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Chris Johnson filming from the crow's nest of the Odyssey
Chris Johnson in the crow's nest of the Odyssey.
Photo - Joe Boreland

March 17, 2005
Five Years at Sea
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

Karli Merkens - RV Odyssey

This is Karli Merkens speaking to you from the Research Vessel Odyssey in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. On this day March 17th 2000, the Odyssey set sail from San Diego, California to begin a research expedition of impressive magnitude and ambitious goals.

I joined the crew just over 4 months ago, and have worked as cook, hotel manager, and science intern while Odyssey sailedfrom the Mediterranean Sea to the Canary Islands and researched in these waters. Already, I experienced some of the amazing high points of spending glorious days out on the water, surrounded by awe-inspiring animals and have also lived through some of the daunting low points of exhausting hours of rough weather and mind-numbing work cleaning and fixing our hard-working vessel.

If I am struggling after only 4 months of the emotional roller-coaster of life on Odyssey, I cannot imagine the stalwart perseverance and possible insanity of the members of our crew who have put their ideals before all else, sacrificing precious years of their lives to work toward some of the most admirable goals.

Today's log is the personal stories of the 3 survivors who have stuck with the Odyssey through all the hard times and today celebrate not only 5 years of the Voyage of the Odyssey, but 5 years of their own personal voyages around the world. Today we hear from Genevive Johnson, Chris Johnson, and Bob Wallace.

Genevieve Johnson - Education Director

"Five years is a long time by any measure, but five years living on a boat, sailing around the world, studying whales is almost incomprehensible in its rewards and hardships to all but those who have accomplished it.

Genevieve Johnson with students in Male, Maldives
Genevieve Johnson with students in Male, Maldives.
Photo - Chris Johnson

I look back on the past five years and in my mind's eye, see the experience from a variety of perspectives.

Chris and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary this past February. To our horror we realized more than half of my married life was spent living onboard Odyssey and sleeping in bunk beds in cabin number one!

I have friends back home that married people I don't know, and I have new family members (nephews) that I have never even met.

I also have parents who are eager (very eager) for Chris and I to begin a family of our own!

Yet, I can proudly count myself among the narrow but distinguished ranks of other equally ambitious, long-term global expeditions whose perseverance changed the world for the better.

Apart from the daily routines and tasks the crew shares, my primary job is education. In five years I have spoken with thousands of children in schools across three oceans, from the tropical atolls of Kiribati to the snow laden fjords of Northern Norway. When I talk to students and receive emails and letters of such concern for our impact on the ocean environment and how they aim to change things, I know hope lies with this next generation - many of whom are angry at the environmental legacy their parents' generation are bestowing upon them. However much work needs to be done and I have learned the hard truth that unless we can achieve the monumental task of getting people to care enough about the oceans right now, there is little hope for the future.

On a more personal and perhaps selfish level, as the voyage draws to an end I find my mind wandering back to the same question - what on earth am I going to do with my life when this is over? This has been my entire life 24 hours a day for five years - the hardships, the joys, the people, the whales and most of all, the Odyssey. Is there any job that could make me as happy, fulfilled or even seem worthwhile after this experience?

Sometimes all I want to do is get off this boat and return to a 'normal' life with friends and family, but what is normal? I know the experience of the voyage has changed me irreversibly. How can I expect people to understand the change in me? I am torn between my desire for a comfortable life, and the fact that I see first hand what the consequences of our modern, consumer, throw away lifestyle is doing to the oceans.

I have disentangled turtles far out to sea, adrift and waiting to die in a web of fishing gear, out of sight and out of mind of those responsible. I was in the water with a family group of sperm whales off southern Crete in Greece, eye to eye in complete awe of their magnificence yet on the very same day my species was deciding at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) how many of their species should be killed this year in the name of science. I was so ashamed.

We have survived storms and sudden squalls. We have even survived crew members that were a challenge to live with in such a confined space for days on end at sea - sometimes Odyssey can feel like a prison in motion. But on those days when the seas are calm, we are the only boat on an endless ocean and whales surrounded us - there is no place on earth I would rather be. I only wish I could bring everyone I know to experience it, because it would change them as it changed me, and I can never go back to who I was before."

Chris Johnson - Producer/Photographer

"If you told me five years ago I would still be on the Odyssey, I would have thought you were mad. When we threw the lines off the dock in San Diego, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Bob Wallace repairing the sails
Bob Wallace reparing the sails of the RV Odyssey.
Photo - Chris Johnson

When I joined the Odyssey, I didn't know how to sail and I did not spend very much time at sea. I watched the movie "The Perfect Storm" a few too many times to feel comfortable with the job description -' to be researching sperm whales, sometimes hundreds of miles offshore for weeks at a time with sometimes minimal resources and support.' It was something that paralleled Shackleton.

However, one never knows where their decisions in life will take them.

