Archive for the ‘Cetaceans’ Category

Antarctic Impressions

February 17th, 2010 at 2:56 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

In all the writing I’m doing, I realized yesterday that most of the writing has been Antarctic “facts”, like the history of the Antarctic continent, the behavior of penguins, and ecological factors. I think I have been remiss in sharing my impressions of Antarctica and our journey so far, which has involved two days on the open sea, and another three and a half off the Antarctic Peninsula.

You may have heard this before, but let me state it for the record: Antarctica is unbelievably real and heart-achingly beautiful.

The land is covered by a glacier, icebergs float in the water, and a penguin porpoises in the foreground

The land is covered by a glacier, icebergs float in the water, and a penguin porpoises in the foreground

For example, yesterday evening, after returning to the National Geographic Explorer from several hours on land at Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest colonies of Gentoo penguins, all I could do is sigh, wistfully, as I stood our on the balcony of our stateroom, looking at the vista in the bay in which the ship was anchored.

A lone Gentoo penguin leaps out of the water with icebergs in the background

A lone Gentoo penguin leaps out of the water with icebergs in the background

Glacial ice forms these amazing blue-green icebergs

Glacial ice forms these amazing blue-green icebergs

In my immediate view was land covered with eons old glacial ice. I also saw a number of ice bergs of varying size formed from calving glaciers, almost shining blue from the purity of the ice. In the water were countless Gentoo penguins, porpoising out of the water in a sort of carefree exuberance.

A group of Gentoo penguins porpoising from the water on their way back to the colony

A group of Gentoo penguins porpoising from the water on their way back to the colony

I could not tear myself away from the view, and just waited for yet another group of penguins to play their aquatic game of leap frog merely dozens of feet away. And I kept sighing, and mumbling to myself about how stunningly beautiful it all was.

A group of penguins on an iceberg as we leave Cuverville Island

A group of penguins on an iceberg as we leave Cuverville Island

However, our ship ultimately did have to leave the bay, and thus our view changed, with icebergs and glaciers slowly getting smaller in the distance. A humpback whale surfaced about 400 yards behind us in the ship’s wake, occasionally blowing out mists of air propelled moisture. But even the whale got smaller as we kept on course. And still I kept sighing.

We see a humpback whale from our balcony as its flukes come out of the water to propel it to the deep

We see a humpback whale from our balcony as its flukes come out of the water to propel it to the deep

Dinner was a the time to recap our day and guess at what new things we would experience and encounter the following day. But as it turned out we didn’t even have to wait that long.

After our meal, Bas and I went up to the bridge to get log readings for his science project. The bridge was mostly dark with two crew on duty. It was after sunset, but there was a beautiful soft ambient glow emanating from the overcast heavens above, reflecting on relatively calm ocean waters below.

As I watched the seas ahead of us, two dark shapes appeared, bobbing above and under the water. I watched for a minute or two as they got closer and found they were seals of some sort, frolicking about, even at night.

Another sigh. Nature’s beauty and serendipity just wouldn’t go away. Nor did I want it to.

And then several more, larger but more distant, shapes appeared ahead of the ship. We finally got close enough to determine they were humpback whales. I stood rapt, just watching as their huge but sleek bodies emerged out of the ocean. First the back of the head, then a blow of moisture which quickly dissipated, then the stunted dorsal fin on the curved back that is the trademark of a humpback whale, and then it would disappear entirely below the frigid water, only to repeat it all over again a minute later – sometimes close and sometimes far from where it last dove underwater.

As we passed the whales, Bas and I rushed to port to catch one last glimpse of our leviathan companions, and were rewarded with seeing one of the whales surface, and then bring its tail completely out of the water to give itself the extra push it needed to descend deep into the depths. Almost as if it was waving good bye to us.

Sigh.

Every day so far has been filled with wonder, excitement, and appreciation for the privilege of being able to visit Antarctica before it change much further.

