Monday, March 26, 2007

Whales all around us!

March 24, 2007  Saturday
Deshaies, Guadeloupe
16.18.479N; 61.47.836W            Sailed 44.7 NM

We were awake at 5 but decided to wait until at least partial daylight before leaving Falmouth Harbour.  Good thing we did because Bill knocked the boat hook overboard while he was dealing with raising the anchor.  I grabbed the shepherds hook and tossed it to him and he was able to pick up the boat hook from the big boat…the dinghy was on the davits and could not be used for this rescue.  We wouldn’t have been able to see well enough to do that little maneuver if it had happened in the darkness of 5 a.m.  Arrived in Deshaies at 12:30; average speed 6.4 kts

Seas were fairly heavy and we were heeled on a port tack at 15 to 35 degrees for the straight sail down to Guadeloupe.  Winds were 19-21 knots true; 20-25 knots apparent.  So it was a lively sail.  We didn’t trail a fishing line for most of the trip because there was too much motion for Bill to clean a fish if we had managed to catch one.  We did finally drop one line in the water for the last hour before arriving in Deshaies, but did not have a nibble.

But, boy!  Did we see whales!  It was really just too cool!!!

Bill was sitting on the low side (starboard) and I was lounging in the rear of the high side (port) of the cockpit.  I had just caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of what seemed to be something large going down in the water.  A few second later Bill said he saw spouting off to the starboard side.  Then he saw what appeared to be either a whale’s tail or a very large dorsal fin of a very large something.  Then he saw another one about 400 meters off the starboard side.

Suddenly I saw a whale’s tail extending 10 feet or higher from the surface of the waves – 50 feet directly in front of our bow!  That meant a whale was diving only a boat length in front of us.  I jumped into the helm seat and turned off the autopilot so I could hand steer, while Bill ran down the companionway to grab the camera.  I waited a few seconds to make sure that we had avoided colliding with the diving whale and then punched autopilot back on so I could stand up and move back in the cockpit to look all around for it. 

On the starboard side there was another whale only about 20-25 feet from our boat.  As sailors reading this log will know, the ocean becomes darker in color the greater the depth.  It appears clear here in the Caribbean until it is about 20-30 feet deep and then begins to assume an aquamarine color.  As it deepens, the color deepens to darker and darker blues.  By the time it is 300 feet deep, it appears to be a deep navy blue.  Eventually it appears almost black in color as the depth increases.  

This whale was swimming along the same path as our boat.  The water color all around the whale was midnight blue; but the water above the whale was a very light aquamarine color, which enhanced the blue-black whale beneath it.  Based on the color of the water above it, I estimate that this whale was 20-30 feet deep.  It was about the length of our boat, probably 45-50 feet.  Our boat is 53 feet long.  I instantly started a silent mantra of “Oh, God! Let it turn right!  Please; let it turn right!  Turn right!  Turn right!  Turn right!”

Within a flash the whale was gone.  Don’t know if it turned right or went to deeper depth.  But at least it did not turn left and raise up to strike our boat.  It was an incredible sight and I am sorry that Bill missed it.  By the time he came back up the companionway with the camera the whale was gone.  So we missed getting a photo of the neatest whale experience we have ever had.  Bill took a photo of the water where the whale had been!

Later we saw another pod of whales well off to the port side.  We saw 4 spouting and 3 diving and flipping their tails with those distinctive flukes out of the water.  They were huge.   But too far away to get any photos.  These are humpback whales.

So today we had a pod of whales to the left of us, another pod to the right of us, and one loner right in front of us.  Whales all around us.  Last time we saw a whale was between St. Martin and St. Barths in March 2005. 

