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With light winds behind the Odyssey, the crew raised the spinnaker.
Photo: Chris Johnson

August 1, 2002
The Indian Ocean
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the western Indian Ocean, 500 nautical miles southeast of the Seychelles.

Since leaving the Chagos Archipelago a week ago, we have spent our days in the company of hundreds of bow-wave riding, ocean-swell surfing, pan-tropical, spotted dolphins. At night, the familiar squeaks, and clicks of pilot whales fill the early morning watch hours - a time that all of us on the crew prize most.

Because the wind is favorable, we have turned off the engine and are sailing towards the Seychelles. The lack of engine noise makes it easier for us to listen for whales on the acoustic array that we tow behind Odyssey at all times.

As anyone who has ever experienced blue-water sailing knows, there is nothing more serene yet awe-inspiring than cutting through ocean swells under the primeval power of the wind for days on end. On clear, calm mornings before dawn, we see, where the ocean meets the sky, a dazzling, serene, mirrored sky and seascape. The stars flicker above, their reflections dance on the sea surface among legions of tiny phosphorescent creatures that blink on and off, while the chattering of dolphins surrounds and fills the Odyssey. During these moments, I believe it would be impossible, even for the most boundless imagination, to conjure up a more beautiful setting. It is primal Nature that carries us towards our destination-a destination that surely cannot rival the pleasure of the journey.

The Odyssey is in her element, sailing at a steady 7 - 8 knots. We are travelling before a following sea, a steady 15 knot wind on our quarter. The sailing conditions are perfect. The crew sails the boat with jib, main and mizzen set. On days like today when the trade winds are particularly light, we raise the spinnaker.

The best time to sail west across the tropical waters of the Southern Indian Ocean is during the months of June through September when the trade winds are most settled and steady. The Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans all experience trade winds at different times of year, north and south of the equator and along the tropical belt, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The southeast trade winds are formed by high-pressure systems that relentlessly move from west to east across the vastness of the Indian Ocean. Cumulus clouds are often present under these conditions - a clear sign of settled weather, and trade winds can blow for days on end-winds that are universally appreciated by sailors the world over.

When crossing an ocean in tropical regions, sailors look for the latitudes where trade winds blow, thus assuring the assistance of steady wind. Before making an ocean crossing, our Captain, Rodrigo Olson studies the Pilot Charts in order to choose the best route.

Captain Rodrigo Olson.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Odyssey Captain - Rodrigo Olson:
"These charts offer nautical information for each month of the year and for all oceans of the world. By reading these charts, we can study the general oceanic current patterns, the average wind direction, percentage of calms, average wave heights, average frequency and tracks of tropical storms and average sea temperature among other things. Also, we study the book, Ocean Passages of the World. It was written for vessels sailing all over the world. Finally, once the Odyssey is at sea, we are able to obtain daily weather forecasts that give us information on the expected winds and the formation of any storms. Taking all of this information into account gives us the chance to get the most benefit from the elements and have a safe passage."

Our course is leading the R/V Odyssey in a west by southwest direction, as we currently travel above a trench 3,000 meters deep. (Past experience has indicated that such geological features often attract feeding sperm whales.) With the 100 meter acoustic array in tow, the crew listens eagerly for the familiar click trains of sperm whales. The waters surrounding the Seychelles once hosted tens of thousands of these whales. But unfortunately, the area was also popular with whalers, who were attracted not just by the whales but by the same perfect sailing conditions that caused Rodrigo to select our route. Because this area was a favorite hunting ground for sperm whalers for over two centuries, the sperm whale populations in the western Indian Ocean, as in all the world's oceans, were over hunted, and they declined dramatically.

The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water on earth, covering about 26,000,000 square miles (67,450,000 square kilometres). It is roughly triangular in shape and over 6,000 miles wide at its widest point. It joins the Atlantic on one side, to the Pacific on the other, while the waters to the south are the frigid waters of the Antarctic ocean. The Indian ocean is strikingly different from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in that it does not reach north into cold polar waters. In fact very little of it is in the northern hemisphere, as the Northern Indian Ocean is blocked by Asia and India. This results in an interplay between land and sea that has a dramatic impact on its climate.

The Indian Ocean comprises approximately twenty percent of the Earth's water surface. Unfortunately, its oceanographic conditions are less well known than those of the Atlantic and Pacific. However, it is known that this ocean has the longest, natural, straight-line feature on the planet (both on land or in the sea), the so-called "Ninety Degree Ridge." It is an undersea mountain range that runs nearly due North and South for over 2000 nautical miles.

The Indian Ocean possesses a rich maritime history that stretches from ancient trade routes to modern whaling, and today it serves as the primary route by which the West obtains Persian Gulf oil. There are undoubtedly many marine and geological treasures yet to be uncovered; an example is the discovery in recent years of living Coelacanths, ancient fish known before to science only through fossils.

Genevieve, Rodrigo and Caleb raise the mizzen sail to take advantage of the speed offered by the tradewinds.
Photo: Chris Johnson

The Indian Ocean is not only rich in scientific research opportunities but in commercially valuable opportunities as well. For example: below the surface of the Red Sea, (which is also considered to be part of the Indian Ocean) scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have found major deposits of iron, manganese, zinc and copper, 6,000 feet down. Here they will remain until someone invents an economically viable method for extracting them.

With such a beguiling diversity of undersea environments ranging from mountains to deep trenches, to coral reefs and atolls, to mangrove swamps and the deep, life-filled blue waters in between, there is still much for humans to learn about this beautiful ocean. The Odyssey will be exploring the Indian Ocean until the end of 2003, be sure to follow us as we search for sperm whales, and conduct our research in the waters of several island states (including the Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. Stay tuned.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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