Flying fish and leaping whales.

4th Apr 2003 We left Palmeira on the 29th for the downwind doddle to Boavista, some 30 miles to the southward, checking out the Baia da Mordeira on the way, but without finding any whales there. However Ian was happy to watch the birds as we left Sal behind; particularly interesting was the sight of a brown booby, a cousin to our gannets that lives in these parts, which was fishing for flying fish. It's a tough life for the flying fish; presumably they go to the trouble of making their quite lengthy dashes through the air to escape predators below the waves, then these beaky dive-bombers come at them from above!

We were kind of expecting a long, hard search beneath the burning sun to find our humpback whales, but as we approached the island of Boavista, some 3 miles to the north-west of it, just as Simon had done a little piece for Tony about how we hoped we might possibly be lucky enough to find some there, Ian remarked in a quiet matter-of-fact voice that there was a blow on the starboard bow. Next thing we were seeing them all over the place; the sea was alive with whales. Finally I discovered the meaning of that expression that had always seemed to me slightly bizarre; ‘having a whale of a time'.

The great animals were frisking around like mad, breaching and crashing back into the water with huge splashes, walloping it with their great outsize pectoral fins, puffing and blowing with great snorts. The hydrophone added a wonderful other dimension to the display, as we could hear the whales singing as they frolicked. What words can describe their song? Much of it sounded like a male/female dialogue, and I would love to know if this is indeed the case. I heard repeatedly a high, as it were tantalising and questioning call, followed by what I can only describe as a rather gruff but affirmative grunt. There is playfulness and joyfulness, though there is also a pervasive melancholy. It is primeval music that seems to issue from the very bosom of Nature herself.

It seems that the entire tribe of the humpback whales of the north-eastern Atlantic gather here at this time of year, travelling all those thousands of miles from feeding grounds that extend from Ireland to the far north; to the freezing arctic waters beyond Norway. Perhaps there are only about 30 of them, no more anyway than 60 or so, and this tiny corner of the vast ocean seems to be just right for them to gather and to procreate. Why should it be so? Simon showed us part at least of the answer.

Yesterday afternoon he took us into the broad, semi-circular bay that stretches some 3 miles to the south of the anchorage where we are lying today; protected by a short mole and a small island, we are off the principal town of this island, Sal Rei. The bay is shallow, mostly 10 or 15 metres deep, sheltered from the trade-wind, warmed by the tropical sun. Ashore, until very recently, there has been virtually nothing but great plugs of volcanic rock protruding from drifts of scorched sand; though impressive in a wild and savage way, it is not exactly inviting. So far, I am told, there has been no rain at all this year. But modern man is resourceful, and sea, sun and sand have their value. Ashore, there are today some ominous developments of concrete apartments.

Why ominous? Because that bay is one of those very special places which provide a suitable nursery for humpbacks, and one fears it will not remain so if the usual paraphanalia of jet skis, wind-surfers, hang-gliders and so forth takes hold. Sailing into the bay, Simon spotted the blows of some whales. Lowering sail a few hundred metres upwind of them, we proceeded to drift past them, though the fresh breeze still gave us steerage way. It was a mother and calf, a large fellow I thought though Simon said it was no more than a few weeks old, with another whale keeping company. They were just wallowing peacefully in the warm, shallow water. That young whale has a long and arduous journey ahead of