And we can’t even imagine what the following day may hold, as plans are fluid, and opportunities are seized as they appear. And here we are, ready for more of nature’s beauty.

 

Another Humpback Whale

February 14th, 2010 at 12:12 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Perhaps as if sensing we had not had good pictures of its cousin in the morning, another humpback whale showed up right after we had bid the fin whales adieu. This whale stuck around for quite some time, diving and surfacing, time and time again.

We spot another humpback whale in front of the boat

We spot another humpback whale in front of the boat

The humpback whale starts to surface

The humpback whale starts to surface

The humpback whale's head just barely clears the water

The humpback whale's head just barely clears the water

The humpback whale begins to blow out from its two blow holes

The humpback whale begins to blow out from its two blow holes

The blow from the humpback whale splashed back down on its back

The blow from the humpback whale splashed back down on its back

The two blow holes of the humpback whale are clearly visible here

The two blow holes of the humpback whale are clearly visible here

The humpback whale leaves us for the depths again

The humpback whale leaves us for the depths again

The tail of the humpback whale breaches the water surface

The tail of the humpback whale breaches the water surface

We see the fluke of the humpback whale start to come out of the water

We see the fluke of the humpback whale start to come out of the water

The fluke of the humpback whale comes fully out of the water

The fluke of the humpback whale comes fully out of the water

The humpback whales waves goodbye - and we can use these underside markings on the fluke to identify it

The humpback whales waves goodbye - and we can use these underside markings on the fluke to identify it

 

A Large Pod of Fin, er, Sei Whales

February 13th, 2010 at 11:50 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

And, right as we saw the Antarctic fur seal, the ocean in the distance exploding with whale blow. Turns out we had found a large pod of fin whales, which are among the largest mammals in the world.

UPDATE – Feb. 14, 2010: Our marine mammal experts on board, now that they have had time to review the photos from yesterday, have determined that at least some of the fin whales we saw were in fact Sei whales – similar to the fin whales, but a different species with slight different features. And the species may swim together in a pod, to further complicate identification.

The blow from the pod of fin whales is reminiscent of the fountains at the Bellagio

The blow from the pod of fin whales is reminiscent of the fountains at the Bellagio

What a school of fin whales this was - all blowing out simultaneously

What a school of fin whales this was - all blowing out simultaneously

Here you can clearly see the mouth and lower jaw of a fin whale (rear one)

Here you can clearly see the mouth and lower jaw of a fin whale (rear one)

The pod of fin whales and our vessel part ways with a final spout

The pod of fin whales and our vessel part ways with a final spout

 

Jake’s Take – Drake Passage – Day 2 – Part 2 – Wow!!!

February 13th, 2010 at 11:31 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

After we had the gear we were taking on land tomorrow disinfected and vacuumed as necessary, around 3:30pm today, we were told over the announcement system that there was an iceberg ahead.

Getting our protective gear – which includes great parkas supplied by Lindblad and included in our tour fee, and our cameras, we headed out to the bow to see if we could take any decent photos.

The next two hours were spent out in the cold (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit) taking photo after photo of each new wondrous thing that appeared, roughly in the following order:

– A large iceberg with a colony of chinstrap penguins on it

– Part of said iceberg coming off with a very loud cracking/gunshot sort of sound

– An Antarctic fur seal

– A large pod of fin whales – among the largest mammals on earth – feeding near the surface and constantly blowing, at a distance reminding us of the synchronized water fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas

– A humpback whale that stayed near the boat for about 20 minutes, giving us wonderful photo opportunities, time and time again

– Southern fulmars flying by in countless numbers

– And, last but not least – a massive iceberg which showed us how high swells could get here at the southern end of the Drake Passage by virtue of a smooth, washed down face contrasted with a rough rear face. And it also showed us the striations formed by the hundreds of snow falls necessary to build the iceberg to its massive size.

There are a large number of pictures representing all of the above – I managed to cull down about 600 photos to less than 30, but in order to present them in more manageable chunks, I will post each of the itemized list items above as a separate post.

