March 10, 2017:
There is something magical about experiencing wildlife in its natural state, unadulterated by man. Here, we don’t exist in separate universes, divided by glass panels or steel bars of a cage. I have had the opportunity to experience this a few times, first on safari in Botswana, and now here in Antarctica, where we humans enter the animal kingdom. There is an associated vulnerability that results, where uncharacteristically we relinquish our situational control, and are entirely at the mercy of animals that are far larger, more powerful, and capable than our physical endowments.
This was what I felt today, sitting in our rubber zodiac — a speck surrounded by ocean for miles. Suddenly, there was a loud spray about ten feet away, followed by a groan, and out emerged a gigantic humpback whale. We gasped in awe, our boat rocking vigorously, as this monstrous creature effortlessly whipped its tail to propel itself forward. As quickly as it had emerged, this “sea cow” would disappear into the inky ocean, with ripples left swirling on the surface — a “footprint” of sorts, created by the motion of the humpback’s tail. To put it into perspective, this creature that was grazing in the ocean merely feet from us is about the length of a school bus and weighs between 70,000-80,000 pounds. Even more baffling is that they are filter feeders, preying on tiny krill in the water, by ingesting huge amounts of water and filtering out their food.
Have a sense for how small I felt? Perhaps one more statistic will help — an average humpback will ingest 5,000 gallons of water in a single gulp; that is enough water to fill a 12 foot by 10 foot swimming pool at a depth of 7 feet.
It is an unusual feeling for humans to feel — that you have relinquished all control of the situation. That if this humpback decided it didn’t like these obnoxious creatures furiously clicking away on the cameras, he could send our boat flying in one swift action. I found it pretty ironic that if the whale decided to throw us into the water, we at the so-called “top” of the food chain would have less than 15 minutes to survive, assuming a hungry leopard seal didn’t grab our thrashing limbs and pull us underwater.
This was just one of many instances in which Antarctica helps put our existence into perspective. Humans have prospered simply by virtue of our guile and resourcefulness, and not much else.
Even the marine biologists on the expedition were giddy. Our excursions on this day had produced one of the most abundant whale sightings they had ever experienced. For hours, we got to see two humpback whales and their calf grazing merely feet from our boats. They were curious and interactive, swimming directly beneath our boat and surfacing immediately adjacent. They would make eye contact, clearly trying to size up these curious creatures that were ogling at them.
After our humpback sightings, we tracked a pod of five minke whales, which are far more elusive. Minkes are smaller and sleeker than their humpback counterparts, so it is unusual to be able to get extended interactions with them. But luck was on our side this day, and we got some incredible sightings of these whales.
All of this took place in Cierva Cove, which afforded us these experiences in an expanse filled with beautiful sea ice and grand icebergs. The angle of the sunrays gave the sea ice a deep blue tint. In moments of silence, we were surrounded by the crackle of air bubbles escaping the ice.
Every single member of the expedition ended the day with giant smiles and celebrations, given our amazing whale encounters. We were rewarded with a picturesque sunset. At night, you could make out the blue-hued sillhouettes of the mountains on either side of our ship, illuminated by a full moon. Nature was putting on quite a show for us.
Earlier in the day, our landing in Mikkelson Bay afforded us more interactions with a Gentoo penguin colony. But one of the most interesting views was of a full humpback whale skeleton on shore. These were vestiges of the whaling era, when demand for whale oil and other products led to a massive hunt that nearly drove the species to extinction. Many reminders of this period have been left strewn around the Antarctic peninsula as relics of a time when human activity nearly altered the face of Antarctica. Today, while whaling has been outlawed, renegade poachers continue to whale, albeit in smaller numbers. The far more prevalent movement is krill fishing, as demand for krill oil has led to a burgeoning industry. These tiny creatures are a fundamental part of the Antarctic ecosystem, serving as the food source for whales, seals, penguins, and many birds. Overfarming of krill is now a critical issue to watch, as reduced populations could threaten the survival of the creatures that depend on them for food.
Global warming and carbon emissions may take many years to produce ramifications, but human actions actually do impact our environment each and every day, the consequences of which may be more near-term and similarly unforgiving.
It was another day of experiencing the extremes of Antarctica, a confluence of feelings and epiphanies, turning upside down mankind’s conceptions of the control we wield over nature if deprived of our cities, infrastructure, and immediate resources.