Lance's Journal

During the summer of 1995, Lance Leonhardt and the "Song of the Whale" research vessel, spent two weeks around the Azores Islands studying a variety of whales. What follows is Lance's detailed account of the journey.

Azores -- 25 July

[Glossary ]

Heading out of the port of Horta, Faial in the early morning. As we sail east toward Pico, a thin white crescent moon hangs in the sky to the left of a dark, pyramid-shaped volcano. At 2,351 meters, the summit is Portugal's highest and dominates the landscape of this Azorean island. It was here only a decade ago that whaling for the planet's largest toothed animal--the sperm whale--ended as a way of life for the people of Pico. Today, members of the research vessel "Song of the Whale" will be working with researchers from the University of the Azores, to develop a program which will assess the impact of another type of human interaction with whales: "whale-watching", a growing eco-tourism industry on Faial and Pico.

Immediately as we approach our destination just off Ponta da Queimada, on Pico's southern coast, a group of spotted-dolphin begin riding the pressure wave in front of our bow. The boat slides forward through the clear, deep blue water. Several of the dolphins turn their bodies slightly to the side so that their eyes meet mine, making a few more passes before departing. We had known of the dolphin's presence [26k .au file] before their arrival by using a hydrophone strung out from the back of our vessel. The device is capable of detecting cetacean vocalizations up to distances of 20 miles, and a similar hydrophone is being tested today on the Azorean research vessel.

Pilot whales, with several small juveniles, make a run past our boat. Mixed in with this group are several bottlenose dolphin. Their whistles, coming in clearly over the headphones connected to the hydrophones, are far different from the steady clicks of the sperm whale [26k .au file] who we have also been hearing (but not seeing) for well over an hour. Suddenly a bushy, angled blow, at a distance of about 800 meters, signals the surfacing of the whale which has been the subject of this boat's research in the Azores since 1988. We have been guided to the whale's general location by using the strength and position of the clicks within the headphones. (A strong signal in the right ear means the whale's position in the depths below is behind the boat, a louder signal in the left ear and the whale is in front of the boat. If the signal is of equal strength in both ears, the sperm whale could be to either side of our craft, or when extremely loud, possibly directly below.)

Simon maneuvers the boat to a position behind the whale so that Jay can take photographs of the tail flukes. The high-speed black and white film will be used to identify any unusual markings, such as nicks or notches, which may distinguish one whale from another. As we approach, the whale blows several more times, rolls slightly forward and raises its massive tail straight to the sky and disappears--leaving a smooth circular patch of water on an otherwise choppy sea.

Clicks [145k .au file] from the whales off Pico remained quite loud and numerous [68k .au file] the remainder of the day, but besides this initial contact, most sightings were at a distance. On the way back to Lajes, where we were to moor for the night, we noticed a sperm whale only 500 meters from shore. Richard brought the boat close enough for me to see the blow hole, positioned to the left, in front of the head. The whale did not fluke but submerged just below the surface, blowing out a stream of bubbles as it moved past us. A few seconds later the whale emerged again, lifting a portion of its bulbous head clear of the water and opening its blowhole so wide that I could see directly into the s-shaped hole. Taking one last breath, the whale humped up then fluked with hundreds of sea birds -- cory's shearwaters -- skimming the surface above the round slick, marking the whale's point of disappearance.

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