Oceana on the Water
Transoceanic Expedition (2005): Overview
For its first transoceanic expedition, Ranger traveled for more than five months and more than 10,000 nautical miles from the Pacific to the Mediterranean to document and film the diversity, abundance and importance of underwater life and the threats to vital ocean ecosystems.
The objective of the voyage was to document and film the diversity and importance of underwater life and the threats facing ecosystems that are fundamental to understanding the dynamics of the oceans.
During its journey towards the Mediterranean, the catamaran sailed across areas of scientific importance to study their marine biodiversity. From Los Angeles, it crossed the North American Pacific waters to Cocos Island, Golfo Dulce and Coiba (off Costa Rica and Panama).
Later, the Ranger crossed the Panama Canal and, heading for the Caribbean Sea, stopped off on the coast of Florida. From Miami, the Oceana catamaran set off on the last part of its voyage: towards Bermuda and the Sargasso Sea, the Bahamas, the Azores, Gibraltar and finally the Balearic Islands.
Read selected highlights from the expedition diaries below. For more, check out the full list of diary entries.
Turtle Migration and the Case of Lucky
Today, we encountered a small turtleswimming all alone. This reminds me that we are navigating on marine turtle’s main migration route.
Until relatively recently, the life cycle of marine turtles was unknown and it was not until 1986, when the American biologist Archie Carr -- one the foremost experts on marine turtles in the world -- published his theory that turtles nested on beaches of North America followed by a migratory journey along the Atlantic, using gulf currents.
In 1993, Spanish researchers Ricardo Aguilar, Julio Más and Xavier Pastor --two of them are Oceana members -- corroborated this hypothesis, adding new data on populations of the eastern Mediterranean.
Investigator Marcos Santos, from the University of Azores, came across a curious fact in relation to how turtles, as is the case with many other marine animals, are attracted by the presence of underwater mountains. Because of significant amount of nutrients found in the surrounding area, turtles go to seamounts to feed. The steeper the inclination of the mountain, the more productivity is observed. As you may remember, we are in Macaronesia, area of underwater mountains and volcanoes.
The main threat faced by marine turtles is incidental death from entanglement among fishing line hooks, which is the gear used to capture tunids and swordfish. Oceana is making efforts to reduce incidental captures of marine turtles in both sides of the Atlantic. Several modifications to fishing gear and bait have been proposed -- prohibition zones and seasons, changes to the time of day when fishing lines are deployed -- in an attempt to reduce the significant number of incidental captures of turtles that occur around the world. We must keep in mind that marine turtles are considered endangered species.
One of these proposals is the use of circular hooks in the shape of a “G”, which was first proposed in Japan as a way to reduce labor related accidents to fishermen who were easily injured with hooks in a “J” shape. This was also considered a way to reduce incidental captures of turtles. It is harder for turtles to bite them and if so, the hook remains caught in the mouth, without being swallowed down to the esophagus.
Currently, swordfish fishery in the United States has all together substituted “J” hooks and replaced them by “G” hooks. Oceana advocates for this substitution to be implemented in Europe, together with other modifications to the fishing line industry.
During our meeting with researcher Marcos Santos, who studied under Archie Carr at the University of Florida, he told us about his experimental work on turtles that have been captured by fishing lines with different types of hooks. He said that the location of the hook in the turtle’s body was pivotal in relation to the ensuing mortality rates.
He added that the location of the hook in the body seems to alter migratory behavior;
turtles who carry hooks in the esophagus oddly change course towards the east. Turtles who have hooks caught in their mouth or throat, apart from the fact that the hooks are more visible, therefore facilitating extraction on the part of fishermen, continue their normal migratory move.
During our stay in Faial, we heard the news on the project involving Lucky, a loggerhead turtlewho remained captive in a Danish aquarium during five years and returned to the sea in the Azores in September 2004 as part of a study on the feasibility of returning turtles to the wild after they are kept in captivity. Lucky is being monitored by the Danish project NERI through a transmitter tagged to her carapace.
Four months after her release, she was found swimming en route to the beaches of Trininidad and Venezuela, while other tracked turtles -- who were never in captivity -- stayed behind in the Azores area.
