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A rare view of a Bryde's whale underwater.
Photo: Chris Johnson

June 5, 2003
A Rare Whale Encounter
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

A few days ago, we detected a group of sperm whales using 'Rainbow Click - the computer program designed to find and track whales. When all is calm and quiet, the clicks delivered to us above the sea surface via our underwater microphones, reverberate through the pilot house speakers and can sometimes be heard the entire length of the boat, from bow to stern. Our only connection to these animals diving up to 2,000 meters below, is through sound.

The Odyssey crew spends many hours waiting for whales to conclude their long dives and return to the surface for a brief respite in our midst. During these periods we are each left to wonder about this fellow mammal, whose life beneath the oceans remains beyond our reach and shrouded in mystery. Herman Melville described it best -

    "Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head, on which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundations. Where unreached names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot, where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned, there in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home." - Herman Melville:Moby Dick.

The lives of sperm whales remain as much of an enigma as they did when Moby Dick was written over 150 years ago.

As we drifted downwind, the combined efforts of a faint breeze and a gentle ocean current, carried us along at a leisurely 3 knots - roughly the same speed and in approximately the same direction as the sperm whales travelling beneath us.

Suddenly there was a call from the observation platform - "There is something beneath the surface 100 meters off our port bow".

It was long and narrow, but the rolling swell and reflective light distorted its shape and proportions. The entire crew was on deck when the tip of a dorsal fin broke the surface, "perhaps it's a whale shark?" someone yelled.

We drifted closer and the animal didn't move. Reb was seated at the tip of the bowsprit and in the best position to see, she noticed that the tail was not vertical to the body as it is in fishes, but horizontal to the body as it is in whales. This was a whale, but a very small one and what species was it? It didn't appear to be travelling, instead it hung suspended, just beyond our range of vision only a few feet beneath the surface. Then suddenly, a blow, but it was still too far away to positively identify the species. However, it was immediately evident that this was not the low bushy blow of a sperm whale.

Odyssey Chief scientist, Peter Madsen asked Chris Johnson to grab his underwater camera and prepare to get in the water. It was important that we identify the species and document the encounter. The crew was all on deck, intrigued by the sighting, when the animal turned abruptly and headed directly toward Odyssey. The whale appeared unconcerned by our presence, perhaps even a little inquisitive. Whales are often observed approaching sailboats, maybe because there is no engine noise to disturb them.

The Bryde's whale turns revealing its white belly.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Chris slipped into the water with his camera ready to photograph the whale if it came close enough. He floated at the surface as the whale approached him.

Chris describes what he saw as the whale emerged ahead of him-

    "I was surprised at how small and slender the whale was. It was so streamlined, and glided by me very slowly with effortless efficiency. The whale blended into the blue abyss, it was not until it was close that I could see any detail on its body. I was surprised how difficult it was to see the whale, even as it approached me for a closer a look. The eye was tiny in proportion to the body length. It seemed curious and rolled on its side, I could see the throat pleats extending from the tip of the mouth all the way down the belly. It's a totally different experience to view a whale in its own environment"

The rest of us leaned over the railing as the little whale stopped and drifted alongside us and only 10 feet from Chris. It rose to breath again, revealing its rostrum (top of the jaw), it was a young Bryde's whale. The Bryde's whale is one of the smaller baleen species, averaging around 50 feet in length. Although it has been established that there are at least two distinct forms, an offshore, partly migratory species and an inshore resident species. The Bryde's whale (pronounced 'Broo-das), is unique in being the only baleen whale that breeds year-round rather than seasonally. This is presumably due to it having evolved to reside in tropical and sub-tropical waters, where food is available for most of the year. As a result it is not restricted to a particular calving season and is free from the constraints of migration.

This animal seemed quite small, perhaps only 20 feet long. We surmised that this may be a calf recently weaned from its mother, which would seem likely as they are known to measure less than 13 feet at birth. This is also an area in which we had recently observed a mother/calf pair of Bryde's whales, we all wondered if perhaps this was that calf? Our immediate concern was that it was lost or had been abandoned as there was no larger animal in sight, however the animal soon defecated, indicating it was feeding on its own. The crew was greatly relieved.

Unlike sperm whales who continue to nurse their calves for up to two years - in fact nursing has been documented in animals as old as 12 years, rorquals tend to wean their calves at approximately six months of age. Rorquals are the fast-swimming baleen whales equipped with distinctive, expandable throat grooves and include the blue, fin, sei, Bryde's and minke whales. Sperm whales give birth approximately every five years, while most rorquals calve at two to three year intervals.

The Bryde's whale has been hunted for centuries, yet it does not appear to have suffered the devastation bestowed upon other baleen whale species. There remains no firm estimate of Bryde's populations and sadly, they are among the species currently targeted by Japanese whalers, who claim the need to kill them for so called 'scientific' purposes.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey on the west coast of Sri Lanka.


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