Day 559 [April 14/10] -- A welcoming committee of whales: 'Say cheese!'

Today's Report
April 14/10 0800 JST

05°29'S, 84°50'W (South Pacific Ocean, 2,150 nm from Valdivia)

A pod of four or five whales cruised past yesterday, a delighted Saito-san reported, as man and beast headed north in the direction of the Galápagos Islands. He said two of the whales detached from the group and nosed to within 4 meters of the boat, giving him ample opportunity to break out the camera and take digital shots of his Galápagos welcoming committee.

"I got some good pictures," he affirmed, clearly awed by the experience. "It wasn't scary," he added, "because they were not so large." He judged them to be about 10 meters in length, non-aggressive, and therefore no threat to the much larger, all-steel NBSDIII.

(Yachtsmen tend to be wary of whales, which have been known to suddenly attack and sink yachts in extremely rare acts of aggression. Solitary docile whales will even dog a sailboat for days before finally giving up either out of boredom, hunger, or unrequited love. Tony W, a sailor we know tells about one such extended encounter, when he became aware of a whale that stayed in his yacht's wake for most of a night: "I suddenly smelled fish. It was horrible. That whale had a BAD case of halitosis!") 

In addition to the curious cetaceans, Saito-san says he has also started seeing more seabirds as he approaches the Galápagos island group, which comprises a highly protected marine park as designated by the government of Ecuador and supported by several international organizations. He also spotted a large bird some distance away. "I am pretty sure it was an albatross," he said, although it was too far to make out clearly.

He expects to pass in about 2-3/4 days to the east and hopefully within sight of the furthest eastward of the islands, arguably the most famous in the world. The group consists of 15 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets.

The Galápagos are, by scientific consensus, the most precious, threatened, and educational ecological treasure of the planet. Situated at the confluence of multiple ocean currents, the islands have diverse endemic marine and terrestrial species that are unique to only the islands, and even unique within the individual islands. Being largely cut off from the rest of the world's gene pool, they were recognized by Charles Darwin as living proof, along with his paleontological revelations involving fossils, of natural selection, a force that underpins his epoch-making theory of evolution.    

Darwin in 1835 was the first scientist, though largely self-taught, to visit the islands as part of the second voyage of the Beagle to Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire). For 5 years, from 1831 to 1836, the naturalist surveyed and explored mainly the lower South American coast, as part of an extended and highly dangerous voyage into barely charted waters. The visit up the western coast to the Galápagos was almost aborted after the Beagle's self-employed captain, Robert FitzRoy, suffered from a deep depression similar to the one that seized the ship's original captain and drove him to commit suicide on the Beagle's maiden voyage to the area 5 years before.

During his several months on the islands, Darwin, an amateur biologist and paleontologist, was said to have been hugely disappointed by the sparse vegetation and paucity of animal, plant, and insect specimens he was able to collect or describe. It was only when he arrived back in England that he was able to determine that nearly 300 of his specimens were endemic to the islands, and that a number of the related species, showing slight variations, were to be found only on specific islands, and not throughout. These findings were among the powerful arguments that changed man's understanding of the creation of species from religious doctrine to indisputable science.

More on the rather oddly named Beagle's voyage tomorrow, as we revisit Cape Horn and "The Furies."
Distance in last 24 hours: 101 nm
Distance completed: 19,745 nm
To Yokohama: 8,544 nm (distance remaining: 30.2%)
Heading: 330
Reported boat speed: 3.5 kt, motoring (day's average: 4.2 kt)
Weather: Overcast with occasional rain
Temperature: 26.0° C
Barometer: 1005 hPa (slight drop)
Wind (from): Weak at 6-8 kts SE -- expected to increase to 9-11 kts mostly out of ESE, changing to 11 E in 19 hrs
Waves: 1.0 m
Current (from): variable
Engine rpms: 6.0 hrs, 1800 rpms
Generator: 7.0 hrs
Sails: Genoa 0%, staysail 100%, mainsail 1-pt reef

Position Map (click to enlarge)