Monday, 17 December 2012

6 - Surrounded by whales

It was just after 7.30 and breakfast was under way. The ship’s doctor, Molly, said she had just seen ten or so whales on the port side of the ship. This lead to a general exodus for those not on watch, onto the aft deck armed with cameras. Little did we know what the rest of the day had in store for us!

Off to the port beam we could see three whales, and as almost all of us have no experience with whale watching, a quick discussion developed concerning which species we were seeing. Some rapid photo images with long lenses soon showed these were enormous humpback whales. Humpbacks have a number of readily recognisable features including a white underside to the tail, white bellies, a low dorsal fin, nobbly protruberences (tubercles) on the head and often have barnacles growing on their chins. Even at a distance these features became recognisable.

Two humpbacks, one showing dorsal fin and the other the tail
Within 30 minutes there was a snorting noise immediately beside the ship and looking over the gunwhale we saw the massive outline of a humpback whale. It then arched its back, showing off the small humps behind the dorsal fin, and sank from sight with the last part seen being the massive tail with its knobbly-trailing edge and white underside. Over the next six hours, these three humpback whales were joined by others within their group (totalling eight at one point) and they playfully swam alongside, round the stern and even under the ship. They rolled over, flicked their tails into the air and then appeared to ‘stand’ on their tails with their mouth and rostrum pointing skyward (spy-hopping). It was truly remarkable to see these large animals so close, almost within touching distance, seeming to be enjoying themselves, and the clatter of camera shutters was almost deafening.

Humpback spy hopping; see barnacles on chin
What had attracted the whales to this area was the high density of krill that occurred in the top 150m of the water column. The krill could be seen clearly on the Isis’s cameras during her deployment and recovery. There are thought to be five or six sub-populations of Humpback whales in the Southern Ocean. They usually spend the austral summer around the Antarctic before migrating north, probably up the east coast of South America, the west coast of South America or up to West Africa.

As we continued to look out to sea in the afternoon, we could see spray all around the ship from whales in the distance. Our day was completed when some of the individual whales began to breach. This is when they leap completely out of the water and crash back into the sea sending up massive amounts of spray. The whales stayed with the ship all day until our time at station E2 ended with the recovery of Isis  and steaming south with the fresh memory of a truly remarkable experience.

Humpback expelling air as spray

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