Galapagos and mobile phones…

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I first joined Odyssey when she was in San Diego having a haul out and paint job. As a volunteer I donned overalls and was put to work with power tools and a varnish brush, helping to get the boat ready for her long voyage. My friends and I slept on the floor of some guy’s house and ate the most awful take-away fast food every night, but we were working on Dr Roger Payne’s research boat, so none of that mattered. This was almost twenty years ago and the attention the ladies on our volunteer team got from guys working in the boatyard was quite funny, they had never seen anything like it. A whole bunch of young women (and some guys too) working for nothing every day just for the chance of seeing whales. Why? They could not comprehend it.

We had a fun team with guys and gals. Here I am eating pizza, all dressed up with some of the lovely male volunteers. 

I ended up becoming the varnisher, putting many, many layers of varnish over the teak table, handrail and other parts of this beautiful boat. Odyssey was built as a private yacht, so she was stunning, but she had to be made ready for slightly harder usage as a whale research boat about to sail around the world.

Sanding the propeller was my first real foray into the use of power tools!

We officially launched the voyage in Monterey, California sailing up there and I experienced my first battle (of many) with sea-sickness on board this beautiful, but rolly boat. On the way we saw grey whales and Dall’s porpoise, my first time seeing these Pacific species. Roger joined us on-board for the first time there and I was totally star-struck to meet him. We gave tours of our then state-of-the-art research sailing yacht and showed hundreds of people our tiny cabins, where many of us hoped to spend the next weeks and for some, months and years. After returning to San Diego to get her fully prepared, we finally slipped our lines off the dock with no one watching and headed out to sea; the first leg of the five year journey sailing from San Diego to the Galapagos Islands.

Me and my fellow whale watching volunteers turned Odyssey crew

As a thank you for all the hard work I had put in for no money, I got to join this part of the voyage just for fun. What an amazing experience. Yes, I did get HORRIBLY sea sick, but I was on Roger Payne’s research boat! What a privilege.

During that two weeks at sea I learned about real sailing, saw animals I had only dreamed of seeing, slept on deck rolling from side to side, and looked up at night skies that were totally without light pollution. Captain Bob Wallace, starting his third circumnavigation of the planet by boat, taught us about night watch, squalls and star gazing. We saw dolphins bow riding in phosphorescence at night, green dolphin shaped glows shooting through the water.  On our way down we also managed to catch a turtle that had a fishing hook through its mouth around the bow. We were only alerted to this by a banging on the hull, and when we investigated we had sailed over the line and caught it around the front of the boat. This has to be the luckiest turtle alive as we were in open ocean, but once we got it up on deck we managed to cut away the hook and line and release the turtle back into the water.

An incredibly lucky escape for a green sea turtle, entangled in fishing gear, but finding us in open ocean to disentangle it. 

Just north of the Galapagos we sailed across the equator and those of us who were Pollywogs (sailors who had not crossed the equator on a boat before) were brought before his highness King Neptune himself (aka Captain Bob Wallace) and subjected to a reasonably tame ceremony to become a Shellback. This is a seafaring tradition going back many years when sailors often also had their heads shaved and their ears pierced as the crossed the line. We just had old food thrown over us and were generally ridiculed, especially those of us who had already crossed the line, but on a plane, a heinous crime in the eyes of Neptune. After this we jumped in the ocean and swam across the equator in water thousands of metres deep, cleaning the food off our heads!

Paying our respects to King Neptune as we became Shellbacks, crossing the equator on a boat. 

As we arrived into Galapagos we sailed close to Darwin’s arch, saw hammerhead sharks, breaching manta rays and a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins mixed with melon headed whales.

I was hooked. This was the ocean, adventure, travel, nature as well as whales and life didn’t feel like it would ever be quite the same again after experiencing this. I remember going home and not really feeling like I fitted in with friends anymore, who chatted about the new invention ‘mobile phones’ and what tunes they could play, while I dreamed of Galapagos and the ocean.

I ended up returning to the Odyssey a further three times after this, and so the adventure continues…

My lucky break- working for the Godfather of whale science

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My big break into the whale world was certainly getting to work on the R/V Odyssey, Dr Roger Payne’s research sail boat. I still have to pinch myself that this actually happened. Roger was one of the scientists that first discovered humpback whales sing complex songs. This discovery in the late 1960s helped to elevate whales to being thought of more as intelligent mammals than huge, blubbery fish (which if course they are not) and this helped to kick-start the ‘save the whales’ movement, that culminated in the signing of the international moratorium to end commercial whaling in 1986.

One of my happiest memories, meeting Dr Roger Payne, the man who co-discovered humpback song and a hero of mine

As a child growing up loving whales, every documentary, book and film about whales usually featured Roger, as he was one of the first scientists studying wild whales. Even now, many films still feature his words. He is one of the most post poetic, poignant orators on whale conservation even now.