Dancing with a blue whale
The weather started to change. There is a 20 knot wind that allows us to navigate towards the east, at a speed of eight knots. It is not bad at all. The sea is agitated, the waves swell up, but is manageable. It is not an easy task moving around the ship without having to hold on here and there, or work on the computer, but the two hulls of the catamaran provide for an enviable stability nevertheless. For now, nothing is falling or sliding off, as is so common in ships with conventional hull.
This afternoon has been extraordinary. After lunch, I was on my cot when I heard voices and hustling outside, and one of my companions knocking loudly against the glass hatch connecting my cabin to the deck, trying to wake me up. I went upstairs as fast as I could, towards the messroom where I bumped against Bibi, the boatswain, who was coming down yelling: “Xavier, there is a whale!” I went to deck expecting to see a whale at a distance, but instead, I found myself staring at an animal swimming barely one meter from the ship, measuring 13 meters long, emerging just as I was coming up on deck. I had to retreat to get my camera and wait for the successive appearances of the animal. Everyone was on the prowl to get photographs.
The whale did not let us down. It seemed to be playing with the Ranger and we even went on a race. It swam at times by starboard side, stretching almost half the length of the ship or going under the ship, where we could see it through the net extended between the prows of the two hulls. It emerged again and again, at least half dozen times, and accompanied us for at least twenty minutes. It would surface and look at us when it blew air, then it would arch its back and submerge again for three or four minutes. After it tired of the game, it disappeared, leaving us all wet from the splashes and fascinated by what we just witnessed.
When we recovered from the experience, those of us who took photographs dashed to download the photos onto the computers. The best of them are, no doubt, Nuño’s. Instead of crowding around deck to be as close to the cetacean as possible, which most of us did, Nuño had the sense to remain higher up at the bridge, which gave him the best perspective of the deck area and the surrounding sea. He set his camera on high speed and got an excellent representation of the spectacle we have witnessed.
The absence of white spots on the fins and the size of the animal told us that we were not in the presence of what in English is called a minke, the smallest and most common type of whale. The next logical conclusion was that this was a common whale or fin whale. But there was something amiss there too. It had the tiny dorsal fin, almost vestigial, situated towards the back; the skin clearly covered in grayish speckles and the whale had a very flat skull. Indi, Nuño, Carlos, Alice, Bibi, Sole and I checked the cetacean guide books we had onboard and compared the information with the photographs we had just shot and the picture was becoming clear: the Ranger had just had en encounter with a blue whale, an animal placed at the edge of extinction by whaling ships.
There is no evidence if the populations left are recuperating since the International Whaling Commission implemented a moratorium on commercial whale hunting two decades ago. The specimen we just saw was probably a juvenile of the largest animal species on the planet of which only a few hundreds are left among the north Atlantic populations.
The sighting presented us with another interesting consideration. When Nuño consulted the nautical chart to register our position during the encounter (36.07 N, 51.32 W), it coincided exactly with the location of the Rockaway Seamount, an underwater mountain towering 6
.000 meters from the sea floor, whose summit comes 800 meters from the surface. It is an excellent example of the high seas ecosystems that Oceana and other conservation organizations are intent on protecting from bottom trawling and other aggressions, advocating for the prohibition of these type of activity in vulnerable areas such as these.
Was it a coincidence that the blue whale was in that exact area? Maybe. Whales do not live in one place on a permanent basis; they travel through the oceans following seasonal migration patterns. However, its presence in Rockaway fits in perfectly with our arguments in favor of the protection of underwater seamounts. These are areas whose geography produces upwelling phenomena, an outcrop of nutrients carried by vertical water currents from the bottom to the surface of the water. Consequently, they become areas populated by dense biodiversity, with great biological richness, making it an oasis in the midst of biologically poorer areas. They are like stopovers along the way, where migrating species find food and where other organisms spend their entire life.
Today was not a bad day at all. No one can be bored here.
Portuguese man-of-war, beautiful and dangerous
The Portuguese man-of-wars we have begun to see are fascinating and dangerous organisms, abundant in these waters in the Bermuda Triangle, rich in Sargasso.