A bit of info: 
  • Humpback whales come to this area of the Caribbean every winter to give birth.  They migrate thousands of miles from their northern grounds near New England off the coast of North America to the Dominican Republic and as far south as Bequia to calve, approximately 3000 miles round trip.  The longest humpback migration is one documented (through photo-identification) between the Antartic Peninsula and Central America, a one-way distance of over 5,000 miles.
  •  The mother stays in these waters with the new baby while the calf eats tons of food and grows several months.  The mother does not eat during this period.  In fact, female whales lose up to a third of their body weight during the nursing period which can last up to a year.  When the new calf is big enough, both the mother and calf head north together for the colder waters. 
  • Humpback whales have a unique coloration pattern on the underside of their tail flukes; no two whales are the same.  The mother tends to her calf while swimming upside down.  The whale that I saw beside our boat was swimming upside down so that I had a clear view of the coloration on the underside of her flukes.  (And the one that we saw dive right in front of our boat was likely her calf.)   
  • Photographs of these patterns allow scientists to identify and keep records of individual animals.  Based on this work, it has been estimated that there are nearly 12,000 humpback whales in the North Atlantic.  Approximately 900 of these are thought to be Gulf of Maine residents and some have been tracked since 1974.  Each Gulf of Maine whale also has a name inspired by its unique tail pigmentation and agreed upon by researchers and naturalists.  Over the years, four generations of Gulf of Maine humpback whales have been tracked by photo-identification techniques.  This research has greatly improved human understanding of humpback whale migration, habitat use, behaviors and anthropogenic impacts.   
  • Humpback whales belong to the family of baleen whales and are found in all oceans of the world.
  • Newborn humpbacks average 14 to 16 feet long and grow to 45 to 55 feet when adults.  Females tend to be larger than males.
  • Females reach sexual maturity at between five and ten years of age, and will calve every two to three years thereafter.
  • They can live to be 50 years old, possibly much longer.
  • This information was provided from an article authored by Nathalie Ward and published in the March 2007 issue of the Caribbean Compass.  Nathalie is the Director of the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Network.

BTW, those who have been reading these logs will recognize that I have decided to switch grammar from third person to first person.  Don’t like using all the “I’s” but got tired of describing myself by name.  And everyone who knows us must have realized long ago that most of these logs are written by me.  Bill reads them and makes constructive comments, but he rarely writes a long entry.

Also, I just finished reading an old book that should be mandatory reading for all sailors.  It is titled “Adrift” by Steven Callahan.  It details his 76 days lost at sea in an inflatable raft after his sailboat sank back in 1982.  FWIW, EPIRBs are totally different now than the old technology used during his harrowing ordeal.  Great reading and heartily recommended.


March 25, 2007  Sunday
Pointe ’a Pitre, Guadeloupe
16.13.569N; 61.32.096W           
Sailed 52 NM, 12 hours, averaged only 4.3 knots boat speed due to high winds on our nose.

We decided not to bother with clearing in at Deshaies.  Got really lazy and didn’t want to take down the dinghy from the davits and move the outboard; just to have to put it all back up again so we could sail down to Pointe ‘a Pitre today.  Plus the wind was really howling through the harbor and we just didn’t want to get off our boat.  The sailing guide mentions that this particular area normally has high howling winds even when it is calm outside the harbor.

Anchor was up before clear daylight again today so we could get an early start.  Bill described it as “fancy driving” to get the anchor up and get out of that crowded anchorage without hitting another boat or dragging someone’s anchor line.  Another boat had come in late yesterday and anchored almost right in front of us. Tricky maneuvering with the helm and throttle was required while Bill was raising the anchor:  helm hard to starboard with high throttle as we approached the starboard side of that boat and Bill raised the anchor as fast as the windlass could handle it; then helm hard to port with high throttle (as soon as the anchor chain counter read 4 meters and I knew it was off the ground) so that it would swing our stern away from that boat; with both of us praying that our anchor would be high enough as we passed very closely in front of that boat so that we wouldn’t snag his anchor line.   We were so close to that boat that we could have stepped from our boat onto his!  But we didn’t touch him so that is all that counts!  As soon as our anchor was up then I lowered the bow thruster and made tight turns between boats that were anchored too closely together, and we exited Deshaies.  That little harbor got very crowded last night.

