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A young Cuvier's beaked whale approaches Odyssey.
Photo - Judith Scott

January 27, 2005
Whales in the Canaries
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

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

The Canaries consist of seven major islands and numerous smaller islets scattered across almost 280 miles (450 kilometers) of deep Atlantic Ocean. Lying about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Morocco on the African mainland, the Canaries are north of the Tropic of Cancer and west of Prime Meridian, giving the islands a temperate, year round 'spring like' climate.

Volcanic in origin, the islands boast spectacular steep-sided shorelines and dramatic water-eroded gorges inland. By geological standards, they are relatively young at an estimated 30 million years old. The highest peak is the 3,700-meter snow-capped summit of Mt. Teide that looms over Tenerife's lush vegetation.

Explored and exploited by several visitors and inhabitants since the Stone Age, the Canary Islands were granted autonomy from Spain 1982. With its own parliament and the two provinces of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, each including its namesake and several other islands, the official language of the Canaries is Spanish with a dialect similar to that of Latin America.

A spectacular sunset and high cirrus clouds herald an approaching front.
Photo - Judith Scott

The flora in the Canaries is a southern European and African mix, while the fauna includes more than 200 bird species, including the Canary, which was named after the islands. Coffee, dates, bananas, avocado and numerous other fruits and vegetables are grown and exported. However, the resulting deforestation and cultivation altered the landscape and climate of the archipelago significantly, and to the extent where some areas are now desert.

The beginning of tourism in the 1960's miraculously transformed the economy of the islands. Today, tourism comprises 60-65% of the Gross National Product (GNP). An estimated seven million tourists inundate the islands' beaches and highlands annually, the majority from Britain, Germany and the Spanish mainland.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Canary Islands were a favored hunting ground of the Yankee whalers in their relentless global search for the largest toothed whale - the sperm whale. The Odyssey crew is spending the next couple of months researching the waters around the islands in search of sperm whales and other cetacean species. Currently, twenty-seven species of cetacean are known to occur in the region.

We set out from the port city of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria Island, the capitol of the eastern island province and headed directly west. We detected the clicks of a single sperm whale on our acoustic array early on our first morning. By noon, we sighted an enormous male, a mature animal of perhaps 55 feet in length - a magnificent creature that left the crew humbled and excited to continue the search for more whales. We sailed along a choppy sea to the western most island of El Hierro. It is here we hope to find sperm whales and make acoustic recordings of beaked whales.

At first light we began our observation watches. We almost always hear sperm whales before we see them. However, the high frequency sonar clicks of beaked whales are beyond the detection range of our acoustic array, so the only way we know they are around is by sight. These animals usually surface briefly, with little visible blow. We spent the first day slowly traversing the northern half of the island. Unfortunately, we saw no beaked whales, but exuberant Atlantic spotted dolphins and common dolphins joined us on numerous occasions.

High winds, torrid seas and torrential rains restricted our research, forcing us to leave sperm whales.
Photo - Judith Scott

The following morning as we sailed the southern coast of El Hierro, the call came down from the observation platform - "We have a beaked whale!"
We rushed on deck in time to see a 12-15 foot, dark grey animal swimming parallel with Odyssey, it briefly turned in our direction before diving.

Half an hour later, we sighted two more beaked whales crossing the bow. Once again the crew sprung into action taking photos, counting blow rates and hopefully recording vocalizations. We drifted for over an hour but did not see the animals again, which surfaced out of visual range.

We identified the beaked whales as the most commonly sighted species - Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). Beaked whales are notoriously difficult to identify at sea and of the 20 known types, there are still species of beaked whale that have never been seen alive and are only known from stranded individuals. There are four species so far known to inhabit Canaries waters after several recorded strandings. Many of these occurred in conjunction with Naval mid-frequency active sonar testing around the islands.

We spent the following day with a group of 8-10 sperm whales in relatively calm seas. A stunning sunset with high streaky cirrus clouds warned us of an approaching front that eventually forced us to leave the whales and head for shelter. The winds picked up, gusting to 40 knots and we turned towards the island of La Palma to anchor for the night. Even in our anchorage the wind and swell kept Odyssey rolling to the extent we were unable to leave drinks and precious items unattended.

La Palma, like El Hierro, is said to be one of the most beautiful of the Canary Islands, still largely unspoiled by the tourism that has taken over most of the other islands. The steep, volcanic cliffs rise to the world's largest volcanic crater - La Caldera de Taburiente. It is 27 kilometers in circumference and 763 meters deep. La Palma is the island where the last volcanic activity on the Canaries occurred in 1971.

A small town nestled at the base of the rugged volcanic cliffs of El Hierro.
Photo - Judith Scott

The Odyssey crew were pleased to be anchored safely in port as the front hit. When the winds die down we will continue our search for cetaceans around the island of La Palma before heading back to Gran Canaria.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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