Although Roger’s amazing book Among Whales is quite old now, it still comes highly recommended. I only wish he had written more. 

My internship at Cape Ann Whale Watch was affiliated with Roger’s non-profit Ocean Alliance and at the end of my time there we were told about the proposed Voyage of the Odyssey.

The Odyssey, our beautiful 93 foot ketch research boat. 

The plan was a five year, round-the-world expedition to study sperm whales, and specifically the build-up of man-made chemicals within their blubber. Man-made chemicals dissolve in fat and not in water so when they enter the ocean, they end up collecting in the blubber of whales and dolphins. They enter at the bottom of the food-chain in plant plankton and increase, it is thought ten-fold, every step up that is made in the food-chain. This means that by the time you get to the top predators in the ocean, some of them are carrying such high toxin loads they have to be disposed of as toxic-waste when they die, instead of as biological material.

Sperm whales lift their tails high when they go on a deep dive. They feed at great depths on benthic squid and fish.

The voyage I was to become a part of was designed to try and get some base-line data of what kind of toxin loads sperm whales were carrying. It began in 2000, ending in 2005, and during this time I spent around 2.5 years on board in various parts of the world. It was the adventure of a life-time, with many amazing moments, and lots of difficult ones too. But being a part of such a prestigious undertaking has certainly helped open doors for me in the whale-world ever since. I will write more of my adventures soon.

Spoon the sleepy, massive humpback whale

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Spoon is a very special whale. She is huge, often seems a bit sleepy, and sadly appears to not be a very good mother!

Spoon is often sighted sleeping. When humpbacks sleep the lay motionless in the water. Half their brain is asleep, while the other half remains awake to remind them to breathe as they do not breathe automatically like we do. 

It was the 1970s when we first started studying live whales and realised that we can tell individuals apart by natural markings. With humpbacks we use the black and white patterns on the under-side of the tail, but with other species we use other parts of the body, like the skin for gray whales and blues, and dorsal fins with the saddle patch for orcas.

I started my whale watching off the coast of New England, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. There the humpback whales are given names based on a pattern on the tail. This is not to try and make the whales into pets, they are wild animals (and so they should be), but it is much easier to remember a name than a catalogue number. The names are not gender specific as we mostly do not know males from females, or people names, but named from looking at the tail and seeing an interesting mark or pattern.

Spoon’s tail. You can see a kind of spoon shaped mark just to the left of the centre (you need to have an imagination to name whales!)

The company I worked for, Cape Ann Whale Watch, had a life size humpback painted on the dock where we tied up the boat. The whale that was chosen to be painted, out of a population of thousands, was Spoon. Before every trip we did a dock talk standing on the painted Spoon, explaining details of the trip ahead.

This is me giving a dock talk on top of a life size representation of Spoon

Spoon is thought to be one of the biggest whales in this population, estimates suggest around 55 feet long (16.7 metres). Female humpbacks are larger than males, probably because they have to go through a long period of starvation when they are nursing a calf down in the breeding grounds. Most of the north Atlantic humpback whale population breed on Silver Bank, off the coast of the Dominican Republic. There is no humpback food down in these warmer waters and so the mothers feed their calves when fasting, losing a massive amount of blubber; up to a third of their body weight.

Having done hundreds of dock talks standing on Spoon’s outline and explaining the pattern on her tail, as well as seeing her many times (mostly sleeping) out on Stellwagen Bank, the feeding ground, I went to the Dominican Republic to see the whales in their breeding area.

During my time there with Conscious Breath Adventures I was lucky enough to get to swim with the humpback whales. One mother and calf in particular, during the week I was there, allowed us into the water with them multiple times. Before entering the water with the whales a member of the crew goes in first to check the whales do not mind the presence of people near them. This is one of the reasons I recommend this area as one of the most responsible swim with programmes in the world. Only three boats are allowed in the area, there is a huge area that is off-limit for boats and swimmers and as you are there for a week they never put people in the water with whales that do not seem comfortable with people around. If you just go out to swim with whales for one day, the temptation for the crew to put people in the water when it is inappropriate to do so is very strong.

Spoon’s calf underwater, which we nick-named ‘Lucky’. 

When photos were analysed after the trip we realised that the mother and calf we had been in the water with was none other than Spoon. How amazing that out of a population of thousands of whales the one I got to see underwater was the same individual we chose to have as our mascot at Cape Ann Whale Watch.

Sadly her calf of that year looked like it had already been entangled in fishing gear with scars on the pectoral fins when it was only a few months old.

Lucky with his Mum Spoon seen as the dark shape behind. Sadly Lucky didn’t seem to survive his first feeding season.

