An Extraordinary Odyssey Encounter in the Gulf of Mexico

Leg 2 Part 2 by Scientific Manager of Operation Toxic Gulf Andy Rogan:

Dawn on June 18th broke, a last ditch effort for the leg to get more biopsies. And as we turned north to explore a new area a quite extraordinary day began with a familiar sound.

Watching a whale on FLIRA click. Not a whole series of clicks. Just one. There was a sperm whale out there somewhere, but it was some distance away. To find a sperm whale from just one click requires patience, vigilance experience and skill. And that is what was applied. One click turned into a short cluster of clicks. The boat headed in the estimate direction of the whale, regularly stopping to reduce interference from the engines on the hydrophone. The clicks became louder, clearer. Eventually a quiet yet steady train of clicks visualized across the computer screen. One train of clicks turned in to two trains of clicks. Two trains of clicks=two whales. A few hours after the initial click, an array of dotted lines littered the screen in front of us.

Sperm whale blow with oil rigIt was certainly not an easy day. The whales made us work to obtain the samples. But it was a satisfying day, and obtain the samples we did.

The excitement of the day, however, came from a different source, a different species. In fact it came from multiple different species. At first it was the usual suspects. No matter how many times the crew of the Odyssey have dolphins bow-riding it always evokes the same reaction. Unadulterated joy and excitement–an emotion unquestionably shared and passed between us and our fleeting visitors. This time it was bottlenose and pantropical spotted dolphins.

Next on the scene was a more mysterious visitor. The boat happened upon a small pod of unidentified cetaceans which quickly disappeared beneath the waves as we approached. Their identity remains a mystery but they were certainly members of the ‘blackfish’ group of whales: their physical appearance closely matching melon-headed whales but their behaviour and small group composition suggesting the far rarer and shyer pygmy killer whale. As the day wore on it was determined that we had sampled each sperm whale in the group and we left them for a new area. All was quiet, no clicks reverberating through the bridge. Quite unexpectedly, from the mid-level platform came a call over the radio, “There is a whale out there but I don’t know what species.” The crew ventured out on deck and sure enough, in the distance, the unmistakable shape of cetaceans cutting through the waves could be seen. Too big to be dolphins; too small to be sperm whales. As we neared the group the dorsal fin proved the identifying factor. Beaked whales.

Battle-scarred beaked whale in Gulf of MexicoBeaked whales are amongst the most mysterious animals in the ocean. A large group of medium-sized toothed whales, most of what we know about them, even in 2014, comes from occasional strandings, with some species never having been positively identified at sea. They’re notoriously difficult to spot, with small innocuous blows and they seem to spend most of their time in the ocean depths, normally only coming to the surface for a few passing moments before disappearing. They also tend to be shy animals, preferring to distance themselves from boats. At least that is what we thought… And that is why the crew were so surprised and excited as a large battle-scarred old male appeared within 30 metres of the boat, swimming directly at us. The animal was extraordinary, with massive scars and wounds from fights with other males covering its entire back. And the whale came back, twice, apparently intently curious as to the nature of the Odyssey. And with the boat drifting and the engines turned off, the crew were offered a truly unique experience with one of the most enigmatic creatures of the deep–an experience all present will never forget. The species has yet to be confirmed, but was most likely a Cuvier’s beaked whale.

Eventually the almost overwhelming nature of the serene encounter began settling down and the crew began to shrink beneath decks for the night. And just as the last crew member descended from the whale observation platform, one final call of “Whales!” rang out. At first it appeared to be a floating log with a bird sitting on one end. Whilst the sighting was from some distance it was certainly the rarest species we encountered during the day–a dwarf sperm whale.

And then it was done. And the day was done. And the leg was done. An extraordinary encounter to finish an extraordinary day.