22nd November 2001
Last night seeing dolphins swimming in the bioluminescence was mind blowing, but I was woken up at first light today for more marine mammal drama.
I woke to a banging on my door this morning; it was Miguel ‘You wanna see whales?’ he said, ‘There are some outside of the ship.’ Within seconds I was on the bridge looking out at the stern where a huge sperm whale followed the ship. I braved the cold and went onto the bridge wing for a better look.
The winches whined as the whale swam lazily waiting for the net to be hauled, after a few minutes it must have decided to get a snack, arched it’s back, raised it’s massive tail into the air and dived below the waves. I went back in to the warm bridge and waited. A few minutes later a second whale arrived, then another two, and before I knew it there were 5 massive sperm whales surrounding the ship. To add to the spectacle a pod of dolphins, no doubt part of the megapod which I’d seen last night in the bioluminescent plankton, joined them.
The sperm whales took it in turns to dive (presumably to the net to pick off escapee fish) while the others stayed on the surface blowing plumes of mist every 20 seconds or so. The blowing was quite rhythmic and you could predict when a whale was going to blow by getting a sense of the order, it was possible to glance from one to the other watching each take it’s turn to blow. The pattern only broke when one dived.
As they re-surfaced their heads came out of the water and you could get a good view of their ‘left-handed’ blow holes. Isn’t it strange that sperm whales have their blow holes pointing to the left? While they were on the surface I could see the scars and rake marks from previous run-ins with other creatures of the deep; maybe other whales, sharks and giant squid. It’s easy to see why they are the creatures of legend and stories like Moby Dick were written about them.
All too soon the net was hauled; a meagre half tonne of Greenland halibut. All of these whales and dolphins must have been attracted to this area by an abundance of food, but it wasn’t Greenland halibut! The whales weren’t in a hurry to leave once the net was hauled, but Miguel was. As soon as the net was on board we steamed away. I’d have liked to have bobbed there a while longer looking at these amazing animals, but Miguel had to rendezvous with another ship to tranship some goods. As we steamed away you could see the whales in the distance and a peppering of dolphins around them. I’d have done anything to get in the water with a snorkel and fins (and a dry suit!) to see what was going on below the surface.
Not much is known about sperm whales; they hunt giant squid (when not stealing from trawlers!) thousands of metres deep. Their name derives from the oily fluid that swells their enormous head (which accounts for a third of their body length!), called spermaceti which at some point in history was mistakenly thought to be the whale’s semen. The spermaceti is said to be involved with the buoyancy of the whales but it may also play a role as some kind of acoustic aid, focusing the whale’s sonar. Spermaceti was highly prized by whalers, as the oil burned well in lamps and was a good lubricant. Sperm whales belong to the toothed whales and are the largest carnivorous animal on earth. The bottom jaw is equipped with a row of eight-inch teeth. Males can weigh 53 tonnes and reach 60ft in length while females are half the size.
I feel so very lucky to have seen these amazing animals up close. They are so impressive. Last night and this morning have more than made up for all the bad weather, horrible food and the difficult situations I have experienced so far on this trip.
Later we met up with the Santa Isabel to exchange parcels and receive supplies from Aveiro. The Santa Isabel has just arrived in the NRA from Portugal with a female observer on board. The exchange was the usual affair, not greatly interesting but it’s nice to see another ship up close and I had a chat to the observer on the radio.