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Today, as Chris Johnson scaned the sea for sperm whales, weather conditions turned for the worse with heavy rain and high wind gusts over 32 knots.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

February 12, 2001
Leaving the Whales of Kiribati
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the decks of the Odyssey. Yesterday morning we pulled out of Betio harbor in Tarawa Atoll for the last time, and headed for Kavieng, New Ireland, a remote port town on the North East coast of Papua New Guinea. We were expecting a direct passage of about twelve-days, but only two days west of Tarawa (and still in Kiribati territorial waters) we now find ourselves once again with sperm whales.

Last night, at about 2:00 am, Bob heard a series of sperm whale 'codas' on the acoustic hydrophone array. Codas are repeated patterns of clicks thought to be social vocalizations used by sperm whales as signitures to identify themselves to each other. The pattern is short and is more complex than the monotonous click trains that sperm whales make most of the rest of the time. In addition to being a probable form of communication, codas also seem to be associated with flamboyant behavior. Sure enough: our first sighting of the whales this morning was a breaching juvenile off the starboard bow.

As the watches changed all night we kept trcking the whales and at sunrise the entire crew was on deck ready to collect data. Now it's the end of the day and the sperm whales we spent it with are still all about us. It's a rather large group, consisting of small clusters spread over an area of eighty, to one hundred square miles. The two to three foot swell we are in, combined with an apparent wind speed of twenty-four knots on upwind legs made today's working conditions a bit hairy. That is because sperm whales, when approached by boats, often turn and swim into the wind. When the weather is calm, they tend to turn in the direction from which the wind blew last.

Rebecca Clark on the 'whaleboom' as the Odyssey approaches a sperm whale.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Back in the sail-powered whaling days this behavior would have made eminently good sense. But even though the Odyssey's engine easily drives us up wind, the crew understands the consequences of this unexplained behavior all too well. Heading into such swells means that the bow from which we collect data is often buried in a wave, so that those on deck receive a thorough soaking. We have to concentrate on keeping our footing on the wet deck whilst trying as well to protect the expensive camera gear, VHF radios, headsets and other electronic equipment.

Although challenging, I think we unanimously agree this exhilarating and inspirational job is one we wouldn’t exchange for any other!

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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