I was lucky that Roger Payne and Iain Kerr asked me to join the expedition over 5 years ago. It was almost with a sense of duty that I could not pass up this opportunity, even though my decision kept me awake for nights on end. Was it going to be like a Jacques Cousteau documentary film - a life photographing whales from a speedy zodiac in quick dry khaki clothing? Or, would it be like a mixture of reality television - 'Survivor' meets 'Big Brother' in tremendously confined space? Well, over five years, we have lived through it all.

When I go home - something that we may do only once a year - friends and family ask - how can you do it?

I usually answer - 'I don't know...I just love the job.'
But there is more to it - my endless fascination of the epic nature of the sea and its unknown virtues. I remember one day flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles on a perfect night in 1998 - 35,000 feet above sea level, the reflection of a full moon stretched the full horizon. The grandeur of the Pacific revealed itself through crisp moonlight. Gazing out the window of the 747 sailing in the upper atmosphere, one distinct thought dominated for hours - "I wonder what is down there..."

We did get the chance to explore that same area in 2000, crossing the Pacific in the dead center, sailing from Christmas Island to Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati- three weeks transecting one of the most remote tracts of ocean on the planet - a series of atolls straddling the equator for over 2000 miles. It was strange because I never felt alone - 3 days from Christmas island (approx 300 miles west), a coast guard Hercules airplane descended from the sky to pay a visit and remind us that we were not alone out there on the 'big blue'.

What are the benefits of being in such remoteness? Well, two things actually. The first is the chance to look into the night sky and witness stars beyond imagination rendering one speechless. However, the other is to witness and record our impact on the oceans - a growing legacy of plastic pollution including shopping bags, wrappers, shoes, and discarded fishing gear show up on uninhabited islands. The ocean is not infinite as I remember when gazing from the beach back in Massachusetts in younger years.

For me, the Voyage of the Odyssey is more than a voyage of scientific discovery, rather a time for personal evolution experiencing all the hardships, the happiness, the fear, the frustrations - days of emotional extremes. I witnessed the very best and sometimes, the very worst of humanity in this experiment called 'boat life'.

How did I survive 5 years? By documenting the small moments when the ocean reveals its glories at a frenetic pace - the pod of porpoising killer whales surrounding the boat in the Red Sea for 10 minutes, the humpback whale mother and calf riding the bow of the Odyssey for 4 hours 500 miles from the Maldives (such a poetic meeting of species), the exquisite explosion of life revealed around Darwin Arch in the Galapagos Islands- a time capsule of what the ocean used to be like. These moments are the privileged rewards of suffering weeks of seasickness, a lack of food and days (sometimes weeks) of hard work in whatever challenging conditions the ocean may present that day.

However, we also witnessed the ridiculous, absurd failings of our species - whether seeing sea turtle hatchlings being run over by a garbage truck in Zakinthos, Greece, learning about the illegal dolphin hunt in Sri Lanka that is decimating species around the island, or seeing a shark being finned, 3 feet in front of my camera and learning from fishermen in Papua New Guinea, why they do it. People have to know about these things and education is our only hope to initiate any discussion and reflection on how medieval our modern society really is.

The crew of the Odyssey in Las Palmas
The current crew of the RV Odyssey in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.
  Click here to meet the current crew
Photo - Chris Johnson

Knowing I have contributed a small part to sharing the experience through this website with the photographs, the videos as well as interviewing scientists and conservationists all around the world who believe in learning and discovering more about the oceans, is infectious. My passion grows each day in the shared ideal that we can make a difference to this planet for good. The hardest part really is making the decision simply to try."

Bob Wallace - Chief Engineer/Relief Captain

"When the voyage began 5 years ago, I had no idea of the impact the Odyssey's work would have. More than just studying whales, we educate people worldwide, through the website, on many aspects of the ocean environment and human impacts on it. Most people looking at our website probably had no idea of shark finning, plastics pollution in the open ocean, the aquarium trade of reef fish, hazards to sea turtles etc.... I think the strong point of the voyage is the educational effect we have had on people and cultures everywhere we have gone. For me, being a part of that is the most satisfying aspect. I have enjoyed the different places we have been to with what little time off we actually get to enjoy.

Odyssey being 30 years old, the biggest challenge, as engineer, has been keeping the many systems on board operating properly - from the engine to the generators to the electrical system to even just the pumps which supply the boat with fresh drinking water. At anytime a breakdown of any one system can mean many things - discomfort for the crew at the least (i.e. no fresh water or no air-conditioning in sweltering tropical heat) to major disaster at the worst (i.e the loss of all electrical power or loss of engine power to propel the boat). My job is to keep the boat going so the science and education can be successful and the crew travel safely on the ocean. It is something I am very happy and proud to be a part of."

The crew of the Odyssey would like to thank Roger Payne, Iain Kerr, the staff and board of directors of the Ocean Alliance, the over 150 visiting scientists and previous crewmembers and, most importantly, the donors for their support in making the ambitious program possible for the past five years.


Log written by Genevieve Johnson, Bob Wallace, Karli Merkens & Chris Johnson.

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