There are few things that take my breath away in this world. Such rare and precious moments of utter astonishment and joy are the highlights of life. As singular events, they may be different for each person. Yet that feeling in your heart, perhaps an involuntary shudder in your body, a sharp in-breath, a gasp and an electrifying buzz heightening all your senses, will be familiar.
For me, I can list the following events: watching the sunrise warm the sands of the Namibian desert from the top of a one-thousand foot dune; seeing elephants appear like apparitions right out of the forest while on a Kenyan game walk; my first sight of the Antarctic Peninsula; watching Pete Townshend slash away at his guitar; that still, silent stare of a deer I encounter while on a quiet trail run; the incomprehensible number of stars you can see in a truly dark sky; astronauts walking on the Moon; and, anytime I see a whale in its natural habitat.
The Southern Ocean is a special place for whales, and Wilhelmina Bay is a favorite gathering spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. We will go looking for them today, but that will be in the afternoon. This morning’s adventure takes place on Orne Island.
I am ready to go and have slept well during the night. Debbie spent the evening sleeping under the pink twilight on Ronge Island, choosing the camping option. Whereas I needed some solid slumber and chose the gentle rocking motion of the ship. Debbie appears around six in the morning, glowing in the warm light shining through the softly opened door. The cabin is dark, but great contentment is expressed in her face, and I realize the experience far out-shined any lack of sleep. We swap places for now, and I head off at the first announcement of breakfast.
As we zodiac towards Orne, some detours are made to investigate icebergs which catch our fancy. There is fleeting magic in their shapes and colorful blue tints. Next week, they will look different. Not one of them is the same.
Icebergs are tersely classified by height and shape, the shorter ones having the most imaginative names such as growler and bergy bits – those which barely show at the water’s surface. The largest icebergs are called, well…just very large. Most striking are the blue bergs. A deeply blue berg has been some time in the making as most of the air bubbles have been compressed out of the ice. Blue light cannot penetrate their denseness. Technically, the darker color results because the blue wavelengths are not absorbed by ice that is free of trapped air. These higher frequency wavelengths are therefore scattered back into your eyes which perceive a deeply soothing shade of blue (Glaciers & Glaciation).
On arrival at Orne, Chad is at the landing site and gives us the lay of the land. He sketches out the safe hiking boundaries and reports that the toboggan run is open near the peak of the island. From my vantage point halfway up the slope, it looks like you can slide all the way into the Errera Channel. This is also chinstrap penguin country.
On return to the Ioffe, I rejoin Debbie. After lunch we embark in the zodiac and begin looking for whales in Wilhelmina Bay. Katabatic winds can slam down from seven-thousand feet above the bay and whip the water into a frenzy. But today it is merely overcast. Mette is piloting, and binoculars are scanning the horizon. We stop to admire some Antarctic Terns as they gracefully alight on top of an iceberg.
Off to starboard, we spot the ephemeral spout that is the sign post of a whale exhaling upon its return to the surface, warm breath condensing into a mist when it hits the cold Antarctic air. If you are close enough, the fishy smell of so many krill informs as to a whale’s principal diet. Whales like to eat krill. If you are a blue whale, during the Antarctic summer, you might graze on four tons of krill a day (Antarctica, Global Science from a Frozen Continent).
Such creatures are remarkably graceful. Gliding through waters, grouped in pairs in an elegant, almost silent dance, there is a moment before they dive deep when their backs arch and their magnificent flukes rise out of the water. There is that gasp that takes your breath away. Each fluke is like a finger print, and individual whales can be identified by their unique pattern.
In a similar manner, the dorsal fin of an orca can be used for identification. It is now known that some whales live to be over one-hundred years. The prosaically named J2 was seen last May off the coast of British Columbia and is believed to be 103 years old. This grandmother was still swimming with her pod at that time.
Seeing whales unhindered in these fantastic waters, it is easy to forget that during the years of commercial slaughter, perhaps 1.3 million whales were killed in the Southern Ocean. Even though whales have had some 40-years of protection in these waters, blue whale populations are still estimated at only 15% of the numbers that existed before humans came to Antarctica.
These figures do not include the genocide that occurred in the Arctic. Beginning in the early 1600s from Svalbard to the Greenland Sea, then on to Baffin Bay and finally the waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, these gentle mammals were almost brought to extinction in the 20th century.
Barry Lopez talks about “the carnage of wealth” when describing the devastation caused by the whaling trade. The skin of a whale “…is so sensitive to touch that at a bird’s footfall a whale asleep at the surface will start wildly. The fiery pain of a harpoon strike can hardly be imagined.”
And now, whales are again threatened by countries that harvest krill. Should this important food source fail, further stress would be added to the survival of whale populations. Countries such as Japan and the United States have even gone so far as to try and enlist the help of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to silence the important work done by nonprofit groups such as Sea Shepherd, which call attention to these issues. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that the U.S. representative to the International Whaling Commission conspired with the Japanese in 2009 to attempt the revocation of Sea Shepherd’s tax exempt status.
What a grim world it would be if whales were to become extinct. If those stars I mentioned at the beginning of this piece are not to weep, and are to remain bright, we must remember that it is important to walk softly on the Earth, to respect and cherish all life, and to remember that we are stewards of the planet.
One Ocean Expeditions mentioned that after taking this voyage, we would become ambassadors for Antarctica. Perhaps in going to Antarctica, we also become ambassadors for the planet.
See Part V, Almirante Brown
See Part VII, Neko Harbour