04 August 2007

A most extraordinary week on board Pelagos

“Dolphins at 2 o’clock… dolphins at 1’o’clock… dolphins at 8 o’clock… dolphins at 4 o’clock… dolphins everywhere!!” - and so began a most extraordinary week on board Pelagos. Within moments of the first sighting, white splashes could be seen all around the boat and as far as the horizon in every direction. And thankfully this time it wasn’t breaking waves: it was a school of approaching striped dolphins. All around us they were leaping clear of the water, making a beeline for the bow of the boat for a free afternoon ride. Some were breaching, some were lob-tailing and some I think thought they were spinner dolphins, propelling themselves out of the water with graceful ease – how easy they made it all look! A calf was spotted in amongst the melee but its mother ensured it kept a safe distance from the goings-on around the boat, only when it was a bit older would it be allowed to partake in the fun!

For over an hour the dolphins cavorted around the boat, enabling time for some of the all important behavioural research to be undertaken, photographs to be snapped and general merriment to be experienced. A truly wonderful encounter!

Due to the unpredictable nature of the weather out in pelagic waters, “Pelagos” trips across to Corsica (over 90 nm to the south) are few and far between. We however were to be the lucky ones, and a cheer went up as we set sail for the island with everyone feeling like modern day explorers. A beautiful sunset prevailed out over deep waters and soon folk were bedding down for the night as there was to be a long night ahead with everyone taking turns on night shift – to ensure no rogue tankers or fast ferries crept up on us during the night. As we cut through the water effortlessly, under the power of sail alone, some dolphins made their presence known, not only by their clicks picked up on the hydrophone but by their gasps for air giving away their positions as being a mere 2 feet off the side of the boat. They were obviously there to ensure our safe passage to Corsica.

Corsica brought stunning coastline, extremely delicious ice-creams, a chance to top up the fresh water supply and beautiful starry skies. It also proved to be a most spectacular safe harbour for the night as we dropped anchor in the bay, unbeknownst to us at the time, taking front row seats for the spectacular fireworks display that was laid on at midnight by the local town. It was after all the eve of Bastille Day, marking their independence, and the French were celebrating in style! (And we thought they were just happy to see us!)

Leaving Corsica the next day we were extremely lucky to come across a group of feeding bottlenose dolphins. With flat calm conditions, these silver bullets for dolphins cut gracefully and silently, and it could be said lethargically, through the water in search of their prey. After staying a while, enough to ensure photographs had been taken of all dorsal fins for future identification, we set sail for home… only to meet another group 1 nm further on… more photographs, more delightful memories and off we set again.

The dolphins, the sailing and of course the “company” had made this an extremely enjoyable trip so far, but the best was yet to come (for some at least - for me nothing beats the dolphins so I was already on cloud nine and beyond)!

All that was missing was an encounter with a “whale” – any whale would do, we just wanted to show the participants one of the giants of the deep because we were beginning to think they didn’t believe us anymore. All our talk of enormous fin whales and cavorting sperm whales was now being met with sceptical looks and raised eyebrows!

And then we heard them… the unmistakeable sounds of sperm whales. We were picking them up on the hydrophone, in fact they appeared to be all around us… but not a “blow” in sight (where was Gerald – our blow spotter extraordinaire from CSR 8 – when you needed him?!)… and so we persevered… 14 sets of eyes trained on the sea as far as the horizon, 360 degrees in scope. After what seems like an age, with sunset rapidly approaching, that word which had escaped us all week, fell off the lips and we had our first “blow” in the distance. It was full steam ahead to try and get to the animal before it fluked up and disappeared into the depths for another mammoth dive. The atmosphere was electric!

All of a sudden it seemed as if we’d stumbled into sperm whale alley… everywhere you looked there were blows, individual ones, two side by side and strangely enough, very little flukes up. They weren’t diving, and instead they were engaging in tail slaps, spy-hopping and different forms of socialisation. These normally “solitary” males were exhibiting behaviour that can only be described as symbolising “a boy’s night out” – gregarious and rowdy.

The climax of the encounter began with one individual making a close approach to the boat to check out what this large object was that had strayed into his patch. He was joined by a second animal and then soon after a third, all slowly making their way around the circumference of the boat, rolling onto their sides, spy-hopping and generally just being inquisitive as to what and who we were – a sperm whale “human-watching” trip was taking place before our eyes. The tables had turned!

With the sun setting and the majority of the sail back to home harbour still to be undertaken (Corsica was still prominently on our starboard side) we reluctantly bade our farewells to our new friends and set course for home. It was a perfect end to a perfect week, and we still had the night navigation to tackle!

And we thought it couldn’t get any better than it already had… the next morning, sitting 5nm off from San Remo, enjoying the last of our Mediterranean experience, we were joined by a small pod of dolphins… a final farewell from our little striped friends.

An exquisite trip with much laughter, much fun and friendships to last a lifetime!

Nicola Hodgins, U.K.

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