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The RV Odyssey departs Las Palmas Harbor
The Odyssey crew departs the Port of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria to begin the epic 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Photo - Chris Johnson

May 11, 2005
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey. We departed the territorial waters of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Morocco a few days ago to embark on an epic three thousand mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean - our final ocean crossing of the Voyage.

We began our research in the Canaries last December and throughout we were supported by many local researchers. It is with sadness that we bid new friends and colleagues farewell.

In particular, Vidal Martin, President of SECAC (The Sociedad para el Estudio de los Cetáceos en el Archipelago Canarias - a local whale conservation and research non-profit organization) and zoologist Ana Pena of SECAC were integral to the success of the Odyssey's scientific research and education programs in the Canary Islands. In addition, we were able to attend the opening of Vidal's new museum - Museo de Cetaceos de Canarias - a wonderful education facility in Puerto Callero, Lanzorote focusing on the local cetacean populations around the archipelago and the threats they face. The crew of the Odyssey was happy to provide the new museum with sounds of cetaceans recorded through our underwater microphones for use in a sound scape in the museum - painting a picture of the underwater world around this unique area.

A Loggerhead Sea Turtle
A large loggerhead sea turtle basks at the surface next to Odyssey.
Photo - Chris Johnson

One of the most enjoyable aspects of an ocean crossing is we can sail. We are sailing southwest, heading toward lower latitudes in an effort to pick up the trade winds. These winds are most persistent between 10 - 20 degrees latitude. Except for the north Indian Ocean monsoon, the tropical easterly trade winds in both hemispheres, and in all oceans, are relatively uniform and reliable.

On our first few days at sea the crew was in high spirits. With relatively calm seas and a gentle breeze, conditions for sighting animals were ideal.

Our first sighing was of a young Sei whale traveling across our path less than fifty miles south of Gran Canaria, followed only moments later by a large loggerhead sea turtle basking at the surface. With a coat of algae, a beard of barnacles and a few pilot fish as companions, the turtle drifted by Odyssey, while the crew stretched over the bowsprit to take a closer look.

As we ventured further into open ocean, a call came down from the observation platform. A sighting of birds rallied a halfhearted response. But this was not a normal sighting. At 130 miles from land, the crew stood on deck watching a flock of nearly 30 pigeons descend on Odyssey like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's film, 'The Birds'. Flying in a tight group and obviously desperately lost and tired, they converged on us in an urgent search for a place to rest. They landed on the salon roof, the crow's nest, the bowsprit, the satellite dome and the zodiac among other places; one even flew directly into the pilothouse.

Pidgeons on the Odyssey
The Odyssey becomes a temporary rest stop for 21 pigeons hopelessly lost at sea 130 miles from land.
Photo - Genevieve Johnson

Another call came from the observation platform - "three large animals heading this way" these were beaked whales. The animals approached within 50 meters before diving beneath the Odyssey. At such close range we identified them as Cuvier's beaked whales, (Ziphius cavirostris). At least twenty species of beaked whale are currently recognized, all are poorly known and rarely observed. We turned off the engine and drifted hoping to record their high frequency vocalizations. We sighted the group twice more before they moved on.

Meanwhile we counted 21 pigeons on various perches around the deck. These are terrestrial birds with little hope of surviving for long offshore. The longer they stay onboard, the less likely they will make it back. There is little we can do but hope they take off and fly back toward the Canaries.

Three hundred miles south of the Canaries and 250 miles west of Western Sahara, we detected a group of sperm whales. It was early evening so the crew tracked them through the night and collected biopsies the next morning. These were comparatively small animals, widely dispersed over five miles and traveling north at a determined pace. Perhaps they had come from Cape Verde and were moving toward the Canaries in search of better feeding grounds. After two days, only two pigeons remained on deck.

As always, our days are highlighted by visits from dolphins. There is nothing quite like moving over the surface of the sea with dolphins as companions. As Derek (a new crew member) pointed out, "perhaps we love this species so much because they appear inherently happy, social and playful - qualities we would like to experience more often".

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins
In the first few days at sea, the crew enjoys daily visits from large schools of Atlantic spotted dolphins.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Five days into our journey, all of the pigeons were gone. Signs of moving further south slowly emerged on the Davis weather instruments. The sea temperature crept above 20 degrees, a tropic bird was sighted, a flying fish landed on deck (which Bob happily fried up nicely for breakfast) and the southern cross reflected on the sea surface on a calm and cloudless night.

Today we crossed the Tropic of Cancer at 23°30' north. In the southern hemisphere, 23° 30' south marks the Tropic of Capricorn. These latitudes mark the official borders of the Tropics.

Ahead of us lies 2,600 miles of Atlantic ocean, Earth's second largest ocean. This translates roughly into spending at least twenty more days at sea - hopefully more if we encounter whales. At an average of two miles deep and occupying about 20% of the Earth or 31,500,000 square miles, the Atlantic is enormous, yet only half the size of the Pacific Ocean.

In order to increase our chances of finding sperm whales, we are headed toward the 12-40 grounds - 12° North, 40° West. 'Grounds' were names given by whalers, to particular areas of ocean where prey was abundant and reliable at particular times of year. One such ground exists in the center of the Atlantic Ocean. Since the cessation of commercial whaling, few vessels have returned to this area with the specific intention of looking for sperm whales. We calculate our arrival here in about 9 days and have little idea of what we may find.

Links:

A Map of the Route of the RV Odyssey Atlantic crossing
The current route of the RV Odyssey - from Las Palmas, Canary Islands to St. Martin in the Carribean via the '12/40' grounds.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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