Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Day of the Whales

Today was my last day at Palmer station before crossing the Drake Passage, and it was a great way to say goodbye to Antarctica. My first inkling of how special this day would be was when Amanda and I were wrapping up at our second water sampling station. The boating coordinator got on the radio and asked us about some visitors. I asked if he meant the sneaky leopard seal that was checking us out as we processed our water samples, but it was unlikely that he could see the seal from where he was, ¾ of a mile away. He meant something…bigger. We stopped and looked around for a couple of minutes but didn’t see our marine friends so we came back in for a long day of lab work. As we arrived on station, we saw several boats going out to look at a group of humpback whales who were hanging around the harbor. The station employees had today, Monday, off because they worked yesterday due to a visit by a cruise ship (hopefully more on that in a later post). However Amanda and I had a full day of time sensitive experiments to carry out, so it wasn’t possible for us to play with the whales. Around 4:30pm as I was just coming to the end of my lab work (except for the experiment I have to end at 10pm), the cook came looking for us. She said that the whales were still playing and asked us if we would like to come out with her and the station doctor. I want to thank Amanda for letting me post the photos that she took of the whales.

We piled into a zodiac and took off in search of humpies! We had been seeing their spouts all day from the galley windows but I wondered how we would find them in the whole expanse of the ocean. I needn’t have worried; there were at least five groups, about 20 individuals in total. We started out with a group of four who were bubble-net feeding. This is a technique in which the whales work in teams to hunt schools of krill. One whale will emit a sound that attracts the krill and the others swim in a tight circle trapping the krill in vortex and working them to the surface. We knew that the whales would be coming up soon when the surface of the water turned pale blue from all the bubbles. Then three or four huge beaky mouths would stick up above the surface, gulping hundreds of gallons of krill-filled water. The pleats of their throats would stretch, showing the white accordion bits. I could see the water slosh around and jiggle the surface of their pouches, which are more flexible than I would have imagined. Their jaws have barnacles in addition to natural bumps, and distinctive white and orange markings. The top-side of the beak is flat with nobs like the bosses of a shield. Sometimes I could see the pink roofs of their mouths. They would all rise up together and open their jaws, like a mound of mussels topping off a paella. Often I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at; it was jumble of gigantic blue, white and pink body parts. A fin would hang above the surface, white with dark scalloped nobs. The fins were incredibly long and huge, at least 10 feet long, 3-4 feet wide, and quite floppy. We were very close to them – at one point they were about 15 feet away and coming straight towards us, so we just sat tight and waited for them to pop out on the other side. When viewed straight on, their backs looked like the inverted hulls of small boats – wide and tapering to a ridge along the back. Sometimes the whales would arch backwards as they opened their mouths at the surface, swimming along on their backs with their blue and white striped bellies in full view. Then they would turn and show their dorsal fin before diving down and showing their flukes.

I have posted an album of photos by my friend Rex on picasa.
The flukes had incredible variation in shape and color from animal to animal. Some had a sharper angle in the middle, some tapered off at the ends more, some were completely white, some dark blue, some white, blue and orange. Some had scars or what seemed to be birth defects. It was really fun to see so many individuals, to follow one and learn to recognize its fluke or dorsal fin, and then to spot a new one and think, “Hello stranger.” I liked following a group, seeing the individuals separate and join new groups, or to see one who kept to itself the whole time. Amanda took some really great photographs of the whales we saw, which you can view on her picasa page. This is a video taken from one of other boats: Kyle's voice gets...very high when he's excited...

We heard them exhale puffs of mist every several seconds. One whale made a more nasal sound, like sucking snot or blowing your nose. The one really distasteful part of the experience was the whales’ bad breath. It smelled rotten, not like rancid meat or the sweet fermentation of fruit, but sour, like rotten vegetables. This would be the only air pollution that I am aware of that originates in Antarctica.

The last group we hung out with had a small, possibly juvenile member who would hang back behind the other three. Then this one decided to give us a show. About 40 feet away from us, the whale breached out of the water. It seemed to be in slow motion, the pointed head, stark white and black pleats and white flippers, streaming water. Then it breached again, higher and spinning halfway around in the air and landing with a big splash. Another adult jumped up and back showing its belly and flippers. I never thought I would ever see this sight in my whole life. It was invigorating, seeming to make my blood circulate faster; my fingers had been freezing even in my lined rubber gloves, but after the breach I didn’t notice the cold anymore. The whale disappeared under the water, leaving no trace and I found it hard to believe what had just happened. Think of it: a whole 30-foot, many-ton whale out of the water! Watching whales is kind of like being one of the three blind men who meet an elephant – you can see a fin lingering above the waves, a nose poking up, the pleats of the throat, and tails disappearing under the water, but you don’t get a sense of the whole body. The breach put all these disparate body parts together on one, strange-looking animal.

There hasn’t been another day like this all summer, and I like to think of it as Antarctica trying to keep me here, or entice me to come back!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alice, I just got Internet recently and am finally able to check out your blog! How interesting your experience has been, and I am glad that you are able to marvel at the beauty that is around you, it really is a gift. Not sure if you got a chance to play some disc golf down there - hope you did, because you know that is my favorite pastime! Anyway I am glad that you have been able to participate in such an interesting and unique study and community that studies it, I'm sure your work will make a difference in the long run. Have a great time passing through Chile on the way back, say hello to Mariano Puga for me as you fly over him, go to Torres del Paine if you can, and say hello to me as you fly over Central America too!