Wednesday, 20 Jun 2001

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

This is Roger Payne, writing to you from the Odyssey. I awoke this morning just before sunrise. The sky was already pink behind silhouetted thunderheads that looked like two-dimensional cardboard cutouts of clouds, the lingering remnants of last night’s violent thunderstorm, which had flashed brilliantly even though the fury they were raining down was at least 100 miles away, presumably over the tropical highlands of New Guinea. The violence of this nightly fireworks spectacle is always shocking, but I have yet to hear any thunder.

I watched as the sky lightened and went through its magical show of pinks and greens and blues and finally (as I was wondering whether I wasn’t hearing a flourish of trumpets) up rose the sun, cutting through all those layers of silken mists like a blowtorch. And so it has continued all day, so hot that, as I sit here typing in my cabin, when the boat rolls or turns to allow a shaft of sunlight to stab down at me through a porthole or the overhead hatch, the heat of it is so intense, so searing, that during those few seconds I feel as if someone had flung open the door of a blast furnace and I was too close. But then the boat rolls or turns and the beam is returned to its sheath once more.

We are now operating in the straits between a group of islands on the western end of New Britain where the sea is rough, because we are at the start of the Southeast monsoon and that wind blows right up the straits. As it squeezes between the high volcanic islands flanking the straits, the wind is compressed and thereby accelerated. To the north is the Bismarck Sea and to the southeast, through the straits, the Solomon Sea. We are seeing our first boats since I have been aboard, and it was at first surprising to learn that there is someone else using these sea lanes in this remote and beautiful part of the world. The names of the islands are wonderful, too: Tolokiwa and Umboi. There are sperm whales here, and we have been working with them in spite of the rough weather.

Captain Iain Kerr prepares for a biopsy of a sperm whale.

Photo: Chris Johnson, Ocean Alliance.

When whales are spotted, everyone onboard takes their stations. There is a lookout on scaffolding who sits just ahead of the mizzen mast and another higher up the mast sometimes. The person who will shoot the crossbow carrying the biopsy dart that collects a tiny sample of skin and underlying blubber (that is analyzed later) is on station at the end of the side platform. The helmsman watches the instruments that allow us to follow sperm whales by their sounds; someone is standing by with a clipboard loaded with data forms and a camera to get identification shots of the tail of the whale from which a sample is taken; and Chris Johnson is filming it all as a record of the whales’ reactions (usually nothing that appears to be significant). If a shot is successful, a buoy is thrown into the water next to the floating dart, so we can come back and pick it up later. This is particularly important, though, when the shooter misses, because the whale may resurface almost at once making another try possible, and it may be several minutes before we can break off from that second try and return for the lost dart.

When the boat is brought around and the dart approached, someone goes in to retrieve it. Once it is aboard, a scrap of tissue (about the size of a pencil eraser) is removed from the dart and processed into seven tiny pieces, which are given a variety of treatments so they can be used for the analysis of contaminants (their principal purpose), genetic studies, and for an archive set aside for future analyses. The end of the whole process is the job of labeling the samples with the greatest care, storing them in their proper destinations, and making detailed lists of all of the forms, films, recordings, still shots, and treatments that have anything to do with each sample. It is meticulous work, but that is the difference between carefully and carelessly collected data.

Because the crew members are so familiar with their jobs, this routine runs very smoothly and might even seem a bit monotonous, except that there are always interesting surprises. Today’s came from a pair of large male sperm whales — giants, both of them — who time and again moved off before we got to them. On one occasion, as one of them submerged, just over our acoustic array, it made a series of loud, rapid-fire clicks of a form I have never heard before. Very impressive.

Because the whale making the sounds must have been very close to the hydrophone array, we got an extraordinary recording.

But today I found myself thinking more about Sir Hugo Berghuser, that commercial longline fisher and former politician I mentioned yesterday who “wants whales in the Bismarck Sea killed to save the fishing industry.” I finally realized that the thing that’s so peculiar about his request is that because humans are just one of many predators on tuna, longline fishers the world over are all faced, all of the time, with competition for their catch from sharks, sea lions, seals, dolphins, and other ocean predators (even saltwater crocodiles in rare cases). Even their bait gets stolen (by birds and small fish). So why this sudden call to kill the whales? I suppose it’s because whales have to surface to breathe, and when they do, you can shoot them. But longlining is a fishing technique in which human fishers compete directly with non-human ones. A fisher would have to be hopelessly naive to make the decision to go into longlining without realizing that the natural sequel to a fish taking one of his hooks is that that fish is now accessible to every ocean predator around. And how can a fisher not realize that every time another ocean predator comes across a hooked fish it’s going to try to eat it?

Thunder clouds move in on the Odyssey.

Photo: Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance.

Longlining is a form of fishing in which you leave your catch in the water for several hours, hoping that a larger fish won’t find it before you can get back to retrieve it for yourself. But it’s the name of the game. It’s longlining’s tragic flaw, if you will. It’s what any fisherman decides to face when he becomes a longliner. I feel that anyone who chooses to take up longlining ought to face its realities and get on with it, rather than whining about competition from the ocean’s numerous other tuna predators.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I had my dinner on the aft deck while watching the thunderheads that will light up the sky tonight form in the distance and turn pink in the alpine glow of the setting sun.

And so ends this day.