Tag Archives: Humpback Whale

Of Ice and Ittoqqortoormiit

Last night the fog that had been shrouding our passage across the Greenland Sea lifted to display a bright sun in a glorious blue sky. The horizon was punctuated by the first icebergs of the passage lined up like the teeth of the world. As the sun lowered towards the west we found ourselves skirting towers of ice reaching with craggy fingers towards the heavens. However, the new experience of night at these latitudes promised a scary new adventure – sailing through ice in the dark! As it turned out we had pretty clear seas for most of the night with only the occasional berg glowing white in the gloom. It wasn’t until the darkest hour of the night that we finally found our nerves a little frayed as we suddenly hit bands of dense fog…and those scattered dots on the radar … waves or ice? Oh …. ice ….. lots of it!

I have to admit my nerve failed me …. Rather than steering blindly through an unknown field of ice I dropped the sails, did an about turn to steer around the nearest few bergs and then settled down to drift amongst the ice until the light returned. It turned out to be a good choice. The scattered bergs we stumbled across were actually the outliers of quite a substantial band of sea ice that it took quite a few hours of twisting and turning to get though. The ice here is very different to Antarctica where generally you encounter single year sea-ice that is low and flat in profile. Here the sea ice is ridged and hummocked from the immense pressures of the drifting ice pack of the pole. Occasionally towering chunks of multi-year ice stand like monsters amidst the other flows and our poor little Widdershins looked like a toy boat amidst the splendid and scary sight of the Arctic pack ice.

Luckily dodging ice was only a limited diversion and soon clear waters opened up with only the occasional majestic berg bobbing on a horizon that was now clear and crisp. Passing the band of ice seemed to be like crossing a barrier into the true arctic – suddenly the temperature plummeted below zero, there was ice on the rigging and when the sails clapped in a gust of wind they sendt plates of ice crashing to the deck. We had also passed into whale territory – soon after the sea-ice slipped behind in our wake we were seeing the occasional blow of a whale on the horizon and soon we had the tails of humpback whales gracefully tipping up beside the boat as the beasts slipped into the depths. We encountered several; groups of humpbacks, some of which circled the boat very closely to cast a curious eye at us, as we in turn ran euphorically backwards and forward watching these beautiful animals.

Regardless of the spectacular end to the passage these weary sailors were looking forward to a rest, and the sight of the settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit (more pronounceabely known as Scoresbysund) was a welcome relief. Against the forbidding backdrop of bare rock and a distant ice cap, this small settlement is a small island of humanity in a rugged, icy land. However, it is also a community like nothing else we have encountered. Here subsistence hunting is the general rule – with only 2 supply ships bringing fresh provisions each year the local people rely very much upon harvesting seal, muskox, ducks and polar bear to provide the nutrition they need. Hanging up beside the drying clothes in front of the houses it is a common sight to see the shaggy pelt of an musk ox, or the white hide of a bear sending its rank odour into the breeze.

After a short period of awkward glances and shy hellos the people here have provided a warm welcome to us – in fact we can barely walk down the street without being accosted by children attacking us with imaginary guns or other inventive games of “tourist baiting”. It is another world here, but it a world that offers serenity and a pace of life that allows the community to develop its own unique identity. Here people count the seasons not the hours and there is no rushing. In fact it will be a hard place to leave.

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My first passage

After more than 80 hours of sailing and over 260 nautical miles we finally made it to Bjørnøya, a rugged, surreal rocky island between the European continent and Svalbard, our northernmost destination. For me this first passage was quite the experience – of course I spent the first day leaning over the railings feeding fish and looking green. Poor Patrick had to sail all by himself until my stomach and legs decided that a rolling ship is an acceptable place to be. After that routine soon settled in – either 4 hours on the watch, keeping the sails in position and the ship on course, or trying to catch some sleep despite constant healing and rocking of the ship and strange rattling and gurgling sounds all around you. But after my mind had finally settled in, I started to notice all the small wonders around me. The faithful fulmars which kept us company for the whole journey, the curious kittiwakes circling the windex and trying to land on deck, the vicious skuas pirating food from other seabirds, and of course the whales! Pchuuuuuh, big blow just 20 metres off the ship, massive black back, and then the tail of a huge male humpback whale disappearing in the abyss of the northern seas. And after what seemed forever, we finally spotted the land we’ve been striving towards: huge, vertical cliffs, rocky pillars, slopes covered in snow, and buzzing birds all around us. Bjørnøya!

