Blue By You! (Written on Jan 24, 2014)
Our wobbly green course line, indicative of where Whale Song has travelled, shows that rough weather has made it difficult to keep to our chosen course, the straight red line on the nav chart. The plan is to keep as close to the red course line as possible, simply to keep out of harms’ way from the ever-present, low-pressure systems whirling from the west… we have been giving our predicted noon positions to the BOM forecasters whom then provide the weather predictions for that area. Thus far, with this knowledge, we can slightly adjust the course, our red line, to skirt the worst of each system, thus attempting to stay as close as possible ‘on course’.
The moon and stars again make the wobbling ok. These celestial lights are my friends, guiding and twinkling in the sky. In the moonlight, I can see the wind/waves rising and even the swell pattern. Rough weather at night always seems nicer when you can see what’s coming. You know I just loved, no, LOVED, the white ‘nights’ down south. So much to see in the night lightness, white icebergs, blue icebergs, falling snow and even feeding whales! What a hoot! It felt like being out and about all night, each night! On the loose!
In the 2030 (0830 pm) sonobuoy deployment last night, a seismic ship belted sound relentlessly into the ocean. These known volume and pitch, repetitive sounds are then analysed with the ship’s own hydrophone array to determine the nature of the sea floor, particularly, with respect to potential oil & gas deposits. Blasting away every 4 seconds, it is no wonder we can’t hear the whales calling. And this ship is operating 1000 nm away! Maybe the whales aren’t even calling at all over the racket. You don’t go to a rock concert for a quiet tete a tete with your close friend do you? If the ambient noise is so loud, why would you bother trying to call?
Through my morning slumber, I heard Curt say the two words we have been waiting for this whole trip… “Blue whale!” He called this information down the stairs to alert any potential would-be breakfasters in the main saloon. I immediately leapt out of bed, and asking him if it was cold, I had to decide pronto-pronto between donning my full Antarctic kit or a partial rendition to save time.
Due to the lack of a response from the main saloon and realising the early-ness of the hour, 0645 am and thus the lack of apparent awake personnel, Curt decided to announce his find on the ships’ PA! “BLUE WHALE RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!” boomed over the public address system into every cabin! Effectively, the announcement worked and within five minutes the crew was assembled on deck, in various forms of order. I noticed my shirt was inside-out and some things weren’t done up quite correctly, but we were all there and ready for action! The tagging gear and biopsy gear was carried to the foredeck and I clicked away like mad as we worked out what flavour of large, baleen whale we had in our sights… yahooooo!
Curt had been driving along, minding his own business just finishing his breakky toast and taking the last sip of his first cup of Nespresso and viola, at 3000 and 0.25 nm away, he saw a cetacean blow and then body, swimming right towards Whale Song! Then straight ahead of us, travelling across the bow only 100 m in front, a huge pale blue/grey whale surfaced! He slowed the boat and there we were – with a blue whale beside Whale Song! BLUE BY YOU!
A tall blow billowed from the calm blue sea… yahoo! Did you hear it, several yahoos were let rip! I am sure someone heard! The blues are here at the STCZ! This is the productive area known as the Sub-Tropical Convergence Zone, situated at around 39-43 South, where tongues of swirling chlorophyll-a filled water can be seen from satellite imagery. One year ago, while travelling through the STCZ we found 2 Pygmy blue whales and one Antarctic blue whale and thus we had been hopeful of finding more whales here – YES, THERE WAS AN ANTARCTIC BLUE WHALE RIGHT HERE!
“There’s the blow, at 45 degrees!” Simon quickly called from the fly-bridge. Curt turned Whale Song to starboard and within a minute we were beside a beautiful, big blue whale. “Get photos of the head Mich, stay up here on the Portuguese bridge, whale coming up now!” Curt called excitedly! The whale began to surface, I could see the rostrum just underneath the water, the head was tapered and only about 1/5 of the overall body size. The rostrum, the tip of the head to the blowholes was flat and tapered and was relatively small compared with the size of the whole animal. The two blowholes, almost the size of a computer screen, opened widely as air escaped from the bus-sized lungs in a huge whoosh! After several surfacings – one of two blows and the remainder when the whale took five inhalations/exhalations, this huge mammal slightly rounded its’ body and on and on and on the body showed, all covered in blue blotches… more body showed – on and on, until the small, tiny dorsal appeared… Wow! This is wonderful!
