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Odyssey Sailing into Sint Maarten
The Odyssey sails into Philipsburg harbor.
Photo - Chris Johnson

June 3, 2005
Arrival in Sint Maarten


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the research vessel Odyssey in the Caribbean.

After 27 days at sea, the Odyssey pulled into the harbor of Philipsburg, Sint Maarten to provision, fuel up and give the crew a short, well-deserved break. The Atlantic crossing was filled with many highlights and challenges along the way. For the passage, John Atkinson joined the crew to help guide Odyssey through some 3,400 nautical miles of ocean in search of sperm whales. For the past 18 years, John has worked with the Ocean Alliance right whale program in Argentina flying aerial surveys photographing southern right whales. Today, John shares his thoughts about this epic passage on the Odyssey.

John Atkinson -
          View some photographs taken by John of the crew 'behind the scenes'.

    "I was lucky enough to be invited to join the Odyssey crew for their three week passage across the Atlantic. After departing from Las Palmas, capital city of the Canary Islands on May 6th, we cruised south-west, intending to pass two hundred miles west of Cape Verde, then turn west and sail on towards the historically important Twelve Forty sperm whale hunting grounds, so called because it located halfway between the coasts of Africa and the Caribbean, at 12 degrees latitude and 40 degrees longitude.

    But much to our surprise, just two days out from the Canary Islands, we located our first group of sperm whales. Behind our boat we are towing a series of underwater microphones that enable us to monitor and track the movement of any sperm whales we encounter. When hunting at extreme depths the whales emit a series of clicks, and when at the surface, the whales communicate amongst their group with a different range of clicks scientists refer to as codas. By tracking the codas and clicks with the underwater microphones, the Odyssey crew is able to track the movement of the whales, and hopefully are able to locate the whales when they surface and get a skin and blubber biopsy sample. My job during each of our approaches to the whales was to try and get photos that would help identify the individual whales. For me this provided a tremendous opportunity to be up at the bow of the boat, working in close quarters with crew Genevieve Johnson, Chris Johnson, Cormac Booth and Judith Scott.

    While travelling west across the Atlantic, en route to the Twelve-Forty whaling rounds, we encountered quite a few more sperm whale groups, but we were not able to get as many biopsy samples as we would have liked. Quite simply, the whales were not at all co-operative.

    Along the way, much to the delight of the entire crew, we also encountered a Sei whale, three Cuvier's beaked whales and a loggerhead turtle. All were healthy and after taking some pictures, we left them to continue their journeys in peace.

    Ten days after departing from the Canary Islands, we arrived in the Twelve Forty sperm whale hunting grounds. Since no whale research boat has visited these waters since the end of sperm whale hunting in the 1970's, no one knew if there were still whales in the area. With this in mind, we were all excited to find a group of twelve sperm whales.

    But much to our disappointment, after completing a single traverse of the area, we found no more whales. In all fairness, we did not do a complete survey of the area. We can only hope that the whales were in other waters and that our visit to the Twelve-Forty grounds did not coincide with more groups of sperm whales being present in the area. From the Twelve-Forty grounds we sailed northwest towards our final destination, which was the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean. This second leg of our journey passed quite peacefully. We were blessed with mostly calm but occasionally quite swelling seas and fair winds. During the early morning hours of June 1st, while all the others were sleeping, I was on watch in the pilothouse, when the Caribbean island of St. Barts came up on the radar. This was a very exciting moment for us, as it was our first sighting of land after twenty-six days at sea.

    In looking back now, after arriving in Sint Maarten, I have to say that our passage was a complete success. After crossing over three thousand miles we have arrived safely in the Caribbean and we were able to get enough biopsy samples to complete our survey of the Atlantic sperm whales.

    The big question is, 'What is it like to do a Trans-Atlantic crossing?' And the answer lies really in the quality of the people you are sailing with. Our crew was exceptional.

    Along with myself, we had on board a second guest crewmember named Derek Palmer. During our attempts to collect sperm whale biopsy samples, Derek was in charge of sample recovery. This was not an easy job. On the high seas, with the boat rolling back and forth, using a net Derek was still able to successfully recover all the darts, which contained the samples.

    Our Captain was Bob Wallace. Bob really worked double time during our crossing. He guided the boat safely across the Atlantic, and served as engineer, managing all of the boat's mechanical systems along the way. When we encountered whales, Bob was at the helm, interpreting the tracking information on the computer screen and successfully bringing us alongside the whales when they surfaced.

    Our science manager on board is Cormac Booth. He seemed to be working almost full time helping and managing all related data. Judith Scott is science coordinator, specifically managing biopsy samples after they are brought on board and assisting Cormac with all science data. Genevieve and Chris Johnson, who, like Bob, have been with the Voyage of the Odyssey for the past five years, having sailed around the world. Genevieve manages the expedition onboard Odyssey while co-ordinating the Education program. Chris is media producer, documenting the expedition and producing the website hosted by PBS.

    Everyone on board had a title and a job description. But in the end, everyone pitches in and helps wherever they can. Leaving the boat now, what I most appreciate having experienced is the incredible dedication of the Odyssey crew. When we were at sea, in huge swelling seas, sometimes in conditions that were verging on dangerous, the crew was on deck, giving their all to try and get the much needed biopsy samples. With the deck rolling and pitching in the steep seas, there were days when it was just barely possible to maintain balance while standing on deck, let alone locating the whales, manoeuvre the boat alongside them and then attempt to get a sample. And yet, there they were, out there on deck, determined to get the job done.

    My feelings on departing the Odyssey after having participating in our trans-Atlantic journey are profound. I leave the boat with a renewed sense of hope. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to share in the journey I have just completed. I am also proud to think of them as friends."
taking down the sail
Cormac, John and Bob take down the sail after 27 days at sea.
Photo - Chris Johnson

Next week the Odyssey will sail to the island of Anguilla to conduct education presentations and tours of the vessel. In July and August the Odyssey will be in the Bahamas for our final research leg. Stay with us this summer and share in the final experiences of the Voyage of the Odyssey.

Links:

Log written by John Atkinson and Genevieve Johnson.

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