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Summers End

The past few days in Antarctica have seen some dramatic changes. Just ten days ago we were basking in sunlight and calm days. Ever since land reared out from a turgid sea on this trip we have been accosted by strong winds, steel grey skies and a constant mix of drizzle and sleet. The penguin colonies and mires of mud and guano with only a hand full of penguins standing miserably in a pile of feather as they shed the bedraggled growth of the last year in preparation for the comming winter. The gloomy conditions are relieved by huge numbers of humpback whales congregating to mop up the last of the summers krill, and also by the fat looking leopard seals and orcas rilled to bursting on the easy snacks made from young penguins taking to the water for the first time. With season turning all around us we are also fleeing the approaching winter also and we are now bound for the North with only two more days before we leave the frozen continent to it’s seasons slumber. There are still many exciting excersions ahead but there is definitely a feeling of farewell upon us at present.

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The best zodiac cruise ever

Today we started out with a glorious landing at Orne Harbour – a steep climb up to a chinstrap penguin colony 90 m above a mirror calm ocean reflecting a perfectly clear blue sky and the white capped peaks all around. Resting amidst the clamour of the penguins, it was hard to contemplate that the day could get better….

…until we launched the zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay. After lunch the clouds had drawn in to cast the bay in steel grey light but immediately upon nosing the boat into the brash ice lining the bay the deep bass bellow of humpback whale blows resounded from the glaciers and we watched avidly as two whales crashed through the jumble of ice before making their way into deeper water. Leaving these leviathans to watch a basking leopard seal we were soon diverted by a pair of dwarf minke whales which played around the zodiac for 15 minutes and swam below us in the clear water looking up as they pondered these odd visitors to their domain.

But the minke whales where simply the warm up. Ten minutes later we found two more humpback whales that were fascinated by our cruise ship. They circled the ship for what seemed an age spy-hopping to gain a better view of what must seem a rather strange apparition in these icy waters. At one point they pushed their noses out of the water and seemed to be seriously contemplating mounting the gangway to get the tour of the inside as well!

But this time there was a cluster of zodiacs around the action and before long these gently giants shifted their curiosity to the smaller black zodiacs. What ensued was two hours that will be etched into my memory forever. As we drifted with a gentle breeze the whales moved from zodiac to zodiac paying each of us a visit and giving us all a thorough inspection. The whales lay on their sides gazing up at us from 3o cm below the water with their pectoral fins waiving above us. They pushed their nose above the water to eye level and gazed at us from the air to see if we made more sense above the water than below. They scratched their back on the bottom of our boats, they pushed against the side of the boat as if requesting a scratch, and they thoroughly covered all the spectators in a thick coating of whale snot as they sent jets of water towards us accompanied by the deep sound of a whale blow at close quarters.

After many years of working in Antarctica this was an experience that will redefine the “zodiac cruise”. It is hard to imagine it could get better!

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Whales – before and after

Today we cruised amidst the debris of the black history of Antarctic whaling. Sunken whale chasers loomed like drunken steel castles above the quiet waters of Antarctica, water boats used for carting water required to render whales into oil for lamps rotted on the shore and the scattered remains of the rough accommodation used by the whalers marred the pristine shores of the icy continent.

