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A group of spinner dolphins guided the Odyssey back into the Port of Betio.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

January 4, 2001
Guided by Dolphins
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson talking to you from Tarawa Atoll in the South Pacific. After a memorable Christmas and New Year spent at sea with sperm whales, the Odyssey and her crew have returned to port in Tarawa Atoll, the capital of Kiribati. For the past two and a half weeks, we have been weaving our way through tiny dots of land separated by large expanses of water. There are 33 atolls that make up the Republic of Kiribati, spanning an enormous 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean.

Tarawa came into view just after sunrise this morning. Upon entering the central lagoon of the atoll, an escort of bow riding Spinner dolphins marked our arrival. Spinners are a cosmopolitan species, found across the oceans’ tropical and subtropical zones. They are renowned as being the most acrobatic of all cetaceans, and are so named for their habit of leaping clear of the water and spinning up to 7 times on their slender axis (similar to the turning motion of a cork screw). They are the only dolphin species to do this and are therefore readily identifiable. Unfortunately this unique capability failed to save this species from the purse-seine nets of tuna boats in the 70’s and 80’s, with the Eastern Tropical Pacific population being cut by approximately half due to the practice of surrounding schools of dolphins, who are known to associate with schools of tuna, with large fishing nets.

The crew watched from the bowsprit of the Odyssey as these acrobatic dolphins jostled for the best position on the bow wave below us. Others performed spectacular aerial displays on both our port and starboard sides as they led us towards the town of Betio. Throughout history there have been countless stories of dolphins and porpoises being willing human companions, as well as numerous tales of these gregarious marine mammals accompanying boats, even guiding them through treacherous passes. As we wove the 100 ton, 94 ft bulk of the Odyssey through the navigational buoys marking the shallow channel, the dolphins that rode with us today reminded me of a particularly amazing story about a dolphin in New Zealand nearly a century ago. Affectionately known as "Pelorous Jack", he met and guided ships through the dangerous French Pass over a period of 41 years, during which time he never lost a boat. In 1903, a drunken sailor callously shot and wounded Pelorous Jack who later recovered and returned to his self appointed duty as ships navigator. However, he would never again pilot the barquentine ‘Penguin’, the source of the aggressive incident. In 1909, the ‘Penguin’, without the assistance of Pelorous Jack was wrecked in the French Pass and many sailors perished.

We have encountered spinner dolphins on numerous occasions over the last few months while in Kiribati, and have even swum with them on several times. Being guided into the port of Betio by this group of dolphins was a particularly special welcome to Tarawa Atoll.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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