So it has been an exciting few days here at Palmer Station. We happened upon our first humpback whale while out calibrating the echo sounders (fancy fish finders), which are an adventure of their own. Doug and I spend most of our working days here at Palmer Station floating around whales in our trusty Zodiac. Most of the time it is a comfortable quaint little office, with space for all of our equipment and, importantly for the work we do, a very good platform to approach whales.
We work in quite hostile environments, so safety is paramount. We have survival equipment on board and there are caches with tents and stoves on some of the islands in our study area, just in case the weather comes up quickly. And it really can come up quickly. One moment it’s calm and pleasant and the next we are in the middle of a blizzard. We keep in touch with the Station by calling in our position every 30 minutes on the VHF radio.
We were out sampling on Sunday when we happened to come across a mom and her calf. Then out of nowhere, a large ominous dorsal fin came up just to our starboard side. It was huge!! It was a large bull killer whale (Orca). Next thing we know we are in a group of 7 killer whales. It was quite spectacular.
We have 6 biopsies so far. We were fortunate to go outside the boating limits today to Dream Island. We were accompanied by the birder group who was counting skua chicks and eggs on Dream. We saw three more humpbacks today and a minke whale, that disappeared after about 10 seconds. One of the humpbacks, whom I named the fat pig, was surface lunge feeding. It was amazing to witness. This particular whale would dive and releasing a net of bubbles to concentrate its prey, we call this phenomena bubble net feeding. The animal would then lunge up through the center of the ring of bubbles, opening its mouth and filling his large bucal cavity with water and krill. It would then roll over on its right side, lazily like and slosh its pectoral and fluke fins around for a while. This series of actions was repeated several times.
There is still a lot of ice around which makes getting in and out of the boat ramp quite difficult. Also makes sighting whales quite challenging as well. The crabeater seals are quite pleased with the amount of ice however. Doug and I will be going back out tomorrow to finish the echo sounder calibration so we can start prey mapping (looking for krill).
Well we are now on Day three of the ship. Unfortunately the rocking of the vessel does not help me sleep. But I guess the more I am awake the more time I can spend on the bridge looking for animals.
We crossed the 60th parallel (60 deg. South) at about 10:35 this morning. It is currently 3:23 pm and a huge bout of fog has come in and surrounded us, making whale sightings a bit more challenging. Just prior to crossing the 60th parallel, we crossed over into the southern ocean. In doing so the temperature dropped from about 4°C to about 1°C. It even snowed this morning.
We spotted our first whale at about 8:30 am. Passed by a bunch of fin whales. They are easy to spot at distance as their blow towers over the rest of the water in a cloud of mist. They have a smaller dorsal generally as compared to the sei whales we seen coming through the straits of Magellan and are an olive/brown color. Have made several sightings of these guys through out the course of the day, of which one individual decided to roll and show the bottom of his/her left fluke blade.
We have also started to see some different bird species as well, my favorite of which is the cape petrel. Their lacey, checkerboard black and white patters are just stunning. We have also seen some giant petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels, grey-headed albatross and now some light-mantled sooty albatross.
At about 7:30 I noticed some spray coming across the water, the winds were not so bad so I assumed there were some whales near by. Not long after a giant dorsal fin emerged about 20 ft starboard of the vessel. It was a group of three killer whales, of which one was a male (have large dorsal fins). They did not stay for long. Once they got closer they appeared to take a deep dive and disappear.
We are travelling first to a station at Cape Shirreff to drop off a scientist and pick up their garbage. From there we will proceed to Palmer Station (another 20 hours or 200 miles) traversing through the Gerlache Strait. We should finally arrive at Palmer station sometime the afternoon of the 8th. Hopefully we can be up and running in about a day.
Here is the current weather in the Drake Passage: Swells about 4-6 ft. high, we are in roughly 4000 m of water. The wind is travelling on average of 15 knots and the wind chill is -11.8° C. The water temperature is now 1.07° C.