Cape Verde 2006: Having a whale of a time?

17th Mar 2006 Joining the Expedition team in Sal, I really didn't know what to expect, and wondered was this a good idea? Knowing little about cetaceans and even less about the sea, the thought of spending two weeks at sea seemed like a good idea from the comforts of landlocked Kilkenny on a January day when I was offered the berth on the expedition. On being introduced to the rather bedraggled and sunburned team of the first half of the expedition I wasn't convinced I had made the correct decision. But a couple of beers later and some good banter I was beginning to feel better about the decision.

I was fortunate that the first two days out of Sal was, according to the ‘experienced' team members ‘as calm as they have ever seen it'. So quickly my personal concerns with not getting too seasick were replaced with being utterly taken by the awesome sight of the many humpback whales that we managed to get close to. I was never in the close proximity of a whale before; seeing these majestic creatures within a couple of hundred metres of a boat bobbing in the high seas was an experience of a lifetime.

My first encounter was on hearing the cry ‘blow at 5 O'Clock – 400 metres' looking at some black blob on the crest of a wave and then a second jet of spray confirmed it was a humpback whale. Over the next few day we managed to see whales dive at less than 50 metres of the boat, see these massive creatures ‘breach' - lurch themselves into the air, then twisting 90° mid air splashing backwards into the water creating a slash of such magnitude it can be seen from kilometres away. The most evocative experience of all though must be hearing the blow when the whale surfaces nearby, and the explosion of spray as the whale comes up for air; on one occasion the spray drifted in the boat's direction covering us in whale spray that smelled curiously of rotten cabbage. Some experiences in life are worth experiencing, even if only to know you have no ambition to experience them again!

The waters of the Cape Verde Islands are also home to a number of species of birds that are rare or absent from other parts of the world. Seeing Cape Verde Shearwaters, Brown Boobys and Red-billed Tropicbirds fly alongside the boat may for some pale into insignificance to being surrounded by whales, but for me, seeing these birds is something special. And the odd sightings of things like breaching rays, sunfish, sharks and Portuguese Man of War complete the experience.

A week into the trip now, and as I look into the mirror and see my bedraggled appearance and my sunburned face, I know I have come of age on the expedition – I am one of the team. I still find the high swells difficult to take, but fortunately we have been so busy with trying to spot whales that it has taken my mind off how awful sailing can be. In truth, I am having an experience of a lifetime, but that is only one side of the story. I would love to share this experience with my wife and family, yet I haven't spoken to them for a week now (hallo to Bella, Pauli and Felix, and happy feast day to Josephine and Seppie on the 19th March). The continuous long days at sea, being buffeted by wind and waves, scanning the horizon for any tell-tale sign of whale activity, take their toll. As I write, with our boat in a heavy swell even in port, I am impressed with the other team members who are now entering into their fourth week on the boat. Not only have they managed to keep up an impressive work load, their constant good humour is astonishing. By the end of next week I will be glad to regain terra firma.

Liam Lysaght

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