Friday, November 1, 2013

A Pod of Whales

Our regular run out to the field takes us nearly two hours, the first 45 minutes of which is through the Port of Venice, up and across the Mississippi River and through one of the river's many passes.

Black dots show sperm whale distribution.
When we turn out to the southeast, we show only about 10 feet of water under the keel. That number grows only gradually, until we reach what must be a pretty steep slope in the underlying shelf. The depth goes from about 30 feet to 125 feet in the space of a couple of miles.

The Mississippi Delta is a fascinating place for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that -- for reasons I haven't taken the time to discover -- sperm whales sometimes show up there.

Other whales are resident in the Gulf of Mexico as well, including pilot whales, pygmy sperm whales, right whales (a mother and her calf took a little side trip up the Corpus Christi Ship Channel a while ago) and even orcas.

My most common cetacean encounters though are with dolphins -- Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and Atlantic spotted dolphins.

So imagine my excitement early one morning a few weeks ago when a captain on another boat mentioned the pod of whales up ahead of us.

The other boat, a supply vessel, was also making its way out toward our field. In the pre-dawn murk, I called ahead and asked the captain if I could overtake him on "the two," that is, come around his port side.

"No problem, cap," he replied. "Y'all have a good morning."

Then, almost as an afterthought: "Y'all going around that pod of whales up there?"

Pod of whales? What?!

My first thought was: "Why are there whales in such shallow water?"

My second thought was: "How does he know there is a pod of whales up head of us in the dark? Does someone track them and then broadcast their location?"

My third thought was: "Does he have some sort of whale-detecting equipment on his boat? That's weird ..."

I called him back: "Say again?"

"I was just wondering if y'all are going to go around the north end of that pod of whales up ahead," he said. "I usually just go all the way around because they're so close together."

Oh. I see: pod of .... wells.

He was talking about the dense cluster of satellites on our course.

Later the same day, I tell the other captain on our boat the story.

He looked at me strangely: "But I saw a whale today," he said. "It had barnacles all over its back and a big ol' tail, which came all the way out of the water before he went down."

He then proceeded to tell me about other whale sightings.

Should I be so fortunate to see a whale, or even a pod of whales, I'm pretty sure I won't be going around them. I will, though, wake everyone on the boat so they can see them too.


  1. I think that sperm whale distribution chart more accurately shows where people are looking for the whales. Unless they're more common along the coasts of continents rather than open ocean.

    1. Well, it certainly shows where they are observing them, and I would guess there are more observers near land than far from land. But I think, too, that there is some affinity for the shelf and the slope among certain species. Your dad has mentioned sperm whales and the mouth of the Mississippi, in particular.

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