The Day of the Whales – A Southern Ocean Wildlife Spectacular!

By Jeremy Young on February 6, 2013 in Antarctic, Ocean Acidification
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The Southern Ocean is famous for its strong winds, cold seas and big waves. Westerly winds can blow continuously round Antarctica and build up big seas with no land mass to interrupt them. We have seen rather a lot of this kind of weather over the last few days with winds up to force 8 or 9, strong swells that have set even the JCR rolling quite strongly and a few uncomfortably large waves and whilst we have not had much rain and snow it has been distinctly wet and misty. However, the Southern Ocean is also famously productive, cold but nutrient rich waters are brought to the surface fertilising the water and allowing our friends the phytoplankton to grow turning our filters nice and green. Sadly most of them get eaten by krill, copepods and other zooplankton but those feed an array of large wildlife.

This morning all this came to reality with a vengeance. As we woke up to the same misty weather and big seas but now with filled with schools of pilot whales. These are small whales but still impressive as they swam in packs of a dozen or more jostling with each other whilst breaking in and out of the big waves. To add to the party in amongst the pilot whales were packs of fur seals. These were swimming surprisingly fast and porpoising in and out of the water like dolphins, or penguins.

Actually there we a few penguins and dolphins as well but a lot more fur seals. These are the same fur seals as we saw on South Georgia looking after their cubs and attempting to scare us off the beach. We were told there that it been a bad year for the fur seals with them having difficulty finding enough food for their pups, but they appeared to be doing better here.

After an hour or so of innumerable seals and at least a hundred pilot whales they finally dropped off in numbers but were replaced by humpback whales. We probably saw twenty or more humpback whales during the day. Mostly they were passing by and seen in the distance, but quite a few of them came in close to get a good look at us. Indeed at one stage four humpbacks swam repeatedly round the ship blowing noisily and showing off their fins and flippers.

Tomorrow is the last full day of science and we are starting to wind down our work but this was a magnificent reminder of just how impressive the southern ocean is. It was also a heartening reminder that with international co-operation we can mitigate some of the worst impacts of mankind, since both fur seals and humpback whales were nearly hunted to extinction not so long ago.

Jeremy Young

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