Cape Verde 2006: Skipper Joe Aston's report

25th Mar 2006 God made the great whales for the fun of it, according to the Bible, and for myself this remains the best reason to go chasing after them across the Ocean. On the other hand fun comes in all sorts of guises, even down to that patient and seemingly endless accumulation of facts, so beloved of my friends in the biology business. One thing we can all agree on, is that it would be no fun at all to pass on to our grandchildren a world in which it was no longer possible to share the company of dolphins and whales.

This time round we did not however have the good fortune to turn up bang on time for a humpback hooley; arriving a month earlier than when we sailed down from Ireland in the ‘Anna M', the first half of this expedition has only encountered four small, widely dispersed groups, plus an individual fleetingly glimpsed on the last day. Some of them did put up a fine show of high jinks, with breaching and the waving of pectoral fins, but there was no singing. Ricardo Antunes has also spent many hours listening for sperm whale coda, without success. With Tony Whelan and myself, he is for the airport tonight.

It was in the night-time on our longest and hardest passage, from Maio in the extreme south-east of the arquipelago back up to Sao Nicolau, that Ricardo did hear plenty of the ordinary sperm whale echo-location clicks. One of these he pronounced to emanate from a male, though they only come to the tropics occasionally to pay a visit to the females; male and female sperm whales tend to stick to separate ends of the ocean apparently. However the females do not require any male stimulation to come out with their enigmatic coda, the object of Ricardo's thesis.

He says that these are bursts of sound such as Beethoven might conclude a symphony with, in which all the notes are present, depending entirely on timing for the effect. You might hear di-di-di-da or da-di-da-di or any number of different variations, which Ricardo travels the oceans, with a large tin box containing a hydrophone, to record. A single group of whales comes up with differing coda, and he maintains it can be shown that they are not genetically or ecologically determined. Since such determinism is the stock-in-trade of biologists, it amuses me when they start, as in such a case as this, to talk of things being ‘culturally determined'. ‘Does volition come into the frame?' I ask, but am only told that is an interesting question. Dare I ask about fun?

At least the dolphins have not failed to keep us entertained, when things were quiet on the whale front; spotted, spinner and rough-toothed have shown up singing away in large and widely dispersed groups. However the hottest spot was the wide and sheltered bay off Tarrafal in Sao Nicolau, where we also encountered a huge school of pilot whales and some bottlenose dolphins. Here at last one is granted a reprieve from the incessant trade winds, their chilly and dusty blast baulked by the high range of twisted and tortured hills that constitute that island.

Some of the lads reckoned I should move my own operation there, though the ones who know my other half quickly put that one down. To be honest I could not hack such a barren landscape myself, but there really is an opportunity there for someone; if you fancy a morning wake-up call from a chorus of cockle-doodle-doo, ably supported by the yapping of dogs, the bleating of goats, and the odd braying donkey, all strongly reminiscent of Mr Gumpy's outing, then it may be the place for you.

Thank God it was here that Dr Berrow let the string attached to his plankton-sampling net slip through his fingers, but demonstrated his steely and selfless commitment to science by promptly jumping in after it, clothes, glasses and all. Retrieve it he did; so you see

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