But first, below are a few of the humans watching these beautiful nature moments.

Passengers aboard the National Geographic Explorer hoping to spot more marine mammals

Passengers aboard the National Geographic Explorer hoping to spot more marine mammals

Photographers shooting whale images aboard the National Geographic Explorer

Photographers shooting whale images aboard the National Geographic Explorer

Explorer Jake, ready for anything

Explorer Jake, ready for anything

We should be making it to Marguerite Bay tomorrow, below Adelaide Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. We are curious how that will all compare to the amazing display of wildlife and nature we experienced today.

 

Jake’s Take – Drake Passage – Day 2 – Part 1

February 13th, 2010 at 9:52 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

One of the things that is part of the routine on Lindblad’s expeditions is a nightly re-cap of things discovered and observed during the day, and as yesterday was the first real day of our expedition to Antarctica and beyond, we also had our first recap.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that was the in-depth discussion of the tracking of killer whales (orcas) led by cetacean expert Stephanie Martin. Stephanie explained that while it has been assumed that all killer whales are all the same species, recent research is suggesting that perhaps there are three different sub-species of killer whales – the ones up in the northern waters (Canada, Norway, etc.), the ones here in the part of Antarctica we’re in, and another set in the area of the Ross Ice Shelf area of Antarctica. One of the things she’s doing to help further research into this area is using a crossbow with a 140-pound pull, along with very special quarrels (arrows for crossbows) which allow her to get tissue samples from killer whales at a distance far enough for the killer whales to not be scared off by the zodiacs, but close enough to be able to reach with the crossbow. These samples are then sent on (with all the appropriate permits) to a research facility in the U.S. which studies the tissue samples to get a better understanding of killer whales. Along with each sample is information on the individual whale the sample came from, generally provided via photographs. In particular, detailed photos of the dorsal fin can normally be used to distinguish individual killer whales from one another – much like a fingerprint..

After another pleasant dinner and perhaps our last real sunset for the next couple of weeks (because we will be so far south during summer in the southern hemisphere), Krystyana retired early because of queasiness, and Linda, Bas, and I went to the observation lounge atop the Explorer for tea, a Grand Marnier (for me), and a game of Five Crowns (I won, for a change). Just before 9pm we crossed 60 degrees south latitude, the geopolitical demarcation for the Antarctic. We had finally arrived!

Sleep was a bit restless due to less consumption of brain numbing seasickness medication than the night before and therefore we had a greater perception of creakiness in our cabin as we chugged through the seas, but we understand that we will probably be too filled with adrenaline rushes from the scenery and wildlife in the coming days to sleep much, and when we do, it will be the sleep of exhaustion that creaking sounds will not easily penetrate.

The first iceberg we have seen since entering Antarctic waters - side view

The first iceberg we have seen since entering Antarctic waters - side view

We woke around 8am to the announcement of the first “reasonable” iceberg sighting, that being the first iceberg spotted during a time when most passengers would be awake. The real first iceberg of the trip was spotted at 5am, however, and the one announced to us was in fact the second one. It wasn’t a huge iceberg, but large enough to stick out of the ocean a bit, as well has have a carved out section to reflect a gorgeous turquoise color to those few privileged enough to see it (like us!).

Another view of the iceberg after we passed it

Another view of the iceberg after we passed it

After breakfast we had our first whale sighting of the day – a small pod of southern bottlenose whales, according to Stephanie, our marine mammal expert. These are apparently very rare, and, alas, they were too far away to get any decent pictures. However we did happen to pass, at about the same time, a flock of chinstrap penguins as they were roaming the open ocean for food. The ones we saw leaping out of the water had full bellies, so hunting must be good.

