National Geographic : 2009 Mar
whale breath o ensive---certainly not in com- parison to gray whale breath, which is really foul---but blue whale breath can be strong." The hydrophone was to detect blue whale voices. e simple song of the blue whale bull--- the thumping, stentorian, basso profundo pulse of the A call, followed by the continuous tone of the B call---is the mightiest song in the sea, theoretically capable of propagating halfway across an ocean basin. But big baleen whales often run silent. Except for a few dubious snatches of song, we heard nothing at all. the Costa Rica Dome, three days out of Acapulco, the ocean looked no dif- ferent, just blue horizon and marching swells. It took a sounding by the CTD sensor to detect the thermocline lying just 60 feet under the sur- face. We had arrived. "Blow at eleven o clock!" Calambokidis called down the next morning from the crosstrees, our crow s nest, over his walkie-talkie. We saw two more blows side- by-side in quick succession---our first blue whales---and we launched the tagging boats, beginning the repetitive ritual that would occupy us for the next three weeks. e boats were Coast Guard surplus, a pair of diesel-powered RHIBs, or rigid hull in atable boats. Sticking with meteorological nomen- clature, we called the big one Hurricane and the small one Squall. I generally went out on Hurricane. Its commander was Bruce Mate. e second mate, and also the second Mate, was Mary Lou, the expedition videographer and the professor s wife of 40 years. I was the biopsy guy. My rst job was to cock my crossbow, take a biopsy bolt from the cooler that served as ammu- nition box, nock the bolt, and then remove the sheath of aluminum foil protecting the tip from contamination by extraneous DNA. e bolt, when shot into the whale, would excise a plug of skin and blubber. About three inches back from its tip, the bolt was blocked by an oblong ball of yellow rubber that prevented the projectile from going in too deep and also served to bounce it o the whale. Mounted on the rubber bow of Hurricane was a metal bowsprit, the "pulpit," custom- made for this work. Each time we closed on whales, I would follow Professor Mate up onto the narrow grate of the pulpit deck. From its holster, which was a transparent plastic tube lashed to the pulpit rail, Mate withdrew the satellite-tag "applicator," a long-barreled, red- metal blunderbuss with a wooden ri e stock. is device, originally a Norwegian invention for shooting line between ships, is powered by compressed air from a scuba tank. e pop is adjustable. For blue whales, Mate sets the dial at 85 pounds per square inch of pressure. For sperm whales, which have very tough skin, he sets the pressure at 120 pounds. Both Mate and I wore waist harnesses, which we clipped into slings on the pulpit rail, freeing up our hands for the shooting. e rst we saw of a whale was almost always its blow. When the sun was behind us, we sometimes saw a prismatic scatter of color in the explosive expansion of spray and vapor---a few millisec- onds of rainbow---before the color shimmered out and the spout faded to white. Whenever a blue whale surfaced to blow near- by, I was struck by the blowhole---a pair of nos- trils countersunk atop the tapering mound of the splash guard, built up almost into a kind of nose on the back of the head. Other baleen whales have splash guards too, but not like this. is nose was almost Roman. It seemed dispropor- tionately large, even for the biggest of whales. Its size explained that loud, concussive exhalation--- less a breath than a detonation---and its size explained the 30-foot spout. It was a mighty blow, followed quickly by a mighty inhalation. THE GRANDEST CREATURE IN ALL CREATION HAS BEEN HUNTED BY OUR KIND, THE THINKING APE, TO NEAR EXTINCTION. BUT IT'S HARD NOT TO FEEL OPTIMISTIC. ALL MATERIAL FOR THIS ARTICLE OBTAINED UNDER NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE PERMIT 753 1599.