Day 9 Voyage Report

Day 9 Three Blues before Lunch! (Written on Jan 27, 2013)

At midnight as I come on watch Maria has had orcas, sperm whales, the aliens and blue whales.  It is a veritable cacophony of animals out here chatting at night.  We deploy and monitor three sets of sonobuoys through the wee hours and only at three am is Whale Song a quiet ship again…  The moon is full and the moonlight shining on the sea appears as a wedge of aluminium foil reaching from the moon to us.  Maria and I hope to see the orcas breaching in the moonlight, it can’t be bad to hope!

By 230am we are 146.7 nm SW of Cape Nelson, South Australia.  We are still in deep water (5080 metres), on a heading of 093 degrees, we are aiming for the north side of King Island and the entrance to the famed Bass Strait.  A 50 knot Southerly Buster is due to hit the south-east coast in the next 4-5 days, it is a race against time to make a safe anchorage and still put in the hours to find blues.

At 0550 Curt pops his head into our cabin “Mich, there’s a whale out here…”  I am up and at’em in under five.  Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I hastily reach for my sunglasses.  The early morning sun is bright but the sea is calm, perfect for sighting and an encounter.  On the fly-bridge I learn that four blows have been seen by Inday and then one nm away another blow is sighted.  In the morning light the blows are straight and bright white… what manner of cetacean do we have?  This is great and very exciting!  We have been waiting for this for a few days and even a few years!

While climbing the foremast, I hear Curt say “it’s a blue whale, we’ve got a blue!”  Reaching the platform 12 metres up, the view is awesome – the flat sea extending in all directions.  With excitement, suspense and hungry tummy rumblings I await the next surfacing.  “Over there!” the fly-bridge crew cries, against the grey calm sea and back-lit with the morning sunshine, we hear a blow, see a steamy exhalation rise and a long black silhouette of a blue whale surfaces. We observe 13 surfacings of a 22 metre long pygmy blue whale which spends only around 2 minutes at the surface, being down for an average of 8 minutes.  We are jazzed and excited all at once!  I take 572 photos of one whale!  Wow!  Lead-finger…

While near this whale we prepare for the CTD profile.  The water has a greenish tinge, though not as much as the other day, but we are interested to see the values of the chl-a in this area, particularly knowing there is a blue whale right here.  While the CTD oceanographic instrument is lowered by the deck crew, the visual observation team continues to visually follow the animal, which maintains the same surfacing/diving pattern.   Captain Curt threatens – “Just one last surfacing”, and after several of these (he’s addicted too!), we finally “break” from our first pygmy blue whale of the journey.  One and a half hours of enjoyment and a few hundred photos later we make our way towards Bass Strait.  The concept of finally finding whales here in the STC is intoxifying and rejuvenating!

Checking the photos and sorting the data sheets we are thrilled minutes later when a second blue whale blow is sighted by Stacey, we spend another 20 minutes collecting photo-identification data and surfacing/diving information.  Pod 2 is also a 22 metre pygmy blue whale, this time with a larger rounded-shaped dorsal, different from the first pod which had a white blaze forward of a pointy dorsal fin.  Marking details on the data sheets (hard-copy and computer) we are thoroughly blown away with the radio call from the fly-bridge that Sam has seen yet another blow.  These three whales are all within 4 nm of each other and they must be here for a reason.  Pod 3 is a huge animal with a slightly different surfacing style.  The head is flatter, more pointed and despite the healthy girth of the enormous whale, the vertebral epiphyses are evident upon every arching of its back… is this an Antarctic blue whale?  I climb the foremast again as Curt lines Whale Song up for the next surfacing beside this 24 metre whale.  “Burn up that hard-drive baby” he calls from the deck – I am given the go ahead (like I need it!) to take a whole bunch of photos…  We can see the whale just below the surface in a pale blue streak showing through the dull lighting and dark grey water.  The paparazzi perched on all levels of Whale Song rolls video and still cameras click in their mechanical tones capturing the sight before us.  Braced in the platform, I zoom in and get full frame images of an Antarctic blue whale gliding to the surface on a horizontally-oriented angle, exhaling opening the blow-holes with a blow reaching 9 metres, then inhaling and closing the nares (or nostrils) and arching without showing the dorsal fin.  No flukes are seen above the water but we can see the 7 metre wide flukes just under the surface.  A vortex of swirling white-water beside the foot-print, is our final reminder of this ancient leviathan sinking to the deep.

By 1010 am we have spent two and a half hours with two pygmy blue whales and now an Antarctic blue whale!  I have taken 830 photographs and most importantly we have documented blue whales in the STC, perhaps the only dedicated survey since the Russian whalers came here to kill blue whales in the late sixties.  Ironically, when we have lots to see the animals appear quiet, and when we have lots to listen to, there are few visual sightings.  We desperately wanted to hear the blues but orca and sperm whales dominated the acoustic recordings.

Lunch is a continuation of our Australia Day fare and with comfortable full bellies and replete with the satisfaction of our sightings, we discuss the possibilities that would have an Antarctic blue whale this far north in the middle of summer.  Yesterday we had recorded a “Z” call characteristic of the Antarctic blue whale so this fellow might not be alone.  As the afternoon plays out some blue whale calls and Southern right whales were detected but no more animals sighted.  The usual bevy of albatross circle as the late afternoon chill settles.

I prepare an array of dishes for dinner giving Resty a night off, including green chicken and vegetable curry, turmeric rice, sweet potato and silver-beet chillie and oriental noodle salad.  Taslovas (petite pavlovas made by Tasmin) are on the menu for dessert with lashings whipped cream.

The crew are excited at the blue whale sightings but the implications of whales found in the STC (Sub-Tropical Convergence) delights Curt and I.  Whale Song is truly a Swiss-army knife with her multitude of capabilities.   Tomorrow we shall enter Bass Strait to the north of King Island and the Australian mainland.  All is very well on the good ship Whale Song.  Thanks blues for cruising by our world!

From the drop-off south of Kangaroo Island,



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