Meanwhile, the waters offshore resounded in the deep bass notes of humpback whales jetting water into the blue skies as they surfaced to catch a breath before sinking to the depths in search of krill. The humpbacks in these waters were hit pretty heavily earlier this centuries and like many of the great whales their numbers dwindled at these magnificent beasts were slaughtered. Unlike many of the whales however, the numbers are starting to increase and each year we get a chance to watch more whales as they return to their icy domain. This morning I was lucky enough to spend half an hour with a mother and calf as they slowly picked their way though the pack ice, happily unconcerned by the zodiacs trailing in their wake full of awestruck spectators. My boat in particular managed to entice the leviathans for a closer inspection and my heart rate skyrocketed as the two beasts circles slowly around and under the zodiac, and raised their heads out of the water to look back at us. Just ten or fifteen minutes of wonder but enough to feel a unique contact with the denizens of the South, and enough to remind me that to visit this land you need to come under it’s terms – the wildlife of the Antarctic is worth so much more than a few lamps of oil…

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The full monty

The highlight of today was a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove. Started off in windy weather with a decent surge and I admit that it looked to be an uninspiring cruise with no wildlife despite the amazing scenery of glaciers and sheer cliffs covered with moss (a feature which has warranted special area status for the region).

But within ten minutes of leaving the ship I discovered a humpback whale cruising amidst the iceberg. What followed was 15 minutes of excitement as the whale breached and played within 15 meters of the zodiac. Pretty heady stuff, but eventually I decided to leave the whale to its own devises and find out what else the area had to  offer. Ten minutes later I was sidled up to a leopard seal pup on an ice flow and watched as it yawned and slipped silently into the mess of brash ice covering the water. Apparently the pup was a little concerned by the ominous black zodiac checking it out and communicated the fact to his mum who promptly turned up and put on a show as she circled the zodiac and swam beneath us to see exactly what was threatening her young pup, Absolutely amazing to see these graceful predators up close and see the elegance of these killers swimming through the icy waters.

These highlights were followed with more fantastic Antarctic wildlife. Penguins porpoising and flying rocketing out of the water to land on icebergs … or occasionally to miss their mark and ricochet of the ice and back into the water. Groups of crabeater and weddell seals lounging on icebergs. Wilsons storm petrels skimming small crustaceans off the surface of the water … and many more of the sights that make the Antarctic one on the most spectacular wildernesses on the planet.

Definitely a good day….

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Sunshine and Cetaceans

The heavens cleared today and we sailed through tranquil seas fringed by mountains bearing their weight of ice beneath the last clouds that hung low over the craggy peaks and refused to depart with the general exodus of grey that flew north on the wings of a southerly wind. The wind in question continued to whip the sea into a flurry of white caps, but as we pushed through the Errera Channel, the white horses riding over the waves were accompanied by the clouds of spume sent towards the heavens by an incredible feeding aggregation of humpback whales.

It’s easy to imagine the glee that early whalers felt when they saw whale aggregations like this… you could literally point the bow in any direction and target a humpback whale  which would provide a generous bounty of oil. Unfortunately the easy pickings led to the rapid decline of the whales in question.

Now, whales in the abundance we witnessed today are rare.  Seeing these leviathans lunge through swarms of krill, mouths agape, birds circling around to clean up the scraps, whale flukes crashing through the waves and pectoral fins flailing … it’s an incredible experience. The whales are returning though nowhere near in the numbers they once boasted. Let’s hope that in the future the blue whale, sei whale and fin whale will also return to these waters and once again we can experience Antarctica in all its natural splendour!

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New ship

I find myself aboard a new ship in the new year and am now exploring the convoluted passages of a Russian icebreaker as we charge through the mist shrouded waves of the Southern Ocean. In fact just one hour ago the fog that has accompanied us for much of the day parted to revel the first glimpses of the Melchior Islands and the first land we have seen for a couple of days. As the sky continued to clear, penguins became apparent followed by a couple of humpback whales spy-hopping and sounding just meters from the boat.

