Like a rehabilitated Captain Ahab, Daniel Zitterbart led his scientists into the sort of supranatural stillness only Antarctica can deliver. I followed them in an inflatable Zodiac, cold snapping at my fingers, squinting at glossy icebergs fissured with stilton-blue veins, heading towards the spouts of vapour we could see suspended in Paradise Harbour’s frigid dawn. There she blows, as Captain Ahab would say.
Next to brash ice that glinted like rough-cut diamonds, two distant dark lines revealed themselves to be slumbering humpback whales, fat from gorging krill. Forty tonnes of rorqual, happily recovering since the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, before which they were slaughtered to near extinction by Ahab’s ilk.
There was no harpoon in Daniel’s hand, just a hi-tech $10,000 whale tag on a long carbon-fibre pole. His Zodiac manoeuvred alongside and he leaned out and slapped one of the humpbacks with the suction-cupped device (it would release after several hours). The whale started, arched and then dived, rocking the Zodiac as it went.
“It can be a little bit terrifying,” Daniel admitted later, “when these giant creatures are beneath your flimsy boat.”
Yet all went smoothly. Over the next few hours the scientists followed the tagged humpback around the ice-choked Southern Ocean bay on a quest to learn more about these secretive denizens of the deep.
ON A MISSION
Having previously visited Antarctica, I vowed I’d only return if I had a greater purpose. As demand grows (COVID-19 aside), the number of cruises heading to this pristine wilderness is projected to increase. Can Antarctica sustain higher levels of tourism? I wasn’t sure.
Attempting to add value to my voyage, I joined an Antarctic Whale Safari led by Hayley Shephard, a Wanderlust World Guide Award medallist, and operated by Polar Latitudes, a company committed to supporting scientific research. The 14-day small ship expedition aboard the Hebridean Sky was my opportunity to participate in citizen science projects that further the understanding of Antarctica’s ecology and changing environment. It was also a chance to observe German scientist Daniel and his colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts investigating humpbacks.
“This is an investigation into how baleen whales find food, with a hypothesis that it might be by chemical smell,” explained Daniel. Antarctic humpbacks feed on krill, tiny crustaceans that swarm in countless millions. Krill feed on phytoplankton, a process that results in the release of the gas dimethyl sulfide (DMS). It’s very preliminary research as to whether humpbacks can sense this DMS,” Daniel said. The aim of our journey was to gather more data.
Thus on a mission, we left Ushuaia, on Argentina’s end-of-the-world Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and sailed some 1,000km towards the Antarctic Peninsula, a swan-necked isthmus protruding northwards from the seventh continent. Easily reachable by expedition vessel, the peninsula is Antarctica’s entry-level destination, popular with first-timers.
The first two days of our voyage involved crossing the rumbustious Drake Passage, beyond Cape Horn, where mountainous seas can leave you green around the gills. Ukrainian Captain Andrey Rudenko promised “not too much rock ’n’ roll”, but the three-metre swell was boisterous enough to leave me reeling between the decks like a drunken sailor.
Regardless, our citizen science programme began immediately. We analysed seawater for temperature and salinity, contributing to an ongoing study into ocean warming and increased freshwater melt. A seabird survey took place astern – it wasn’t long before albatrosses were trailing the ship, swaying side to side like kites – while cloud observations were collected for input into a NASA database.
Passengers were also encouraged to photograph the tailfins of whales and submit the pictures to happywhale.org. “Each humpback has a unique fluke pattern so they can be identified,” said Annette Bombosch, our onboard marine mammal expert. One humpback, she told us, was recorded to have travelled 8,904km from Antarctica to Tonga. But is citizen science really valuable to scientists? “For sure,” Annette reassured.
“They benefit from this data because they cannot always be in Antarctica due to its remoteness and cost.”
A LAND BEYOND IMAGINATION
It was around 4am when we finally crossed the Gerlache Strait, the channel separating the offshore islands of the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Dawn was a fuzzy half-flight when I grabbed a coffee, shrugged against the chill and joined fellow passengers on deck, wide-eyed with wonder. Within a bay of dark volcanic peaks that poked above amphitheatrical glaciers and snowfields, the tide was sluggish, congested by a graveyard of house-sized icebergs. I found myself trying to describe their shapes; Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s legendary navigator, saw ‘gondolas steered by giraffes’ and ‘ducks sailing on crocodile heads’. They can be whatever your imagination allows – although I was shaken from my own imaginings by a gunshot-like crack: a glacier calving in a slow-motion concertina, triggering avalanches upslope.
Little can prepare you for this, Antarctica’s frosted monochromatic world; its overwhelming coalescence of cold, beauty, purity and stillness. But then there are the bluebird days, when the continent’s unpredictable weather yields sunshine, and everything is blue except your mood: the sky, the ocean, the diaphanous ice refracting the colours above. However, seven years on from my previous visit, the snowscape was now washed with more red and green algae, symptomatic of warmer melting days. Only the week before I arrived, the peninsula hit record summer highs of 20°C.
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