I got to see Spoon later that year back on Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts with her calf, but later that season she was spotted alone and her calf from that season has never been re-sighted. Sadly, many of Spoon’s calves appear to have not made it to adulthood. She certainly appears to be a very calm whale, maybe it could be said a little inattentive to her offspring. As you get to know individual whales it is fascinating to see their different skills and personalities. They have them just as we do.

Meeting ‘the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales’ – humpbacks

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Whale watched in both feeding and breeding grounds, humpbacks reward whale watchers so often with their behaviours. Herman Melville described humpbacks as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water than any other of them”. And he was right.

A mother humpback appearing to be giving her calf a breaching lesson, South Africa. 

As an aside, if you are going whale watching, do check how many boats work that area as in many places humpbacks could be considered too whale watched. I work in Hólmavík, Westfjords Iceland now, where we are the only boat with the whales. Much better for you and for the whales.

I had been saving money while working in the university library to do a masters in oil painting restoration, when I heard about an internship to go and work on a whale watch with humpback whales. When the lovely whale freak Cynde McInnis (I hope she does not mind being described that way) agreed to have me along, I spent that money on going to Gloucester, Massachusetts to intern for Cape Ann Whale Watch.
I had only seen one wild baleen whale before, off the coast of Scotland on a week-long wildlife watching trip. While it was a fabulous trip around the outer Hebrides, one glimpse at a Minke whale was certainly different to what I would experience with the humpback whales.
Humpback whales are known for their curiosity, surface behaviours and bubble feeding techniques, all of which incredible behaviours I would get to see in my three month internship.

A feeding ground for humpbacks off the coast of New-England, Stellwagen Bank is a US National Marine Sanctuary. The humpback whales are well known there with individuals having been followed since the mid 1970s, using the unique patterns on the underside of the tail. These black and white patterns, like our fingerprints, allow us to follow the whales using photographs. An annual ‘whale naming party’ attended by all the whale watchers in the area meant the whales got names based on the patterns on their tails.

I was so very lucky to learn about working on a whale watch here. Cynde has completed a masters in whale watching education, and I learned from one of the best. We had teaching tools which we took around the boat to show the passengers and teach them about the whales before and after our time on whales. Although responsible, well managed whale watching I do not believe is detrimental to the whales, I feel you are doing the animals a huge injustice if you do not teach people about what they are seeing when out on the boats. Having a boat around can obviously affect the whales a little, but if the people on board leave with a new respect, knowledge and understanding of what they saw and conservation issues facing whales, at least some minor disturbance from a boat is somewhat mitigated.

I still use the knowledge I gained from my internship twenty years ago to teach passengers every day on the whale watches I now work on, with basic teaching tools like baleen and whale teeth. Engaging people in the whales, environment and what they saw is very important to be a great whale watching guide in my opinion.

During my time in Massachusetts I got to know some individual humpback whales well and I will share the amazing story of Spoon with you in my next blog.

Follow your dreams

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I sometimes give lectures to people about my life, work, whales and passion. I try to encourage young people (or anyone for that matter), if they have a passion not to give up on it and not to allow anyone else to talk them out of trying to achieve their dream. Although we all know that dream jobs are not always achievable, and encouraging someone too much to think that it will be easy and they can become ‘rich and famous’ if they want to without much hard work is not very helpful, it is also the case that talking people out of going for it and at least trying, in a realistic way is also not great. I don’t really remember how strongly it was suggested I give up studying science at college, however I was certainly not encouraged to continue studying science, even though it was my dream to work with whales and dolphins.

This is me aged around 10, I think, meeting the captive orca Winnie at Windsor Safari Park. I would never advocate captivity now for any cetacean and I am living proof that you do not need to see them in a pool to love them, as I was already madly in love with whales before going here (hence the home made whale jumper and jewellery!). At the time I am ashamed to say I was captivated, but now whale watching is so accessible, there is no excuse for captivity.


So, after graduating from my wonderful, interesting, but slightly not useful in the whale and dolphin world degree in art history, I had to decide what to do next. I was planning on becoming an art restorer! However, my friend Alex decided to go on holiday with her then boyfriend to Massachusetts and she got chatting to an amazing lady, Cynde McInnis, when she went out with Cape Ann Whale Watch. Cynde told her about an internship to volunteer on the boat, teach people about whales and help take data. I started to email poor Cynde regularly, for months, begging to be allowed to come. Little did I know I was months too early but eventually Cynde agreed for me to come, the first foreign intern to undertake her internship. My whale watching was about to begin!

Cynde McInnis, my mentor in whale guiding now has a life-size inflatable humpback whale called The Whalemobile which she takes to schools to teach kids, including a lesson inside the whale!