internship Archives - Judith Scott Photography

Galapagos and mobile phones…

By | All News, Life, Travel, Whales | 8 Comments

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…

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

By | All News, Life, Photography, Travel, Whales | One Comment

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.