It was Daveen's birthday, so that must have been the reason for our amazing luck. We had arrived at Elephant Island and were preparing to go to shore with the promise of seeing elephant seals and possibly a kind of penguin that we hadn't seen before. Kevin and I tended to be either first or last when getting ready to go out on a given excursion, and this time we happened to be among the first four or so ready to go. I (Rachel) was standing out on the back deck just looking around and Kevin was just finishing up his last zippers and life vest when Boatswain came up to me on the deck and said in an urgent deadpan, "Where is your family? There are whales over there." I was stunned for a moment. On our way to see seals and penguins, it was something I hadn't really expected to hear. After a moment though I turned to go find Tim or Rob. Rob was just coming into the mud room and I told him what Boatswain had just said. He rushed out on the back deck, looked and then went right back inside and told everyone to hurry up, get ready as fast as they could, then he ran off to get Tim. And so everyone picked up the pace and, in record time, we were all loaded into the zodiacs, not entirely sure about what Tim and Rob were planning. We definitely didn't think that we were about to get the close encounter of a lifetime.
Humpback whales come to Antarctica during the Summer to feed on the krill and then return north to breed. They travel in pods led by the largest male bull. We saw eight whales from this pod, and we are not really sure how many there were. The whales had split into smaller groups that were all feeding somewhat near each other. The first group we saw had two in it, one being much smaller which Rob identified as a baby being taught to feed by the mother. Our boats approached, slowed and then cut the motors and drifted to watch and to not disturb the whales. It was the most incredible experience ever. A feeling of being tiny and vulnerable, and also in awe at the majestic beauty of these animals. The baby whale was a bit larger than the zodiac boats we were in, but as long as we didn't bother them, they were going to feed and not bother us.
To feed the whales dive down and then turn and head straight back up, mouth wide open, blowing spurts of air underwater, chasing the krill upward and creating bubbles on the surface (which is what we looked for). This 'bubble netting' keeps the krill confined in a column while the whales surface and ensnare them. It's a kind of feeding unique to humpbacks and it's amazing to watch. Once they break the surface, having scooped all the krill into their mouths, they close up tight and squeeze the water out with their tongue through the baleen (think hair like rows of teeth) and then swallow the strained krill. They repeat this many times, and eat a LOT of krill while in Antarctica before heading north where they won't eat that much at all during the breeding season.
After about 10 minutes of just sitting and watching the mother and baby feed we had drifted far enough away to start the motors and head towards another group of two that Rob had spotted. We moved in slow again but somehow seemed to drift closer to this group. Maybe it was because the mother was keeping more distance between us and the baby, she most often kept herself between us and her baby. Toward the end she seemed to have decided we were okay and was less persistent about staying between us and the baby, but we also had drifted further away. This new set were both adults and didn't seem to care about us at all. We drifted about 20 or 25 feet from them as opposed to the 30 or 40 feet or so we were from the first set. If you watch the video you will hear some of our reactions to this experience. They are mostly gasps and shrieks of pure wonder.
About 15 minutes later we were able to drift away and then motor again to another set of whales. This group had 3 whales together including an incredibly large whale, over 30 tons, who seemed to be the bull leader. These ones we some how drifted to about 15 feet from them. At one point their were three whales feeding between our two zodiac boats which were only about 30 feet apart. As the bubbles would rise close to the boats we were a little worried about being tipped over, partly because the whales maws were easily large enough to scoop a few of us in without noticing (at first), but also because a few days earlier we'd had firsthand experience with just how cold this water is, and all of us taking a spill at the same time would be a serious problem.
This was the point where we held the most awe in just how close we were to these behemoths, and how much we were trusting them with our lives. The bull would lift an eye every now and then to check on us, but other than that they just went about their business.
Have we mentioned that this may have been the most incredible experience of our lives?
Read the next chapter: Day 10: Hannah Point Part 1: The Birds
Table of Contents:
Introduction: Telling the Story posted Jan 10, 2009
Day 0: Positioning posted Jan 12, 2009
Leaving, on a jet plane posted Jan 12, 2009
Day 1: The Herc posted Jan 15, 2009
Day 1: Penguino posted Jan 16, 2009
Day 2: Chicken posted Jan 17, 2009
Day 2: Leopard posted Jan 19, 2009
Day 2: Snow Day posted Jan 22, 2009
Day 2: Shipwreck posted Jan 26, 2009
Day 2: Totally Tabular posted Jan 27, 2009
Day 3: Gentoo Cute posted Jan 29, 2009
Day 3: Lichen Shag Glacier posted Feb 3, 2009
Day 3: Palmer Station Visit posted Feb 9, 2009
Day 4: Icy Penguins posted Feb 11, 2009
Day 4: Adelie Awesome posted Feb 15, 2009
Day 4: Leopard Seal Attack posted Feb 17, 2009
Day 4: Kayak posted Feb 19, 2009
Day 4: Vernadsky Station Visit posted Feb 23, 2009
Day 4: Vernadsky Sunset posted Feb 25, 2009
Day 5: Antarctic Circle posted Feb 27, 2009
Day 5: Polar Plunge posted Mar 5, 2009
Day 5: Mouth of The Gullet posted Mar 13, 2009
Day 5: Ice Camping posted Mar 18, 2009
Day 6: Flamingos on Ice posted Mar 20, 2009
Day 6: Mountain Climbing posted Mar 24, 2009
Day 6: Ice Textures posted Mar 26, 2009
Day 6: Antarctic New Years posted Apr 2, 2009
Day 7: Crystal Sound Icebreaker posted Apr 9, 2009
Day 7: Abandoned Antarctica: Base W - Part 1 posted Apr 17, 2009
Day 7: Abandoned Antarctica: Base W - Part 2 posted Apr 21, 2009
Day 8: Bird Watching in the Fish Islands posted Apr 23, 2009
Day 8: Icee Day - Part 1 posted May 5, 2009
Day 8: Icee Day - Part 2 posted May 11, 2009
Day 9: Port Lockroy - Base A posted May 20, 2009
Bonus Chapter: Baby Penguins! posted May 21, 2009
Day 9: Antarctic Humpback Whales posted June 3, 2009
Day 9: Dallmann Butt Sliding posted June 11, 2009
» Day 10: Birthday Whales posted June 23, 2009
Day 10: Hannah Point Part 1: The Birds posted July 15, 2009
Day 10: Hannah Point Part 2: Elephant Seals posted July 22, 2009
Day 10: Deception Island - Part 1: Walking on the Moon posted Dec 11, 2009
Day 10: Deception Island - Part 2: The Martian Chronicles of Oz posted Dec 15, 2009
Day 11: Emperor Penguins posted Jan 8, 2010
Day 12: Black and White and Pink All Over posted Aug 4, 2011
More chapters posted every few days...
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