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Humpback Whale
A small humpback whale (Megaptera novaeanglia) crosses the bow of the Odyssey. This is only the second confirmed sighting of this species in the Canary Islands.
Photo - Chris Johnson

February 4, 2005
A Whale of a Day
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey off the southeast coast of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.

Under clear blue skies working on an unusually calm Atlantic ocean, we enjoyed a near perfect day with whales. The last time we sighted so many cetacean species was almost 2 years ago off the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

The morning began with the sighting of a distinctly 'v' shaped blow followed by a small rolling back and an unmistakable dorsal fin. This was a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeanglia). Ana Pena, an ecologist representing the Society for the Study of Cetaceans in the Canary Islands and guest scientist onboard Odyssey, informed us with great excitement that this was only the second documented sighting of a humpback whale in the region.

Sperm Whales
A Bryde's whale calf (Balaenoptera edeni) surfs the swell exposing the three distinctive ridges on the rostrum.
Photo - Chris Johnson

We couldn't believe our luck and carefully documented the encounter. The small whale approached Odyssey with it's massive white pectoral fins splayed out as it soared like an underwater albatross. It crossed the bow several times in what appeared to be an attempt to join a group of bow riding dolphins.

This whale was very small and thin, perhaps only two or three years old. We noticed the left lower jaw was misshapen and protruding outward. It was impossible to determine if the whale was the victim of a ship strike or if this was a birth deformity, and if it affected the animals' ability to feed. The young whale stayed ahead and alongside Odyssey for about ten minutes before we turned back to course. As it swam away, the crew silently wished the little humpback whale good luck.

The surface of the ocean was like glass as we glided a few miles off the coast of the island of Fuerteventura - a large, barren island with immense sandy shorelines and a desert-like volcanic interior. Soon after, Common dolphins (Delphinus delphi) and Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) crowded the bow. The water was so clear we saw their eyes looking up at us and every detail of their sleek bodies as they twisted and turned, jostling for position just a few feet below our eager, smiling faces. A very tall blow over two miles away momentarily diverted our attention from the dolphins, we increased our speed and headed for the whale. Suddenly there was a second and third blow, these were very large animals. Chris climbed the crow's nest in an effort to direct Bob at the helm who was driving the Odyssey. It is far easier to view a whale form aloft as its entire body is seen beneath the surface. This also enabled Chris to photograph the animals and determine the species. He immediately called down to the crew on the bow that there were four animals and that one was considerably larger than the others, perhaps over 18 meters in length. Fin, Sei and Bryde's whales are all large rorquals bearing an uncanny resemblance to one another. Rorquals are members of the family Balaenopteridae, a group of fast swimming whales characterized by sleek bodies and extended throat pleats.

Sei Whales
Four Sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) move together at the surface. This is only our third encounter with Sei whales in five years, and the first time we have seen them in a group.
Photo - Chris Johnson

By viewing and photographing the whales from above, we reliably determined from the single rostral ridge and the appearance dark colored jaws on either side that these animals were Sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis). This is only our third encounter with Sei whales in five years, and the first time we have seen them in a group.

These large, streamlined whales are dark gray dorsally and cream colored ventrally. Together with their larger cousin, the Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Sei whales are arguably the fastest of the great whales. Although they are found around the world, the movement patterns of the Sei whale are poorly understood and every sighting is an opportunity to learn more. We watched in awe as these enormous animals moved together at the surface. Common dolphins hitched a ride on the pressure wave generated from the huge head of the whales. It is thought that dolphins first learned the skill of bow riding on whales rather than boats.

We soon detected a pod of 10-12 sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) that contained two tiny calves. We spent most of the afternoon with the whales with the glorious panorama of Fuerteventura as a backdrop. Common dolphins, short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and a small, unidentified rorqual moved among the tight knit group of sperm whales throughout the day.

With biopsy samples collected from the sperm whales, we turned north and continued moving above the 1500-meter contour line, two miles off the southeast coast of Fuerteventura.

We maintained our acoustic search through the night and were greeted with two tall blows on the horizon the following morning. They were the blows of a mother/calf pair of Bryde's whales (Balaenoptera edeni). A smaller rorqual than the Sei whale, the Bryde's whale is streamlined, dark in coloration and distinguishable by three longitudinal ridges on top of the rostrum. Bryde's whales are unique among mysticetes (baleen or filter feeding whales) in that they do not migrate, but instead spend their lives in the warmer waters of the tropical regions. As Odyssey sailed downwind on a 2 meter swell, the 8-9 meter calf joined us on our port beam. The whale surfed the waves alongside us, rolling on its side and looking up at the crew on the bow.

Striped Dolphins
Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) porpoise toward Odyssey.
Photo - Chris Johnson

In less than 24 hours, the crew sighted four species of great whale and four species of dolphin in a single area, proving the Canary Islands are exceptionally rich in cetacean diversity. As we carry on our second research leg, the crew hopes for continued calm weather conditions and to sight even more cetaceans around the Canary Islands.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

A Striped dolphin.
Photo - Chris Johnson

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