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Sperm Whales in the Twelve Forty Grounds
The crew is pleased to find sperm whales in the old twelve forty whaling grounds. Interestingly, we have sighted a number of social groups including several calves.
Photo - Chris Johnson

May 23, 2005
The Twelve Forty Grounds


Log Transcript

Fifteen hundred nautical miles from land to the east and the west, we are navigating a sea full of sperm whales. Water and sky fill our view from deck, the 360 degree panorama split equally between the two. The minds of the crew often wander far from Odyssey, we imagine what friends and family may be doing a world away, knowing they will never have any real concept of what we experience out here. Sperm whales are our only companions in the mid-Atlantic, yet instead of feeling alone we feel comfortable, content and among old friends.

Our southwest course takes us on a direct route to the Twelve Forty grounds. An area 12 degrees north of the equator and 40 degrees west of Greenwich, England - the prime meridian. Whaling 'grounds' were areas designated by Yankee whalers through years of experience, as a good place to find their target species - the sperm whale. Historically, the Atlantic was filled with many whaling grounds extending south of Iceland to the southwest coast of Africa.

For all the simplicity and risk of the small open boat whaling of the Yankee era of the 18th and 19th centuries, their techniques dealt a devastating blow to Atlantic sperm whale populations (and those of the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well). As each new ground was discovered, it yielded substantial catches for a few years before becoming exhausted, and so the pattern continued. Females and young distributed in the tropical regions were hit particularly hard.

With the introduction of mechanized whaling in the 20th century ships could access the polar feeding grounds of more profitable adult male sperm whales. The populations of large males were so depleted by the end of commercial whaling in the 1980's, it was feared there were an insufficient number of males for effective breeding. Since leaving the Canaries the crew has not sighted any adult males; indeed any sighting of a mature bull is a rare occurrence and cause for great excitement, even after five years at sea.

Surrounded by a pod of whales in the Twelve Forty grounds, thoughts of whaling are foremost in our minds. We loathe recalling a time when these waters were plowed by the predacious hulks of whaling vessels in search of their quarry not so long ago.

Map of the Twelve Forty Grounds
A map of the Twelve Forty grounds. These were historical hunting grouds of the Yankee whalers.
There are several other whaling grounds scattered across the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the past few days we sighted sperm whales in small groups of 5-8 animals. We even came across a group of 25. It is always heartwarming too see them, perhaps even more so in an area where they were once so ruthlessly and heavily exploited. Needless to say there are far fewer sperm whales now than there once was. Pre - exploitation estimates stand in the millions, current estimates number a few hundred thousand globally. Only in our minds can we picture the seething mass of life that once existed in the ocean.

We watch on deck and listen through the array to social groups at the surface and delight in the presence of several small calves. Calves are nearly always kept in the middle of the group and are easily recognized from a distance by their exaggerated head movement as they lift their nose above the surface of the sea to breathe. Closer viewing almost always reveals a body covered in remora fish. Remoras could not survive the pressure generated by deep diving adults and sub-adults and are only ever seen on calves who are unable to dive to the great depths of their elders.

The sperm whale is the only large Odontocete (toothed whale). Strong family bonds are central in the lives of sperm whales- a feature distinguishing them from other large whales, all of which are Mysticetes (baleen whales). As we watch sperm whales line up abreast, moving together, socializing at the surface, their commitment to each other is evident. They are tactile, often touching flippers and flukes. They turn and dive in unison, they seek one another out at the surface at the conclusion of a feeding dive and communicate using a string of patterned clicks called codas. Sperm whales live and die as a family unit.

It was this characteristic, a trait shared by humanity that the whalers exploited. If one member of a sperm whale group is injured, the others will come to its aid. This has been demonstrated and witnessed during attacks by killer whales and even when one or more of the group is tangled in fishing gear. Sperm whales will not leave a family member in distress. By harpooning a calf, the whalers could pick off the rest of the pod one by one as they came to assist the stricken animal until the entire herd was obliterated. For the sperm whale, the largest predator on the planet, there was no defense against such tactics.

Interestingly, the sperm whales out here in the old whaling grounds are proving far more difficult to approach and study than their Canaries and Mediterranean cousins. Last night we tracked a group of 8 whales, their clicks and codas resonating throughout the boat. At dawn the crew rose and after making our first approach, the whales dove together, fell completely silent and we neither saw, nor heard them again - a seemingly co-operative and exceptionally stealth response. In reaction to this admitted circumstantial evidence, we wondered if some of the older animals had any memory of whaling?

We sailed on from the Twelve Forty grounds with a sense of regret, perhaps even shame, yet our spirits were lifted in the knowledge of seeing a species in an area where it was once hunted to near extinction.

The most famous book depicting the height of Yankee whaling is Moby Dick. Herman Melville wrote:

    "The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc: whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff."
    Herman Melville: Moby Dick.

Although an historic perspective, there is a grim ring of truth in Melville's words that is applicable today.

Commercial whaling brought us perilously close to exterminating several species of whale, some of which are on the long road to recovery, others like the northern right whale were reduced by 95% or more of their original numbers. Sadly, the pressure to resume the commercial hunt intensifies every year. This year the meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will be held in Korea in June.

Although the IWC banned commercial whaling in 1986, the killing of whales for scientific purposes is permitted, and Japan's whaling operations exploit this loophole for commercial gain. The species currently hunted for supposed 'scientific research' include the minke, sei, Bryde's and sperm whales. Japanese whaling interests indicate plans to double its current self-imposed quota of 440 Antarctic minke whales while controversially announcing the addition of fin and humpback whales to their list of target species.

Odyssey crew looking for whales
Odyssey crew, John Atkinson and Derek Palmer, scan the horizon looking for the sperm whale blows.
Photo - Chris Johnson

It may no longer be a question of which species of large whale are hunted by whaling nations led by Japan, Norway and Iceland, but rather, which species are not? Since the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, more than 24,000 whales were killed.

How many of us will stand by and only decide we should have acted once the songs of humpback whales and the social codas of sperm whales that resonated throughout the oceans for millions of years are silenced forever by the resumption of commercial whaling.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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