainbow runners for over 900 miles! Roger Payne narrates these special audio reports: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
  • Learn more about some of the crew's experiences sailing in the Indian Ocean.
  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Sri Lanka?
    Two years ago in Australia?
    Three years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Four years ago in the Galapagos Islands-
    Real Audio Report   >28k

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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