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Antarctic Ocean Optimism On the RCGS Resolute Marine Mammals Voyage

Posted by on April 10th, 2019

After two days of blue skies and uncharacteristically smooth sailing through the Drake Passage south from Ushuaia, Argentina, we were greeted in Antarctica by a most enthusiastic welcoming committee: several pods of killer whales hunting penguins, breaching and blowing all around our ship.  This late-March expedition would be the last departure of the season for the RCGS Resolute, and the 11-day cruise had been designated as a “Marine Mammals Voyage,” with a team of whale conservation scientists ready to tag specimens and share their message of ocean optimism with the 100 passengers on board.

We learned that one of the pods of whales we’d spotted were the rare Type-D killer whales, smaller than other types of orcas, with a more rounded head, narrower dorsal fin, and smaller white eye patch.  Also called subantarctic killer whales, they only became known to science in 1955, when 17 of them were discovered beached in New Zealand. Since then, they have been seldom seen alive or studied in the wild.  As more is learned about them, they may eventually be classified as a new species.  Given that they reside in some of the roughest seas in the world, and generally far from shore, researchers have had a hard time tracking them down, but we were lucky and came upon them on a relatively calm day in good weather. We were able to pause and observe them from the decks of the ship before we continued navigating through the South Shetland Islands and ultimately down to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our luck with the weather and waves wouldn’t last, and our planned kayak paddle through the bay at Portal Point the next morning became instead a rocky zodiac ride through brash ice to the shore and a hike through a blizzard of sideways-blowing snow: a true Antarctic adventure!  We’d officially set foot on the fabled white continent.

The following day we visited a formerly British / now Ukrainian research base called Vernadsky Station, and after a brief tour by a Ukrainian comrade there, we got in our kayaks and paddled to nearby Wordie Hut, spotting along the way our first Gentoo Penguins and a very well-fed Crabeater Seal lounging on the pack ice.

After sailing through the surreally beautiful Lemaire Channel, sighting Humpback Whales and Minke Whales along the way, we reached the aptly-named Paradise Harbor. Here, we kayaked past penguins and cormorants, along steep cliffs and through a maze of icebergs, to the face of a spectacular glacier that wrapped nearly 360 degrees around the bay. A more spectacular place to paddle would be hard to imagine.

Our closest encounters with marine wildlife would come at our next stop, Wilhelmina Bay, which would also turn out to be our last stop in Antarctica, as a series of storms was headed our way and the captain would make the command decision to head back across the Drake sooner than planned to avoid the worst of it.  These types of changes are always possible when dealing with the extreme weather of the Antarctic, but this last site would not leave us disappointed.  While kayaking through icy Wilhelmina Bay, we were visited by porpoising penguins, breaching humpbacks, and a curious leopard seal who popped up to check us out, rocking some of the kayaks on his way.

The whale researchers on board were able to tag, biopsy and measure a humpback at this last site.  On the way back to Tierra del Fuego, the lead whale scientist on board, Dr. Ari Friedlaender, shared with us some upbeat results of his studies: Humpback Whale populations in Antarctica are thriving and growing. 

The dreary environmental news we often hear (rising sea temperatures, tons of plastic in the ocean, ice sheets melting, etc.), while certainly relevant and important, should not keep us from appreciating the good news and positive results of conservation efforts.  In the 1900s, whaling stations were set up in Antarctica and about two million whales were killed by the commercial whaling industry, with some species hunted to near extinction.  The work of the massive “Save the Whales” campaigns that started in the 1970s and led to the ban of commercial whaling in 1986 is largely responsible for the current boom in the humpback population, and that work is continued today by scientists like Ari and his team on board the Resolute.  When, for example, Japan has argued to the UN International Court of Justice that its continued killing of whales in the Antarctic has been necessary for “scientific” purposes, the whale science done by Ari and his team on board the Resolute, from which they can accurately measure (with drones), biopsy and track whales, without killing them, has been cited as evidence to the contrary. 

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