A small group of chinstrap penguins in the open ocean, leaping out of the sea as we pass by

A small group of chinstrap penguins in the open ocean, leaping out of the sea as we pass by

A close-up of a leaping chinstrap penguin

A close-up of a leaping chinstrap penguin

The first presentation of the day was by Peter Carey, co-author of “The Antarctic Cruising Guide”, covering penguin species and penguin physiology. Among the interesting things we learned was the geographical range of penguins (most in the sub-Antarctic region, but ranging up to the equator – i.e., the Galapagos penguin and well down into the arctic – i.e. the Emperor penguin); that there is a dispute on the number of species of penguins (Peter believes it should be 18); and that in case you need to eat penguin to survive out in the wild (and if you have no other viable source of food, of course) you need to sit on them to kill them (via asphyxiation) as their neck muscles are too strong to allow for wringing like a chicken. The latter information was provided in a survival handbook for the Australian Antarctic Research Mission, which Peter had worked for a while back. Not information we are likely to need, hopefully, but interesting nonetheless.

Ultimately, we were told we should expect to see about a half dozen penguin species on our three week voyage.

Our next lecture was by Jason Kelley entitled “Antarctic Geology & Plate Tectonics”, where Jason took us through planetary evolution and the science and history of plate tectonics. It turns out that nearly a billion years ago, the Antarctic land mass was in the position that Alaska is in now, and plate movements gradually have put it at the southern end of our globe, or at least as we measure south now. Magnetic poles have switched every 500,000 years or so, so calling something south or north appears to be a bit ephemeral in the grand long-term view of things. That feature of planetary magnetism also interrelates with the ability to date areas near the edges of the tectonic plates to determine movement rates, among other things. Jason also explained various aspect of plate subduction (one plate moving below another), earthquakes, and volcanoes, as these are all related as well. Quite a fascinating presentation!

I took Bas up to the bridge after that so he could work on one of the science projects he is working on for this trip, namely gathering regular recordings of meteorological information, including barometric pressure, wind speed and direction (and we learned about the Beaufort Scale for wind speed in the process), GPS location, and air and water temperature. One of the cool things about Lindblad Expedition’s ships is that they have a 24-hour a day “Open Bridge” policy, and in fact welcome visitors, and will explain the instruments, navigation, and whatever else one is interested in – or just hang out. In the case of the Explorer, the bridge is also where lots of people hang out trying to spot critters or icebergs (warmer than being outside to do that for hours on end).

During our time with the second officer, Yuri, on the bridge there was also a sighting of humpback whales at a distance. I only saw fluke signs (or fluke prints) – the flat circular patch of water that whales leave behind as their flukes power them into the depths, but Krystyana got a picture of them.

Krystyana caught this distant shot of the humpbacks of two humpback whales

Krystyana caught this distant shot of the humpbacks of two humpback whales

We also spotted a new bird for the trip – a light-mantled albatross (no photos, alas).

After lunch we stayed busy. First with a presentation on proper sea kayak use by underwater specialist David Cothran, and then a mandatory briefing by our expedition leader Bud Lenhausen on what to do and not to do when in Zodiacs and when on land, as governed by the IAATO – International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (which I mentioned briefly in my post yesterday).

IAATO is a self-governing organization founded in 1991 by seven Antarctic tourist charter companies, and now has more than 90 members. It’s policies line up with the Protocol on Environmental Protection added to the Antarctic Treaty, also in 1991.
1991 – Antarctic Treaty Parties – put together the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

In short, the rules all of us need to follow here in the Antarctic are intended to keep Antarctica as pristine as possible. Those rules include not throwing or dumping any litter or foreign matter overboard, preventing the introduction of non-native species including plants and animals, not bringing any food or smoking materials ashore, taking only photos, leaving with only memories, not rearranging flora or fauna or rocks to make a better picture, not harassing the wildlife (keep at least 15 feet away, but if it approaches you in a non-threatening manner, that’s okay), etc.