Today, their presence has decreased a little, but once in a while someone on the Ranger still sounds the alarm: man-o-war starboard side! man-o-war by the prow! We see them pass, drifting at the mercy of the wind and surf. They make up a diminutive fleet of living ships, barely 30 centimeters in length. Their sails are transparent and blowing in the wind and when the sun rays illuminate them, they create iridescence of a thousand hues.
“Portuguese man-of-wars have similar aspects to jelly
It is an organism made up of multiple individuals who specialize in different functions in order to survive. Some of them act as sails, others as buoys and others become long tentacles to grasp nutrients. Their tentacles can reach three meters long, but when they travel, they retract them”
Therefore, we can see ahead of time, that when the Oceana divers submerge in the Sargasso area to document the site, the Portuguese man-o-war will be one more added complexity, because the sting from it is highly dangerous. Depending on the size of the animal, it can produce allergic reactions and even cardiac arrest.
When the Portuguese man-of-war senses a living being near, its tentacles go into action, shooting a stinging filament that plunges into the skin and injects venom. They feed on larvae and eggs of small organisms, as jelly
Passage through the Panama Canal
We get to Panama and go directly to the dock where the Ranger is. Our colleagues from the expedition are there waiting to make the crew substitution, filling the fuel tanks and generally preparing the boat to cross the Panama Canal.
Throughout the day, we watch the fish in whose company we are waiting. Dozens of balloonfish and a multitude of small shoals of baby fish surround us. They approach the Ranger and the pier and nibble at the algae that grows in the cracks or against the posts of the dock. Their movements are slow and we can see them with complete clarity; we can even touch them.
A little further out, there are a few Panamanian sergeant majors, much more agile, that never stop looking for some crumb fallen to the sea to devour.
Further still, dozens of boats crowd together, each waiting its turn to pass through the canal: Ro-Ros, oil tankers, container ships and not all that far from us, a pair of huge tunafreezer ships.
The crew from the MarViva boat returned to Golfito, their base in Costa Rica, having accompanied and supported the Oceana Ranger over the past few days. Without their help, our work would have been immeasurably more difficult to complete.
Very early, almost at dawn, we leave Flamenco Marine with the goal of crossing the Panama Canal; in only 15 hours, we will be in the Caribbean. The canal has enabled passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic since 1914. In the past year, approximately 14,000 boats have used it, mostly Chinese boats carrying iron and oil.
Accompanied by brown pelicans, Bonaparte's gulls and a few royal terns, we begin our crossing.
After a few hours of waiting, we began to slowly cross the locks. We receive support from both sides of the canal; in the passage with us, there is a boat of tourists who are extremely interested in learning about Oceana and what we are doing. It's not every day that they cross the canal with boats of our size, with other large cargo ships waiting their turn. These latter ships are aided by locomotives on both ends of the canal, which measures approximately 33 meters in width.
Side by side, the boats begin to rise with the level of water; the locks have closed and little by little we float upward. Twenty minutes later, we make a maneuver -- we release the poles and we pass from one to another until we reach the next lock. The trip is slow but throughout we have a feeling of security and there doesn't seem to be any great risk. One interesting thing is that from time to time there are boats making the transit from the opposition direction, which makes the operation more complicated.
There are three series of lockgates to pass through: Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and a final set that opens into Gatún Lake.
The webcams installed at Miraflores and Gatún allow our colleagues working in Oceana's offices to share this historic moment in the Ranger's first transatlantic expedition. We communicate with them via a satellite text message system and they convey their excitement at being able to see us -- live! -- from a computer screen and using the web page of the Panama Canal.
Once again terns, frigate birds and a cormorant or two appear along the way, signaled by buoys and of course, there are the ever-present buzzards. As we watch the scenery of the canal passage and look towards the trees, we discern a two-toed sloth resting in the branches.
Before we pass through the last lock, we must await our turn in a freshwater lake encircled by tiny islets, very lush, with a great diversity of vegetation. We take advantage of the time to refresh ourselves for a few brief moments.
Once we have passed through the last lock, we enter the Caribbean. We anchor in Colón, where we spend the night, and where we prepare for the journey to Cayos Cochinos.