Roger Payne is president of the Ocean Alliance. Ocean Alliance, which includes both the Whale Conservation Institute and the Voyage of the Odyssey, is dedicated to the conservation of whales and their ocean environment through research and education.

Monday, 18 Jun 2001

GAROVE ISLAND, Papua New Guinea

This is Roger Payne, writing to you from the Odyssey. Over the next week, I am going to try to give you an idea of what daily life is like aboard our research vessel as we set out across the Bismarck Sea to study sperm whales around New Guinea. I will also describe some of the delights we encounter in the course of this kind of research.

The RV Odyssey.

The Voyage of the Odyssey is a multiyear, collaborative program designed to gather the first-ever coherent set of baseline data on levels of synthetic contaminants throughout the world’s oceans and to measure the effects of these substances on ocean life. It uses predators living at the tops of oceanic food pyramids as indicator species to measure the health of the seas.

Launched in April 2000, Ocean Alliance’s research vessel, Odyssey, will circumnavigate the world between 2000 and 2003, collecting biopsy samples from adult male and female sperm whales and predatory fish in the equatorial zone that will be analyzed by colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

We are in the middle of a three-and-a-half-week trip and are concentrating our search for sperm whales in an area in which we found them last week. We need to collect more samples from the groups we found and are hoping to put a tag on a sperm whale. This tag can make calibrated recordings for half an hour of the sounds being made by the whale that is carrying it. It is held on by a suction cup that comes off (hopefully) after an hour or so.

When I awoke this morning, we were out at sea, making our way west through mirror-calm seas. But after baking in the sun all day and fighting temperatures above and below decks that were in the 90s, we were unsuccessful in our search for whales. Our days have been hot and the sky blue, with high, wispy clouds mixed with smaller, puffy ones — a stunning skyscape that reflects and blends into the liquid metallic blue of the sea. During much of the day, I was below decks in my cabin, writing material for the web, for my institute, and to my family.

Whenever I went on deck during the course of the day, I found that we were encountering lots of floating detritus, most of it obviously from logging operations. It included trees as big as the Odyssey (God help us if we ever hit such a log at night). Though we were not aware of having hit anything, we must have struck a piece of detritus during the past 24 hours, which took out our bow camera. Because we have a replacement unit, we have decided to take refuge in nearby Garove Island, which boasts a totally protected crater lagoon where we can try to repair the damage.

A house on Garove Island.

Photo: Genevieve Johnson, Ocean Alliance.

Garove Island is off the northwest coast of New Britain province, part of the Vitu Island group. As we approached, Genevieve Johnson, who runs our onboard education projects, came to tell me that we would soon be entering the island’s lagoon. She had been there before and knew how beautiful it is. So I went on deck and stood in the yellow light of late afternoon, awestruck, watching an isolated Eden slowly unfolding — a place in which people appear to be living at peace with all aspects of their lives, unaffected by the kinds of forces that bedevil the lives of Westerners like me — as lovely a spot as I’ve ever seen.

The day ended with the Odyssey swinging gently at anchor in the crater — a kind of magical lake closely surrounded by high, near-vertical walls that add mysterious and unearthly echoes to every sound. Large sections of these walls are too steep for trees, but vegetation covers them anyway — vines of the most vivid green I’ve ever beheld, a kind of intense viridescence that looks as if it were giving off its own otherworldly emerald light.

Garove Island crater lagoon — a place lost in time.

Photo: Chris Johnson, Ocean Alliance.

The day is now fading, but through my binoculars I can see a canopy of swifts riding the updrafts high above the crater’s curving rim. About a minute ago, I watched a flying fox make its heavy, hard-flapping way across the lagoon. I have seen it proposed that flying foxes are more closely related to primates than to bats. Whether that is true I cannot judge, but when I think of flying foxes as relatives of mine, I can imagine better what it may entail for such an improbable flier to leave its safe hanging place and strike out across the sea, which is prowling beneath, waiting for a chance to swallow it whole. I’m guessing that such a passage may require greater courage from a cautious primate’s brain than it does from the seemingly incautious brain of the bat clan. If so, are flying foxes brave?

It is now dark and the crew is enjoying their well-earned first night in several of uninterrupted sleep. I just went on deck to listen, alone in the total stillness, to the subtle night sounds that are coming from the crater walls around us.

Flapping, leathery wings occasionally passing overhead.
Fish splashes scattered about.
No lights on shore.
Millions of stars.
The world deep in peace.

So ends this day.