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Entry for July 19, 2007

En route to the Aucklands 

"Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I though I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." Thus begins one of the greatest sea-going adventures of all time, Melville's Moby Dick. It tells of seeking whales for profit in the 1800's, and contains remarkably accurate descriptions of both whales and whaling as known at that time. Of course, it's really a tale of human obsession, vengeance, and weakness, but Melville also captures the love that many have for the sea, even without knowing quite why they are drawn to it. And now, some of us still go to sea for ancient reasons, cloaked in the modern trappings of work, play, or science.

Of course, this trip is nothing like the old Yankee whaling trips. Ships would sail from New England for 3 to 4 years at a time, and return with their holds full of whale products for commercial markets. Our goal is to return (after a mere three weeks) with our computers and cameras full of images and data. And while we seek a former commercial prize (the right whale was named because it was the right whale to kill, due to its valuable oil and baleen), we now seek an animal that has been protected for over 70 years, due to its rarity from hunting. The southern right whales were killed in the hundreds of thousands historically, and were protected worldwide in 1935. Although the numbers of animals that survived at that time is unknown, there were probably less than 2000. However, protection has been good (with the exception of some illegal hunting by the Soviets in the 1960s), and the southern right whales now number in excess of 8000 animals among all of the subpopulations. Groups of southern right whales are currently studied in South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. Other sub-groups are believed to occur in the Indian Ocean, around Tristan de Cunha, and Chile, although limited studies and sightings exist. Where well studied, all southern right whale groups are growing at rates of about 6-7% per year.

This stands in stark contrast to the North Atlantic population, which has shown poor growth over our 28 year study period, ranging from -2% to +3.5% depending upon the year. This is partly why we are here, to determine if there are significant differences in health and human impacts that might be affecting reproduction and survival.

One of the clues to the differences was apparent all day yesterday. It is a rare day at sea in the North Atlantic when you don't encounter another boat. Yet we have now been at sea for 36 hours and have yet to see another vessel, even on radar. This ocean is wilder, and less inhabited by humans than most places on earth. On this transit, the southern ocean wildlife is mostly birds. Yesterday we saw many albatrosses, including Wandering, Royal, and a local one called the Chatham Island mollymawk. We also have had Cape Petrels with us most of the way, and saw one flock of Fairy Prions in mid-afternoon.

Seas have remained mostly calm, although we are now in the area where winds and seas travel around the Antarctic without any land masses to interfere, so the swells have grown substantially, some to over 15 feet. This leads to exciting times at dinner, with food, plates, and the crew frequently sliding in many directions unexpectedly. Our transit time has been good, and we expect to arrive in the Auckland Islands sometime around 1 p.m. today.