Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

Palmer (Sun., 5/24/09) – An Icy Night becomes a SNOW DAY!!
by -- May 25th, 2009

Time to explore a new area – so we pushed on to Charlotte Bay, just to the northeast of where we’d been working. Turns out Charlotte was pretty full of ice as well as whales…

The Icy Night by Chance Miller

Note: this entry is for entertainment purposes only!!

So, it’s been night shift the last two weeks; which on a whaling cruise means lots of CTD casts, the occasional MOCNESS, and a ton of shufflework. The shop looks incredible, we’ve painted floors, skirtings, refinished bench tops, bead blasted, rebuilt and repainted vices, and generally touched up everything we could. We’re able to do some stuff they usually do in dry dock because during the day everyone is gone on zodiacs and during the night we’re surveying with sonar arrays and counting/catching krill.  Anyway; when you wake up at 5pm it’s dark and when you go to sleep at 6pm it’s dark. After awhile it gets a little old.

Not to mention all the pesky whales.  This is the main point of why this job is total crap.  Last night; perfect example – we pull up to station in the ice, do a 360 with the ship to clear a spot to drop the rosette in the water and before we can even open the door we hear explosions from outside.  All I want to do is get some work done.  Instead, I find myself running to the back deck we see them: 10, 12, whales, less than 8′ from the side of the ship, probably grateful to have the clearing in the ice to play around in, and curious as well, they spy hop so high they can see over the rail, the water is so clear you see them coming from 50, 60′ down.  Water surface area to whale ratio is so low that odds are if I jump over the side of the ship, I won’t get wet.  They roll on their sides and stop, staring up at us, and then the krill come.  It’s raining rice krispies on a macro level, poor wannabe shrimp are popping out of the ice free clearing everywhere, ultimately screwed, as underneath them humpbacks circle like sharks.  We wait for them to get bored; they don’t. They come closer, lunge higher, grow in numbers, stop and go and come back immediately. Twenty minutes later – we’ve canceled science, due to whales! How the heck am I supposed to get any work done? and there’s no regulation for it; I mean who do you call when whales pester you constantly? They follow in the wake for miles, like a steel pied piper we push chunks of ice out of the way and clear a path while 100′ astern the air is filled with whale breath enough to look like approaching fog. We stop, again to drop the CTD, and they circle again.  Fortunately we throw the CTD in the water before they get too comfortable; they still come within inches of the wire, curious, you can see them swimming underneath it as they do their pre-drop calibrations, white pectoral fins flashing like strobe lights as they swim over each other like herring.  We do what we can; standing on the back deck, jeering and screaming and shouting, it would almost sound like we were egging them on, to the untrained ear, it almost sounds like cheering.  We take video and pictures to send to the proper authorities back home, clearly these whales are getting in the way of our studying whales, and something must be done.  They’re ruining everything, and I’m the one who takes the blame.  It’s “Chance, why the heck haven’t you done anything about those darn whales? Get rid of them!” and “Chance, you’re from Alaska, don’t you know any whaling tricks?”  I show them the gaff hook I made, and I show them the grappling hooks I’ve sharpened and barbed.  They just tell me that attacking one whale at a time isn’t enough, and they go back to talking about explosives for the next trip.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about explosives, but there’s a level of waste there I’m not comfortable with.  I mean, THEY don’t have to pick up whale parts floating all over the place.  Do you have any idea how similar whale blubber looks to floating ice? It’d be a nightmare! No, no, no. It’s harpoons and gaff hooks or nothing for this marine technician. I don’t care if it really will save science, there is no way I’m plugging blow holes with C4.

It’s really put me in a weird position, and I’m having a harder and harder time with my job lately.  How come we can’t study whales where there aren’t any whales? that way we don’t have this problem of them always getting in the way.  I also don’t think we’re equipped with enough personal protective equipment to handle this much whale breath.  Have you ever smelled that stuff? It’s like the bathroom the morning after “dollar tequila and sushi night” at your neighborhood bar.  I want my own self contained breathing apparatus next year, krill burp is ruining my palate already.

I certainly don’t mean to complain; but enough is enough, and I am really starting to feel the short end of the stick here. This job is on the wane, and if I have to deal with even ONE MORE WHALE, it’s ‘quitsville’ for this zodiac cowboy. No backsies. hope you’re all well, -Chance.

SNOW DAY!!!

by Doug Nowacek

SNOW DAY!!! These two words were music to my ears as a kid growing up in Cleveland – they meant no school and snowball fights.  In the Antarctic when you’re trying to find and tag whales, it means a day to catch up on reports, data analyses, and, well, still snowball fights but in this case on the back deck with the MTs!!  (Ari and I pummeled Julee and Dan!)

After our success in Wilhelmina and Andvord Bays, we decided to try another bay to the northeast of Wilhelmina – Charlotte Bay.  Given the number of whales and krill in these other two bays, we looked at Charlotte and reasoned that given its size and orientation it might also have krill and whales.  So, after our day in the Errera channel, during the night we conducted a series of CTD stations across the Gerlache and on down into Charlotte.  We had planned to start the day at the mouth of Charlotte Bay, do a visual survey, and if we found whales we would splash our small boats to do some fine scale work on the krill near the whales.  Well…when we awoke, we could see only ~100 m off the side of the ship because the snow was coming down in buckets!

So, while we lost that day, we had another very successful leg of our cruise.  We got two more overnight tag attachments, bringing our tag data to over 110 hours!  Along with all that tag data we have amassed impressive data sets in the other aspects of the project as well, like our visual surveys, prey mapping, and physical oceanography done by our colleagues from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  Not only have we been lucky and worked hard to collect lots of good data, but our analysis efforts have also been fruitful and fascinating.  Pat, Roland and Colin have been working tirelessly to integrate our various data streams so we can do things like look at the prey densities at different depths and at the same time overlay the tagged whale dive depths so we can start to directly assess how the whales are utilizing the krill resources.

Many of us are currently at Palmer Station while the last fishing trip is out collecting specimens for their experiments.  Andy, Reny, Colin, Lindsey, and Elliott stayed on the ship and have been doing visual surveys when they can (and to keep the MTs in line).  The rest of us are here working on analyses and writing, waiting for the ship to return so we can begin the final leg of our work.  We’re starting to think about being home, all the travel arrangements are being made – but we have a few more things we want to accomplish on our final leg…so stay tuned!

Happy Birthday Jason! don’t worry, 30 is the new 40!

1 Comment

  1. Megan O'Neill
    May 30, 2009

    Chance and Explosives

    Chance –
    I am seriously impressed that you are against the idea of explosives! Great rendition of your job and the “problems” here in Antarctica!

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