Whale Krill Soup and Two Tags Away! (Written on Jan 14, 2014)
After another foggy night spent with our eyes glued to the RADARS and windows… we are thinking this is getting passé! At the end of my watch, I feel as though my eyes are like dinner plates and I am wired with adrenalin – its’ all part of the process of our two person watches, keeping Whale Song safe. All ok, as we continued westward and ever hopeful for whales. With dawn and a wonderful four hour sleep, I noticed the glassy calm sea and that the light was bright, with a few patches of fog coming and going – we even had some sunshine! Yippee!
Curt popped his head in our door saying “you’ll want to see this…” Teasing me, I dressed quickly and on deck to see… a gorgeous iceberg like the Materhorn towered ahead. We travelled nearby and took the chance for a great photo opportunity, everyone smiling and doing “selfies”. Curt, Tas and I with pride holding the Explorers Club Flag 69 in the Antarctic, the feeding grounds of humpback whales! With respect we remember the explorers of our past.
As we proceeded westward, the sea became a glassy grey – just wonderful. Fog rolls in and out, – hampering our visibility but when it cleared as Inday was leaving the wheelhouse at 11 for her obs watch on the fly-bridge, I heard her say to Simon, “We are going to see cetaceans, for sure!” Within seconds Simon replied, “Yes, there’s a body right there!” The call “We’ve got a whale!” was shouted down to the gang below in the main saloon and very shortly all hands were on deck carrying all the fixings for our whale research – clothes, cameras, videos, satellite tag gear and biopsy equipment. The three blows of each surfacings were of a dark dorsal and we were in the biz of looking at an Antarctic minke whale! Photo-id was collected and we continued on our merry way!
I was relieved to hear the call from Resty for lunch. The tiger in my tank was growling rather loudly! Lunch was yummy Green Thai chicken soup with mushrooms, chillie and still-fresh coriander, sooo yummy! The soft ice edge loomed ahead and we were thrilled with the real Antarctic feel of following along the scattered brash ice of the soft ice edge. Large icebergs beyond or in the middle of the broken ice and a penguin standing beside the uplifted pieces of the ice edge thrilled all and set the cameras clicking.
Noon Observations Jan 14, 2014
Lat/Long: 640 06.3 S 1200 04.9 E
Dry Bulb Temp: 2.10C
Wet Bulb Temp: 1.80C
SST (Sea Surface Temp): -0.40C
COG (Course Over the Ground): 2870
SOG (Speed Over the Ground): 5.2 knots
Barometer: 996 Hp
Beaufort SS (Sea State): 0
WS (Wind Speed): calm, fog, light snow
WD (Wind Direction): NW
Swell: NW 1 m
Wildlife: Black-bellied storm petrel, 4 Humpback Whales.
WT: KCGSM – 8
Antarctic Fact: Casey Station (one of three Australian Antarctic Stations) established in 1969, which is located in a beautiful area called the Windmill Islands, accommodates 88 people in summer and 19 in winter.
Antarctic Slang: Big Eye – period of sleeplessness caused most often by the 24 hour daylight of Antarctic summertime , but also by the darkness of winter.
The 1230 sonobuoy deployment had lots of ice sounds and seals, most of the usual suspects! In the clear visibility and even sunshine among the icebergs a pod of humpbacks was found by Inday! At 1550 we began working with a pod of at least 4 humpback whales. Early on, we decided there was only three in the pod and we began to follow for satellite tagging, biopsy and photo-id. The three whales were identified as Captain Hook, Scar Face and Whitey due to unique individual, physical features. A whale with a very hooked dorsal fin was given the handle Captain Hook. An animal extremely scarred with white cross hatch marks all over was named Scar Face and a white patch behind the dorsal fin became Whitey. They were very interested in krill in the water, showing in a huge band on the Bio Sonics computer screen. They rolled, surged and generally rotated/moved every part of their body in elastic and fluid movements. It was wonderful to see a 15 m whale weighing 40 tons play in their food so carefully! It was beautiful and wonderful to capture their bodies in tight shots as I prepared to get the tag deployment by Russ with the 400mm lens… Inflated heads, baleen plates hanging out of the mouth, blowholes, “arm-pits”, ventral pleats, lip grooves, dorsal fins and twisting/rolling dives – the works! Whale bits filled my eyes, lens and soul.
Captain Hook rolled near under the bow in a perfect position – the tag was deployed and a biopsy collected just after! Tag Away! Yahoo! The deck crew scurried to keep an eye on the arrow and the biopsy sample and to collect this floating hardware. I made notes and got photos of Captain Hook with its’ new gear – it was all go! We re-positioned following the pod and closed with them once another tag was readied. Making sure we got a new whale I called names of the whales as they surfaced and Russ relayed by headset to Curt, driving from the Portuguese bridge. “The one we want is Scar Face, Captain Hook is on the right – here it is!” “Are you ready Mich?” Russ asked and quick as a wink, the second tag was deployed on Scar Face and a biopsy collected too! Yahoo! We followed the pod until 2330 as the whales continued to fluke-up dive, side by side simultaneously and then surface a minute or two later together side-lunging through the krill with pectoral fins, inflated heads, open mouths, water pouring out of mouths and just generally lots of whales parts all at once, right next to each other at the surface! A sight to behold! My eyes can never get enough of these sights!
Rob noted that there must be an advantage for the pods to be so closely oriented. By diving together and surfacing so well co-ordinated, they must be concentrating a patch of krill and when surfacing trap the krill against the water surface, it’s a natural barrier. Through the surface they lunge, mouths agape. Bingo! Success with huge mouthfuls of food! For some reason, I quite like the idea that they are working together while in the ‘kitchen’. After all, eating is a nice social activity.
Resty called us to dinner and we inhaled the delicious steaming plates of Pad Thai he served. The whales however, could not keep us inside and Russ, Inday and I variously filmed or photographed for a time, came back inside and then went out again. The whales couldn’t stop and we couldn’t either! This whole thing is simply infectious! While I write, the comforting and repetitive sound of ‘beep-beep’ indicates transmissions from the tags to the satellites each time the whale surfaces, collected by a short-range receiver. We have four satellite tags deployed on humpback whales now! The behaviour of Captain Hook and Scar Face is very repetitive, they surface together lunge-feeding through the krill, three to four blows later they fluke-up dive and over and over again they fill their bellies with krill – the keystone species of the food chain here in the Antarctic! The Bio Sonics echo-sounder shows the krill as a dense band from the surface or 40 m down to 70 m. What an incredible dataset, the real-time dive profiles of the whales swimming through the real-time echo-soundings of the biomass!
A great day had all around! It has been a fantastic team effort by everyone! WELL DONE ALL! You are the best WAVES team ever!
With Captain Hook and Scar Face feeding voraciously beside Whale Song in the misty fog as we track the krill mass they are targeting, I shall dream (for a short time anyway!) of them continuing through the night collecting many, many mouthfuls of krill,