Not a bad start to a new year and a new venture aboard an old ship… very much looking forward to the next couple of days as we push south towards the Lemaire Channel and the icy south of the Antarctic Peninsula.

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White Christmas

It has been a few days since I last wrote which has been packed with Christmas festivity, icy fun and wildlife frenzy. In the days before the holiday we were treated to the most spectacular Orca experience I have ever witnessed. We were watching a pod of six Orcas attack a Minke Whale when the whales were distracted by a passing chinstrap penguin … a morsel which was clearly too tasty to pass up not (not to mention easier to tackle than a whale!). We were then treated to a spectacular 30 minute show as the pod of Orcas proceeded to train the young calf in their midst how to persecute a penguin. The penguin, clearly somewhat disturbed by the sudden turn of fortune, rapidly made for our ship which was the closest approximation to shelter … what unfolded was a spectacular game of chase the penguin as the killers used team work to corral the bird between the adult members, but always with the calf in the middle of the throng to observe. While, they clipped the penguin several times, it really appeared that the intent was never to actually catch it, and indeed for the penguin lovers out there, you’ll be relieved to hear that ultimately the poor penguin escaped … short of breath but apparently none the worse for wear.

We spent Christmas day in the South Shetland Islands with much Christmas cheer, though it’s always a little hard being away from family and loved ones at these moments. The jagged mountains and precipitous ice cliffs take on a slightly sinister aspect at times and it is possible to feel truly isolated in this icy continent. But then again, the sun might suddenly find a gap in the clouds and an ominous grey landscape can be instantly transformed into the most uplifting and awe-inspiring setting on the planet. Throw in a few humpback whales, some seals lounging on the ice and penguins porpoising through the water … and the doubts are dispelled.

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Seal Attack

It’s been a busy couple of days in Antarctica with no time to blog! Yesterday we sailed away from the storm at Deception Island and into the sunshine and calm seas of the Antarctic Peninsula. Ice all around and seals lying like lumps of lard on every available space. Orcas were circling the seals and krill were swarming.

The ice stopped us from reaching our destination but provided the opportunity to cruise in some spectacular scenery … soon the zodiacs were launched and we were walking amidst the penguins and zipping in amongst the ice flows to see the seals. Crabeater seals yawned and blinked at the strange intrusion but the most excitement came from a lounging leopard seal I spotted. I pulled the zodiac up to the ice and watched with awe as the powerful beast examined the strange sight of a fully laden zodiac eyeballing it from a distance of five meters across the ice … and then decided to take a closer look.

In fact, the beast charged across until it was a mere meter away before the ice gave way and deposited the animal (in a rather ungraceful manner) in the water …but not before the seal bumped it’s head on the side of the boat! Pandemonium ensues with screaming passengers and people jumping onto the floor of the boat. Meanwhile the leopard seal circled underneath, nudged the side of the boat and then worked out we weren’t worth the effort. Five minuted later she gracefully leapt from the water and resumed her slumber on the same chunk of ice … back on the boat hearts still thumped and the grins were spread from ear to ear.

Then back to the mother ship, some spectacular whale sightings with humpbacks feeding off the bow of the ship and thumping their huge tails in a spray of spume against the backdrop of the snowy peaks of the peninsula.

A quick cruise to the next landing, and an impromptu decision to camp on the continent for the night saw us scrambling to get all our gear ready, and ultimately saw me leading a group of thirty nervous passengers on their first night on the ice. Portal Point offered panoramic views of the icy waters and was a wonderful place to sleep under the stars with a light flurry of snow settling on the slumbering shapes of the shore party. There is certainly no better bedroom than Antarctica!

Right now we have completed another day of landing in scenery that is staggering even after years of working in Antarctica, and are now heading into the Drake Passage and back to Ushuaia. The seas are calm and the whole ship is partying. It’s always a little sad to leave the ice .. but then again, I’ll be back in a few days!!

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