Besides penguins, seals and birds which are relatively easy to meet and watch, Antarctica offers one other kind of animal to look out for: whales. The most common one are humpback whales, but lucky onlookers might also spot orcas or other kinds of whales. It’s nearly impossible to plan to see whales as they show up unexpectedly and on their own accord. But the good news is, sooner or later some usually make an appearance. In fact, some straits and areas have speed limits to help avoid ships accidentally hitting any whales as they are known regions where whales like to hang out and feed.
On our voyage through the islands of the Antarctic peninsula, we actually encountered humpback whales several times. One late evening during a most beautiful twilight, we were passing through a relatively narrow strait surrounded by snow covered mountains that had all turned orange and pink. Pairs of whales kept appearing maybe a few hundred meters from the ship like they were bathing in the day’s last beams of sunlight.
What a magical moment, full of color and clarity, with the whales frolicking in the calm water against the backdrop of shiny icebergs and magnificent mountains. It must have been at least five or six pairs as this went on for more than an hour. They seemed to play with each other, repeatedly blowing water in the air while taking a breath before diving, and showing us their flukes, again and again.
Another time, a humpback whale was lunge feeding relatively close to the ship. It mostly kept showing us its back before taking the next shallow dive. Humpbacks have a relatively small back fin compared to their body size of 40-50 feet (12-15 meters) which makes it hard to appreciate how large they actually are when all you get to see is the fin. Because their flukes only come out when they are about to deep dive.
As it was feeding, the whale repeatedly came up from underneath, with its head up and mouth wide open, and skillfully letting the water run through their baleens to filter out massive amounts of krill and small fish. Then, it would turn back down for the next round. Occasionally, I could hear the water splashing as the humpback resurfaced, or when it exhaled and spouted mist and spray into the crisp air through its blow hole.
This process of coming up to feed and then diving again was very fast and really hard to catch with my camera. Looking at the photos later, though, I met this whale more up and close. It had the typical pattern of “knobs” on the upper side of its mouth, which also serves as a kind of lid to the deep and rounded out bottom portion which makes the major part of these giant mouths. That bottom part was full of barnacles as it is the case for older humpbacks who have been around for a while.
Getting to discover this whale was just amazing. What an incredible creature that we had the privilege of observing. The health of whales largely depends on the krill supply that, in turn, depends on the Antarctic circumpolar current and the convergence staying intact so that krill can thrive in the cold surface waters of the Southern ocean. Witnessing this tight connection between and tiniest and the largest animals on Earth first-hand will forever be in my heart, and hopefully in the actions we undertake to preserve these diverse environments on Earth for all.