Lance's Journal

Azores -- 3 August

[Glossary ]

Up with the sun having been on watch since 4 am. Pink rays of light radiating out from the horizon like fingers, the stars slowly fading from view. Among whales all night long as we motored around the northern coast of San Miguel, hearing their many clicks [234k .au file] loud and clear. In fact, during the last hour, Simon and I have been maintaining the boat's position so as to remain centralized over several of the loudest vocalizations. [179k .au file]

We are rewarded for our efforts. Within minutes of climbing to my perch on the mast, the now familiar sperm whale blows of mother and calf lift up into the cool morning air, misty white against the island's backdrop of green cultured fields.

The next 5 hours is non-stop action. A number of calves come near the boat for a quick peak at us before returning to the safety of the adult females. Several of these young whales have distinctive features. One has white markings at the front of its nose. Another has a dorsal fin that curls over. An energetic juvenile gives us a performance of 8 breaches in row.

Eventually, around noon, I am brought down from the mast by the sight of Kirsten and Simon offering a delicious egg omelete. Soon, with belly full and a cool breeze tempering the warmth of the afternoon sun, I am dreaming on the smooth wooden deck.

But shouts of an approaching whale shake me from my short-lived slumber. It is heading directly for the boat. Scrambling for snorkel gear I slip over the side just in time to see a bluish gray streamlined whale--like an arrow--cruise by and on toward the bow. Definitely a rorqual, but the quick glance has left me wondering, what kind?

"A sei whale", says Richard, "and its coming round the stern."

Drifting back I grab hold of the inflatable and wait. Sure enough the whale makes its appearance and I leave go of my handhold to continue on with the current, hoping to cut across the whale's path. I do--rewarded by a great view of a beautiful animal, which I estimate at over 40 feet. The head is slender, terminating in a narrow, slightly arched and pointed snout, with a mouth that curves down toward a passive eye. Grooves line the underside of the throat, lighter in color than the upper portion of the head. The flippers are also slender, coming to distinctly pointed tips. Sunlight dancing off the whale's entire length, reveals several areas of pale, mottled, pigment patterns on the back and sides. White scars can be seen just in front and below the tall, erect dorsal fin, located about two-thirds of the body length back from the head. The tail stock is thick, ending abruptly in sharply triangular tail flukes, separated by a deep notch in the middle.

The whale circles in curiosity, but whenever I try to approach, it moves away. Returning to the inflatable, the whale continues to move around the boat, occasionally spyhopping by lifting its head straight out of the water. Apparantly more comfortable with me and now Raquel ( who has also entered the water) remaining by the inflatable, the sei whale gets progressively bolder, as each pass is a little closer. Finally, having overcome its apprehension, the whale dives directly below us, only a few feet away, passing between the boat's stern and our position, on the rope that leads to the inflatable. Deftly the large animal avoids the blue hydrophone cable during the passage. I can see two distinct blowholes, puckered tight, and a single, rather prominent ridge running from these blowholes nearly to the tip of the snout. The eye gazes up at us. What can he be thinking ? As the full length of the whale runs on, ending in the passage of the curved trailing edges of an amazingly steamlined tail (covered by large patches of sloughed skin) I am thinking only one thought-- Wow!

The whale must not have been quite as impressed (or simply had its wonderment fulfilled) for it headed away, returning about an hour later with a quick, distant pass, but then dissapears from sight.

Yet this day of thrills is not over. Late in the afternoon a number of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphin begin milling about, feeding near the boat. Once again entering the water, Jay, Raquel and I have an opportunity to approach as the pilot whales seem intent on dinner. Diving down about 30 feet I can see a round ball of small silvery fish they have been concentrating on. The pilot whales don't seem to mind my presence, allowing me to swim along side. There are several in this group and for a moment I feel as one with them.

Obviously catering to my pace, they stay directly to my right for a while, until I return to humanness (and the need for oxygen) reluctantly coming up for air.

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