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Frasier's Dolphins
Two Frasier's dolphins (Lagenodelphis hosei) ride the bow of the Odyssey. The Odyssey crew estimated the group to be over 1000 animals.
Photo - Chris Johnson

August 15, 2005
On Our Way Home - Searching for Whales off the Eastern United States
Real Audio Report -   28k

The RV Odyssey arrives home to Boston, Massachusetts on Wednesday August 17th at 10:30am at the Moakley Courthouse. Come see the Roger Payne and the crew of the Odyssey sail into Boston Harbor, meet the press and give tours of the boat.
For more information and directions visit the Ocean Alliance website


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Atlantic Ocean on our final research leg of the Voyage of the Odyssey.

Mixed feelings emerge as we reflect on the five and a half incredible years since we threw the lines off the dock in San Diego, California and set sail across the Pacific Ocean. As the experience of a lifetime, a life among whales, draws to an end, it is with great pride, but also sadness that our final journey concludes on August 17th in Boston Massachusetts.

However, until the lines are thrown on the dock for the final time we continue to find and track whales.

Sailing from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, along the continental shelf of the eastern United States, the weather conditions were perfect for working with sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Running north about 50 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina toward Virginia, the ocean was dead calm with the Odyssey reflected perfectly on the sea surface.

Melon-headed whale
Mixed with the Frasier's dolphins, were several hundred melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra).
Photo - Chris Johnson

We sailed Odyssey along the 2,000-meter contour line. This is the edge of the continental shelf of North America where upwellings provide exceptionally productive feeding areas for several species of marine mammals. In addition to sperm whales, we already sighted five different species of smaller cetaceans. One sighting in particular proved to be among the most unique of the Voyage.

A few days ago, we detected faint clicks and whistles on our acoustic array (underwater microphone). As the vocalizations intensified we knew the sounds were coming from a fairly large group of dolphins. The crew scanned the horizon for signs of splashing and when the call came down from the observation platform, we immediately turned Odyssey in their direction to count the animals and identify the species.

The dolphins heard Odyssey and porpoised toward us at full speed in numerous tight clusters. Instantly, we noticed their pink bellies and short stubby beaks; they were Fraser's dolphins (Lagenodelphis hosei).

Only recently recognized by scientists in 1971, the Fraser's dolphin is typically a tropical, oceanic species identified by a broad dark stripe running from the eye, almost down the length of the body. The stripe is most prominent in mature males, appearing somewhat like a bandits mask, but is almost entirely absent in calves and very faint in younger animals.

More and more Frasier's dolphins poured in from every direction. We estimated the group to be over 1,000 animals. As soon as they reached Odyssey, they made sharp turns and filed in under the bowsprit. It seemed they were all eager to ride the bow wave. The sea surface was like glass and as the dolphins rolled on their sides to look up at the crew on the bow, we saw every minute detail of their smooth, perfectly contoured bodies. The group contained many large males and numerous mothers with tiny calves the size of footballs swimming alongside in perfect unison. We increased the speed of Odyssey, which seemed to encourage the dolphins to breach and porpoise around us with even greater vigor.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin Calf
An Atlantic spotted dolphin calf (Stenella frontalis) leaps out of the water.
Photo - Chris Johnson

A little farther from the boat we noticed several smaller pods of darker colored animals moving slowly around the edges of the huge group of Fraser's dolphins. We realized this was, in fact, a mixed group that included several hundred melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra). Melon-headed whales are a poorly-known pelagic species. Although called a whale, it is actually the same size as most dolphins. Much of what researchers know of this small cetacean actually comes from stranded animals. If seen in close proximity, this species can be distinguished from most others and identified by its small tapered head, and a rounded melon that slopes downward toward a pair of white lips that contrast starkly with its charcoal colored body. Although easily mistaken for the similar looking pygmy killer whale (Feresa attenuata), the calm conditions and digital photographs ensured a positive identification. This was a fantastic sighting and only the third time in over five years the crew saw this species.

We noticed that the melon-headed whales would lazily ride the bow if we decreased the speed of Odyssey to 1 or 2 knots. If we traveled any faster, they quickly departed. They rarely fully porpoised out of the water. instead preferring to break the surface of the sea in a comparatively flat trajectory pushing crescents of water ahead of them. This behavior was in stark contrast to the acrobatic Fraser's dolphins that were clearly displeased with the Odyssey traveling at any speed less than 6 knots. These two species were rather like slow tortoises traveling with speedy hares and we wondered what mutual benefits each species gained by associating with the other. Ironically, these two species readily occur together and are sighted in strong, consistent associations around the equatorial waters of the globe. After a couple of hours, we reluctantly moved on after gathering extraordinary acoustic recordings of their vocalizations and photographs of their behaviors.

The following morning at 3am, while continuing north and almost parallel with Norfolk, Virginia, the crew detected sperm whales once again. The ocean was perfectly still and the endless stream of 'codas' heard and recorded through the acoustic array indicated a socializing group of whales at the surface. Codas are short patterns of vocalization clicks that scientists believe are used for communication.

A Fin Whale
A fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) escorted Odyssey for a short time off the coast of New Jersey.
Photo - Chris Johnson

At 6am, the crew rose with the sun and quickly spotted the source of the codas. Twenty-five sperm whales lazed at the surface. With the engine turned off, we drifted toward them and watched them roll and twist at the surface - a mass of noses and tails rising and falling in unison. The whales gently rubbed each other with paddle shaped flippers and flexible tail flukes. Several animals turned and approached us, surrounding Odyssey in moments. Their exhalation blows were clearly audible and the vapor dispersed in the glow of the dawn. Arching their backs, several whales lifted their heads in an effort to see past their massive click producing noses, while others focused their echolocation clicks at Odyssey. The metronomic sounds carried toward those of us as we perched on the bow documenting their behavior. This experience with sperm whales was our last on the Voyage and seemed a wonderful and fitting end - the Odyssey crew alone, with sperm whales, far out to sea.

Later that afternoon, we moved on encountering more dolphins including bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) and a widely dispersed group of short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus).

The following morning off the coast of New Jersey, the Odyssey was escorted by a 60 foot long fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), that surfaced off our port beam only 10 meters away. The thunderous exhalation blow alerted the crew to its presence. This fast, sleek whale, second only in size to the enormous blue whale, swam parallel with our bowsprit, rising to the surface every few minutes to breath revealing the trade mark white lower jaw and chevron pattern behind the head. For almost 10 minutes the Odyssey and the whale cruised together on a northerly track before it veered off and we parted company.

Over the past few days, the crew sighted and picked up several man made objects floating at the surface of the ocean including discarded fishing gear and several items of plastic. For many years now, we have written about such encounters around the world. Entanglements, the ingestion of plastics by marine animals, and the associated persistent organic pollutants, is of major concern to us and motivates us to turn the Odyssey back out to sea.

With only two days left until the Odyssey lands in Boston, the crew is looking forward to the end while enjoying what little time we have left with whales. However, we are concerned about leaving our friends to face these increasing threats alone. We know that these past 5 and a half years gathering data and raising awareness about the health of the world's oceans and the whales that inhabit it, is only the beginning. Hopefully, the work of the Odyssey and the Ocean Allianc in this expedition can provide hope for future generations of both whales and people that are so reliant on a healthy marine ecosystem.

Frasier's Dolphins
The crew of the Odyssey picked up this discarded fishing gear off the coast of Virginia. This gear does not break down in the ocean, and is an ongoing threat to marine animals including whales and sea turtles.
Photo - Chris Johnson

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Odyssey log written by Genevieve & Chris Johnson.

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