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Tag Archives: Minke Whale
Today was a wildlife extravaganza! We began with the plan to head down to the Monacobreen Glacier to examine the crumbling glacial face there, and also hoping to spot some of the polar bears known to haunt the area. However we never made it that far because wildlife kept getting in the way! First off, we took a winding route amongst the Andøyane Islands where we quickly spotted the shaggy shape of a bear romping around the moss covered slope attended by an angry swarm of dive-bombing terns. We quickly threw out the anchor and watched cautiously from a distance as the bear ambled around the island in search of eggs before stretching out on the beach for a nap (despite the continued attack of the terns).
The bear was a female wearing a collar from the Norwegian Polar Institute who are tracking and studying the population on Svalbard. Such studies are critical as we try to determine how the bears are adapting to the rapidly changing environment of the Arctic …. While the lack of sea ice this year makes cruising in the Arctic a breeze for us, ice-dependant species like the polar bear are facing new challenges as their icy habitat diminishes.
While we watched the bear on the beach the fjord began to come to life around us. Small planktonic pteropods began to bounce around below the boat and a swarm of juvenile cod began to mill in the shallow water – soon kittiwakes were circling and we found ourselves in the midst of a feeding frenzy as birds dropped from the air on all sides only to be faced by a gang of jealous rivals each attempting to snatch the tasty morsel plucked from the depth. Offshore more birds darkened the horizon and soon we were watching minke whales lunging to the surface with water spilling out of their baleen as they gorged on the plankton below.
But the star of the day was yet to show – transfixed by the minke whales swimming barely ten meters off the bow, we almost failed to notice the towering columns of water being thrown to the heavens on the other side of the fjord. But when we did drag our eyes to the horizon we realised that we were in the presence of not just one, but two blue whales. Soon we left the minkes (one of the smallest Rorqual whales) behind for the largest animal in the world. The marbled blue surface of the blue whale back were shortly before us … the beasts were immense with the very small portion of back exposed with each blow making our yacht look like a small sailing dingy in comparison. Spending an hour with two blue whales is a privilege and a memory that will stay with us forever.
Today was outstanding – for the first time since arriving in Svalbard we were surrounded by wildlife. Too often landings up here entail less live wildlife and more focus on the history of whaling, sealing and trapping that ultimately led to the decline of so much of the polar life. Today was fantastic, but one can’t help contemplating the days when mariners had to “plow through” the throngs of whales in these waters …let’s hope with good management the whales one day return to their historic feeding grounds.
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!
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.