With five surfacings of up to five breaths each, this whale appeared to be feeding in a band of krill showing on the sounder at 40 m. Observing the whales’ surfacing style and comparing the body size and shape, both Curt and I conferred and decided that this was a 25 m long Antarctic Blue Whale! We have found where Antarctic blue whales feed, perhaps en route to the Antarctic. How long do they stay here? Do they remain just for the month of January, or longer? Do they go south to the Antarctic from here? Again, so many questions! Curt and I are absolutely delighted that we have unravelled another mystery! The productive STCZ is perhaps the January entree, maybe their main meal is served in February in the Antarctic! The whales know what they do – we just have to figure it out! We have a whole bunch of new projects for tagging and biopsy on the boil now! This is the wonderful thing about good science – your research evolves with your answers!
While we were on deck for a couple of hours with the whale, beavering away in the galley, Resty had made us a huge pile of pancakes! We all sat down for a 0930 breakfast together, ever so happy! With the morning observations of the Antarctic blue whale, the day just disappeared! At 1130 a dolphin sighting was called down from the fly-bridge from the Visual Observers Inday and Russ. I entered the data, half-watching the distant splashes at 3 o’clock and then saw splashes at 5 o’clock, so I raced out on deck too and got photos of the splashing cetaceans too! Back inside and out of the bright sunlight, I had a look at my photos and saw that there were large dorsal fins with an unusual white pigmentation on the caudal peduncle… what had we seen? Only when Russ questioned me about dorsal fins, did we the flavour of cetaceans that we had actually seen. Unfortunately, these sightings occurred simultaneously while the ships’ crew were resecuring some deck fittings after the wobbly seas of the last few days. From the photos we were able to determine that the two cetacean pods, right near each other, were 50 Southern right whale dolphins (my absolute favourite!) and approximately 20 (Dale says 18!) Long-finned pilot whales! What? This is a happening place!
Hmmm, actually I missed the Noon Obs (or 1200), so we’ll have the 1300 Obs instead! Bit busy apparently!
1300 Obs Jan 24, 2014
Lat/Long: 440 38.7 S 120053.8 E
Dry Bulb Temp: 12.90C
Wet Bulb Temp: 11.40C
SST (Sea Surface Temp): 12.00C
COG (Course Over the Ground): 0020
SOG (Speed Over the Ground): 7.5 knots
Barometer: 1019 Hp
Beaufort SS (Sea State): 4
WS (Wind Speed): 20-22 knots
WD (Wind Direction): NW
Swell: NW 2-3 m
Wildlife: Broad-billed Prions, Black-bellied Storm Petrels, Wandering Albatross, White-headed Petrels
WT: GSG – 5
Antarctic Fact: The aurora australis, electrically charged particles from the sun or ‘solar wind’ are
attracted to Earth are drawn towards the South Pole. In the north, the aurora borealis are the Station in East Antarctica.
Antarctic Slang: moon dog –‘false moon’ or paraselena; an optical phenomenon caused by the refraction of moonlight by ice crystals suspended in the air. Sun dog is the ‘false sun’ or parhelion, caused by the refraction of sunlight by tiny ice crystals , themselves known as ‘diamond dust’ suspended in the air.
Our excitement of finding an Antarctic blue whale in the morning buoyed the visual observations for the afternoon while on deck soaking up the warm sunshine. Already the afternoon, belonging to the morning was very good! A mature Wandering albatross cruised by and we continued to postulate about the new and next wonderful projects we could cook up in this region!
Restys’ delicious dinner for our red letter blue whale day was red curry with chicken and vegetables and rice for dinner… such a voyage of discovery and unfolding secrets as we have travelled! Delicious boxed chocolates and Tas’s raspberry granita went down very well for dessert with an Apple Isle brandy… all the discussions of the day! What a great team and what a wonderful trip thus far!
Both afternoon (1630) and the after-dinner (2030) sonobuoy deployments detected several strong calls from Antarctic blues and Pygmy blue whales – they are in the area!
On an Antarctic Blue Whale high!