With respect to the 15 foot rule, we were also told that as many of the animals are moulting and thus grouchy, we might want to stay a little further back from animals like fur seals or suffer potentially nasty bites. Also, giant petrels can projectile vomit more than 15 feet, and it’s really foul stuff, so keeping our distance from those would be strongly advised.

In any event, we would also be stepping in a disinfecting bath before leaving the ship on Zodiacs, as well as when we return, to help remove anything harmful (and penguin poo, which is pretty foul too).

And for those of us with occasionally weak bladders, we were reminded that there are no restrooms in the Antarctic, and if we had a need to leave a deposit – liquid or solid, we should snag a Zodiac back to the boat, do our thing, and then catch another ride back to land.

One of the IAATO rules is also that a given vessel may have no more than 100 people on land at any one time. As there are about 140 of us, that means we will have a bit of a rotation, with time spent cruising the coast in Zodiacs and swapping in and out with others on land. Apparently it’s quite seamless, so we’ll see.

We figured that at 3:30pm, that was pretty much the end of our excitement for the day.

Boy were we mistaken! More in Part 2 a bit later…

 

Drake Passage, Feb 12, 2010

February 13th, 2010 at 9:16 pm (AST) by Krystyana Richter

I have not recently posted anything for the blog, but I thought had gotten some great shots of birds and killer whales and my dad is trying very hard not use many of my photos, so I might as well show them. This for the showing of some great photos but also for birds we actually saw, identified and got photos of on our first full day on the boat.

Southern Giant-Petrel

Southern Giant-Petrel

My mom, Bas, and I were sitting in the lounge of the National Geographic Explorer and listening to a lecture about the different species of sea birds we would be seeing as we head to Antarctica (not including penguins), which was given by Tom Ritchie. We got as far as the Cormorant, after hearing about the Petrels and the Albatross along with photos, when we heard the announcement over the speakers…”We have just spotted killer whales off the starboard bow” I immediately grabbed my bag and took my camera out. Bas and I headed to the bow of the ship with mom close behind. I heard yells and saw pointing fingers in the direction of the killer whales, and so, I immediately started snapping photos of the killer whales with my camera, zoomed in as far as it could go. The ship started turning into the direction of the killer whales to get closer to them.

Killer whale with mist from their spray hovering above

Killer whale with mist from their spray hovering above

Whoops…had to go for a few minutes. My mom and I just saw Humpback Whales off the back of the ship! Bas and my dad did not see it but I got a few photos of the whales. It’s actually Feb 13 as I write this.

So, continuing…When the killer whales were submerged, it gave me enough time to get some shots of birds. My mom had offered to get my parka and gloves so I could keep on shooting and so she had left to get it. By the time she came back with the warm clothing, my hands were stiff and cold, but I sure did appreciate the parka and gloves when they came. The killer whales were not really cooperating when my parka arrived and they kept appearing for pictures, so I kept on taking photos while my brother helped me put on my parka.

Wandering Albatross butt

Wandering Albatross butt

I managed to get photos of: Wandering albatross, Wilson’s storm petrel, Southern Giant-Petrel, Black browed albatross, and of course, the killer whales.

Black-browed Albatross

Black-browed Albatross

Wilson's storm-petrel

Wilson's storm-petrel

Of the killer whales, one of the adults had a mangled dorsal fin and 2/3 of its fin was bent over. There were two calves and two adults.

Three Killer Whales with One having a Mangled Dorsal fin

Three Killer Whales with One having a Mangled Dorsal fin

The lecture did not continue after the interruption and we were told that we new enough of the basic information.

Feb. 13
This morning, we saw Chinstrap penguins and Southern bottle-nosed whales (I did not actually see the whales). I did get some photos of the penguins as they were porpoising, or basically jumping in out of the water while heading towards wherever they are going and they were sort of zigzagging. And the Humpback whales…

Humpback Whales off the stern of the ship

Humpback Whales off the stern of the ship

Chinstrap penguins

Chinstrap penguins

Other pictures can be seen on Flickr at a later date when we actually have a strong internet to upload them.