Who said the road to hell was paved with good intentions? The romantic notion of recapping the days events on the gently bobbing bow of a sailboat at sunset with a light breeze and a beer was very quickly replaced with the reality of life on a 23 meter sailboat with 15 other people – some of whom had their eye on the bow as well – or any other place to get a bit of privacy and collect their thoughts. So this recounting is done in retrospect despite all my good intentions…
One of the lovely things about traveling solo is that if there is an odd space that isn’t suited to companions traveling together – the single person gets assigned. I typically get the seat next to the pilot in small planes much to the chagrin of the other passengers but, I digress… I had what I affectionately called the coffin for my sleeping berth. Being pretty short it worked out well and I only had to share the head (bathroom) with the captain. The rest had to sort out who got the top bunk (try climbing gracefully out of one of those at 2am in a pitching sea when you are on night watch!) – 4 to a cabin – and a shared head. I was the lucky 11th wheel and extremely grateful. We all got situated pretty quickly that first night and the rest of the week took on its own agenda and pace. Suffice to say – it was magic. Not without discomforts but definitely magic. Group dynamics can be a dicey thing at best but cramped quarters on a sailboat can strain even the closest relationship. I was doubly lucky to have 15 of the nicest people from Germany, England, and Italy – me being the token American. Well, someone has to do it…
To try and give a daily account would be a long post so I will hit the highlights. We spent 6 days at sea with the goal to sight and record – both visually and audibly – as many species of whales and dolphins as possible. And we had a banner week. We sailed to Corsica and in that time saw Fin whales – huge – about 25 meters. Were treated to two sightings of them fully breaching out of the water. Sperm whales who have a very distinctive dive pattern which ends with a presentation of their fluke. They also presented their lower jaws which apparently is very rare. As is a night grouping of 4 juvenile males. Don’t all college age males group at night, I ask you??
Three separate Pilot whale pods who grouped around the boat as curious about us as we were about them. “Look, there are Humans!! We haven’t seen them in ages! Wow! Look how funny they look, they’re so RED (the temps were in the 30s and not a cloud in the sky), listen to their funny language…”
We were treated to the whale’s own varieties of clicks, chirps, whistles and other assorted sounds both live from the water and also by virtue of the sounding cable in the water. This cable allowed the researchers to locate the animals well in advance of our sightings. Nino, the principle investigator, was a magician at locating the whales based on sound.
Striped dolphins were plentiful. If the group did not have babies in tow – they were very playful with us. Also several sea turtles which are smaller than their Pacific ocean counterparts. They looked small and strange just swimming along the surface of open sea by themselves – I imagined they rather belonged in a lake. Manta rays – or devil fish – they were incredible to watch glide just under the surface. Roberto – our captain – called them butterflies.
Every day was filled with sightings and the attendant scramble to gather cameras, lens and other recording equipment, grab a decent viewing spot, keep your legs under you on a mobile deck while attempting to take a decent photo (no mean feat) and just simply be in awe. If you were lucky enough to be assigned to the flybridge deck (read up top) you had the kings view of the goings on. The other choice spot was the bowsprit where you could sit and dangle your legs with an unobstructed close view. I had the good fortune to be there several times during the week and got treated to dolphins playing right under my feet and pilot whales ‘blowing’ all over my legs and rolling over to look at me. They have really pretty eyes – made me think of a Holstein for some reason…
Bottle-nosed dolphins were the real entertainers. Lots of group leaping out of the water – 4 or more at a time all lined up in a row and the best – a newborn only about 2 feet long and as adorable as any baby can be. The males would jump high out of the water away from the mother and calf – I’m sure as a distraction and protective strategy.
I could go on forever about this experience but a post by definition is not a novel. So I will leave you with two of my personal best moments – other than the myriad sightings.
On the bowsprit – again – on a open calm sea – watching the sun go down huge and red on the horizon.
Night watch – again on open water – 2:30am – billions of stars in an inky black sky and the sound of whales blowing and talking in the dark around me…..
It truly doesn’t get any better than that….