It was a lovely sail for about 18 miles down the western side of Guadeloupe.  At times we were only going 2 knots boat speed and we were very close to the land so we enjoyed sightseeing at all the little towns and villages along the way.  Winds would blow 20-25 knots and then stop altogether; so sometimes we would shoot from slow speeds to fast sailing speeds.  One time we went from 1 knot to 9 knots boat speed in just a few seconds.  It was fun.  And then the nasty weather arrived.  It quickly became a Force 7 moderate gale with wind blowing 33 knots; of course, right on our nose.  The remainder of the trip was awful; probably the worst sailing experience we have had to date.  Each time we changed course at the appropriate waypoints, the wind would change too; so it remained directly on our nose.  Our boat was either hobby-horsing directly into 8 ft rolling waves and 30+ knots wind or we were rolling side-to-side in the 8-ft rolling waves with the 30+ knots wind still directly on our nose.  A miserable time that lasted for hours as the high winds on our nose caused us to slow down to only 3 knots boat speed – and that is with a 100hp diesel engine.  We watched a catamaran forced to go back and forth north and south in order to progress easterly; obviously because his engines weren’t did have enough horsepower to go straight into the high winds.

Finally about one hour before we arrived at Pointe ‘a Pitre, the wind was at the correct angle for us to sail again.  Putting out the sails changed the motion entirely and we had a pleasant sail for the final hour.  We found that the area outside the marina where we are going tomorrow is no longer an anchorage as marked on our charts and in the sailing guide.  This area is now filled with mooring balls. 

Bill cut his fingers while securing our bridle line to the mooring ball painter.  We figured that no telling what was growing on that mooring ball painter, so I pulled out our fancy-dancy medical kit for the first time since we moved aboard.  Simple clean-up and antibiotic ointment and fingertip bandages.  Thanks again to Donna for helping us with this medical kit.

Hoping that this nasty weather passes quickly.  A gray and dim Caribbean is not our idea of paradise.

March 26, 2007  Monday

Now all legally cleared in and berthed at Marina Bas Du Fort for about a week or so.  They didn’t even look at our passports!  Just asked us to write down the passport numbers on a form and that was it.  This harbor is hot as blazes!  Lots of wind outside this harbor, but deathly still in here.  And we are seeing mosquitoes for the first time since leaving Bonaire last November.

After searching two chandleries we finally found the correct fitting to allow us to plug into shore power.  We have several 220 adapters on board because every country seems to have a different plug configuration, but none of the ones we had would work here in Guadeloupe.  That’s a relief because it would have been unbearable without air conditioning and having to leave the hatches open for all the mosquitoes to fill our bedroom tonight.

This marina is only 40.17 Euro per day, including electricity and water.  That is less than $55 USD per day.  In the BVI and in the USVI, we had to pay $1.25 per foot per day plus commercial electrical rates.  One day in the marina at Red Hook cost us approximately $125, because the electricity rates were exorbitant.  This marina seems like a true bargain when compared to The Virgins.

Shortly after we docked, our friends (Pierre and Ellen on S/V Lady Annabelle) arrived and were berthed on this same dock.  They are from Nice, France, and we had met them in Trinidad last summer; we headed west and they headed north.  We ran into them again in St. Martin.  They had just left Antigua and were headed to the BVI.  We had just left the BVI and were headed to Antigua, so our paths crossed.  And now we meet again in Guadeloupe.  Pierre and Ellen plan to go through the Panama Canal next spring, about the same time that we will be there.  So we hope to continue to meet up them off and on all the way through the South Pacific.

Pierre said he had to purchase an electrical adapter in the BVI, just like we had to buy one here.  (Pierre and Ellen are from France so his boat had no American adapters like those used in the BVI.)  Pierre had to pay $125 USD for that silly adapter.  We paid only 9 Euro here, about $12 USD for the same thing.  You can see how overpriced the BVI has become and why most cruisers avoid that area.  The reason we had to buy another adapter is because this marina has the standard USA plug for 220v, except that it is wired for only 110v.  So, obviously, our standard 220v plug would not work – and no one from the USA will have a 110v plug in that 220v configuration, so this marina is really wired strangely!   

We went out to dinner tonight with Pierre and Ellen and another American couple who had also been in Trinidad last summer.  Food was delicious, as one would expect on a French island.  It was nice to have people at the table who spoke French because the restaurant staff did not speak any English.

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