Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

Drake Passage (Mon., 5/10/10) – Some Rules for the Antarctic…
by -- May 11th, 2010

We’ve arrived at the Peninsula.

We spent the last two days in the Drake Passage. It was somewhat of a gloomy crossing, with at times 6 meter seas on the beam and cold rain and mists largely obscuring our view of the sea. But, by noon today we had crossed up onto the continental shelf, heralded by the increased ping rate of the depth sounder and the appearance of humpback whales (first spotted by Capt’n Joe) and the ghostly coastlines of Nelson and Robert Islands, part of the South Shetland Archipelago. We sailed between these two islands into the Bransfield Strait, and in doing so moved beyond the reach of the swells that had been rolling us around for the past two days.

Binocs

Andrew Westgate with binoculars

As we moved into more sheltered waters we spotted a few more groups of humpbacks, lit up by the last full rays of the sun – around 4:00pm or so. Yikes, the days are short.

It’s been a year since we’ve sailed these waters together, and in some ways it seems like almost no time has passed. The ever-present orangey-red, mustard yellow and dark green paint of the NB Palmer remind me so well of our great trip on the LM Gould last year, and make the NB Palmer seem like a home-away-from-home already.

Nightlife on board the Palmer also seems to reflect last years cruise. The ‘Rock Bands’ are getting some practice already, and we’ve started watching campy movies about evil creatures and the undead. We started off last years’ cruise with a classic John Carpenter gore fest – The Thing – which fit the bill nicely since it was set at an Antarctic scientific outpost. This year we moved straight into the zombie genre with a screening of “Zombieland.” It might be my new favorite movie. It turns out that there are some pretty simple rules to follow when dealing with the zombie apocalypse. Sure, we learned all about not using fire on zombies last year at Palmer Station, but this movie provided a plethora of new guidelines for survival – many of which seem oddly applicable to our current situation here. I’ll offer up one for starters, I’m sure these rules will show up again later in the blog. Rule # 3 is “Cardio”, simply useful for outrunning spastic lurching zombies. Yup, cardio is important for us visual observers. If I hope to survive the trip up and down from our observation platform on the ice tower (about 80 ft above the waterline – or 7 decks) five times a day for the next month, I had better get on that bike and rowing machine every morning in earnest. Perhaps the most important rule from Zombieland is #37 – ‘Enjoy the little things.’   As I was looking out my porthole at the last bit of light on the Bransfield, a Cape Petrel flew by, close to the ship. Beautiful.

Sunset I

Sunset on the Bransfield

Turns out many have set out ‘rules’ for spending their time down here, some of which pertain to survival, and others simply to help pass the time. For example, F. D. Ommanney wrote in his classic 1938 book South Latitude: “There are two rules which everyone obeys by instinct in the Antarctic. One is ‘always throw something at a seal’ and the other ‘always tease a penguin’….perhaps the reason is that neither the seal nor the penguin can retaliate effectively, although both show every sign of ineffective rage and baffled fury which makes it all the more fun.”  Thank the stars we’ve moved beyond harassing the wildlife as a form of entertainment, but one might ponder how and why zombie movies have become one viable alternative…?

It looks like work starts in earnest tomorrow morning. We’ll hopefully be on station in the end Wilhelmina Bay, where we found huge numbers of humpbacks last year at this time. First on the list is firing up of the major scientific systems for the cruise – calibrating the echosounders, range-testing the radio-tracking gear and distance training for us visual observers. We’ve got lots of work to do in the cold and dark. In the immortal words of ‘Tallahassee’ from Zombieland – time to nut-up or shut-up.

Sunset II

Sunset on the Palmer Bridge Wing

 

All my love to family and friends and especially to my ladies at home: Kerry, Rosemary and Madeline. I miss you guys!

1 Comment

  1. Zahirul Islam
    May 21, 2010

    Sea Turtle & Cetacean

    I am interested to know about the cetacean tracking. I am doing satellite tracking in Bangladesh. I am also a Duke Univ, Global Fellow of the Marine Lab.

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