May 20, 2009
There is an incredible thing that happens in Antarctica - you wake in the morning, not knowing what the day holds and not expecting anything better than the day before. Surely it does not get better than tagging whales, seeing seals, penguins and majestic scenery, but it does! Everyday there have been more wonderful experiences than the day before. It has become euphoric.
I awoke to the crunching of ice along the side of the ship and a couple of jarring bumps from the ship pushing through the ice. I figured that it was relatively calm, though because we were not rocking from side to side. I looked out the window and saw more ice than we had seen a few days before in Andvord Bay. We arrived back in Andvord from Wilhemina Bay in the night to get ready to tag another humpback whale and survey. At 8:30 a.m., the survey team prepared on the bridge, as the Zodiacs was lowered to the water on the back deck. We started to spot several humpback whales and the tag team (Doug, Andy, Collin and Julie) set out. They made two different approaches and were denied as the whales submerged right as the Zodiac pulled up to them. The third was the proverbial "charm" and they tagged, "Ellie" - named after Lindsey's mom because it is her birthday today. The tracking process began. The krill prey boat continued their survey and the survey team on the bridge of the ship started their work. The ice was much more prevalent than just a few days before, so the tow fish was not an option today. At about 12:30 p.m., the tagging team came back to the ship to swap out with Ari, Allison, Lindsey, Julie, Dave and me. I was ecstatic just getting into the Zodiac. Being down on the water is such a treat because you really get close to the ice and the creatures that are around. Little did I know just how close! We made our way over to the prey-tracking Zodiac and were radioed by Dan that we needed to stop our approach because they were being checked out by a Minke whale! I could not believe it - we got close enough to see the whale popping out of the water, right next to their boat, so we idled and after several minutes pulled to them to retrieve our tracking data sheets. As long as I live, I will not forget what happened next. The Minke whale approached our boat and came within feet of the starboard side. Seeing this incredibly sleek, enormous, graceful, beautiful creature sidle up to us with the length of its body extending along the length of our Zodiac (about 25 feet long) in this clear, sapphire colored water was almost too much for me to handle. He swam passed us and came back several times. I was in complete awe at the gentle, sweet eye that the whale looked up at us with. Everyone was snapping pictures and Dave was trying to capture underwater video with the pole camera, but I was paralyzed not wanting to miss a second to fumble around with equipment. Seeing it this close was so incredibly different than just catching a glimpse of the dorsal fin sliding through the water from a distance. I was able to truly appreciate the absolute beauty at this close encounter. After a few passes, the whale swam away and we reveled in our good fortune of having this experience.
We continued our tracking of Ellie and had to maneuver through the brash ice that seemed to be all over. This makes for slow progress because the ice continuously gets stuck in the prop protector and has to be removed before we can move forward. As usual, Julie did a phenomenal job of handling the boat and keeping us on course. We discussed the experiences that we have had here in Antarctica and laughed about the new scale of "coolness" that we have developed. On our last tagging mission, Lindsey, Reny, Eletta and I came up with the "chili pepper scale of coolness." I decided that there had to be a rating of things that were "cool" in Antarctica because just being here was "cool" - super cool, awesome, incredible, etc. So we had to quantify "coolness." We decided that it is a scale of 1-10 chili pepper cool and agreed that all that we had seen and done so far was essentially up to an 8-9 chili pepper cool and that seeing a whale eat a seal would be up there as a 10. Well today seeing the Minke whale come up to us with its adorable eye peering up at us blew the doors off my chili pepper scale! I am at a loss of how to quantify things now! Lindsey even got to see a leopard seal consume a penguin today during her watch on the bridge for the survey and that was a "9 chili pepper" for her.
As the sun set between the icebergs and low clouds and the pink hues were reflecting off the water, we started to head back to the ship to continue tracking our tagged whale from the bridge because we could no longer keep up in the ice. As we radioed in to make our approach, our Minke came back to our Zodiac! This time I so wanted to reach out and pet it! Just to make sure that it was real! I refrained but just about burst from excitement. It was as if the Minke just came back by to tell us "bye!" Then it was back underwater and gone in the sapphire water. I am now afflicted with perma-grin and was so glad that Dave got some great underwater video and Elliott and Pat got some great photos and above water video of this majestic creature with which I was fortunate enough to experience this fascinating moment. I cannot imagine what tomorrow may have in store.