Leg One, Papahānaumokuākea Monument

Life on the Monkey Deck

Chris Kelley
Mar. 18 2014

It was day three of our voyage to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument when Colleen Peters, one of Falkor’s marine technicians, noticed some strange interference lines on the sonar’s water column display. It looked like something she had seen before, so Colleen had a hunch something special was about to happen. Sure enough, a minute or so later, the first of a large group of sperm whales appeared.

Daniel Luers, scanning for whales at sunset from Falkor's monkey deck.
Daniel Luers, scanning for whales at sunset from Falkor’s monkey deck.Chris Kelley

At first the whales moved slowly along, sometimes exhibiting “logging” behavior, where they rest at the surface with their tales hanging down. Dark, wrinkled skin makes them look kind of like logs, hence the name. We made our way around a group of as many as thirty, of course being careful to keep our required distance and not disturb them. A few of the curious sperm whales stuck their heads straight up in the air, a behavior called “spy hopping,” to see who was visiting them way out in the middle of the ocean. The entire visit was a welcome break to our usual views of endless blue.

Careful Watch

Every day from first light until after the sun goes down, an observer has been on the lookout for whales on Falkor’s observation deck—sometimes referred to as monkey island or the monkey deck. The goal of this research is to record the whales’ behavior within the Monument. You might think that whales would be easy to spot, because even the small ones are 6 to 7 meters long. But that’s not always the case. When the wind is howling and conditions are rough, for instance, whales are often nowhere to be found—or more likely, around but difficult to see.  During our first two days, this was the case. The only sighting was a small group of pilot whales.

On day five, the seas got a little rough.
On day five, the seas got a little rough.Daniel Wagner

On day three the wind settled down, and whales started showing up in bunches. First it was a humpback just a few hundred meters off the port side who had some friends blowing spouts farther off in the distance. Then came that big group of sperm whales.

The next day it was a large group of so many pilot whales that, as a precaution, the ship stopped for over an hour to avoid disturbing them. The pilot whales didn’t seem to mind having the ship in their neighborhood though, as a few were seen spy hopping, while others took a leisurely swim just off Falkor’s bow. The captain and crew also didn’t seem to mind that the whales interrupted their workday. A crowd joined the whale observing team on the monkey deck to watch the whales play and to snap pictures of their antics. The excitement didn’t end there, as more dolphins and whales were seen playing in the distance for much of the rest of the day.

A view of the aft deck at sunrise.
A view of the aft deck at sunrise.Daniel Wagner

Close Encounter

By day five, the weather turned rough on us, but we were still lucky enough to get our closest sighting of the trip. A few whales were spotted 300 meters away and when the ship stopped, two giant 12- to 15-meter sperm whales swam up and surfaced just in front of the bow. The whale watching crew got a view of the giant head, wrinkled skin, and oddly shaped mouth that are characteristic of these large, magnificent creatures.

None of the whales so far sighted have shown any fear or abnormal behavior when near the ship, though a few were curious. We’re hoping for many more whale sightings. Until next time, aloha from the monkey deck.

The pilot whales sighted early on.
The pilot whales sighted early on.Daniel Luers

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