Gerlache Strait (Tues., 6/1/10) – Chasing Phantoms

If you’ve been following our blog regularly (you have been following the blog, haven’t you?), by now you are familiar with our daily routine. Get up, make coffee, have breakfast, launch the small boats, put a tag on a whale, eat lunch, track the whale, have dinner, watch an episode of Weeds, continue tracking the whale, etc. Yawn.

Gentoo Penguins

A gratuitous picture of Gentoo penguins by Selina Vaage that really has nothing to do with today’s blog.

Same thing today – the weather was good, we were back in Wilhelmina Bay, surrounded by humpback whales and Gentoo penguins, so we launched the small boats to do our usual tagging and prey mapping work.  Those of us on the R/V Palmer were settling in for a quiet morning with our double shot lattes and the New York Times crossword (this is field work in the Antarctic, after all), when we were interrupted by a call from one of the small boats.  “Killer Whales!”

Cue the flashing red lights, sirens and mad scramble to deploy the third small boat.  We sent out a crew to take photos and collect biopsy samples for our colleagues at the Southwest Fisheries Center who have been studying killer whales here in the Antarctic.

Unfortunately, unlike our last encounter with these animals (see Ann’s blog entry from May 19th), these killer whales were elusive creatures that wanted no part of our clever little plan.  The team on the small boat got one good look at the whales, but they soon disappeared, and were not seen again.  Killer whales in the Antarctic come in three flavors (cleverly named Type A, Type B and Type C).   The ones we saw today were Type B and prey mainly on seals, but also sometimes attack minke and humpback whales.  It seems that they have evolved to be stealthy predators who can readily evade relatively dim-witted researchers.

Killer Whale

A co-operative killer whale from May 19th. And, no, we did not get anywhere near this close today

After being ditched by the killer whales, the third boat crew managed to make it back to the Palmer in time for lunch.  Minestrone soup and vegetarian curry.  Yum.  After a delicious dessert, the visual observation team staggered up to the bridge to begin a survey of the Gerlache Strait (apparently Doug has never heard of the old adage that one should wait several hours after eating to begin surveys).  We were just settling in to our postprandial survey routine when Dave spotted a group of beaked whales.  For those of you who followed our adventures last year, you will remember that we encountered a group of Arnoux’s beaked whales; we were hoping to see them again this year.


Arnouxs beaked whale

An unusually marked Arnoux’s beaked whale in the Gerlache Strait (Photo by Ian Bullock). And, no, we did not get anywhere near this close today

Cue the flashing red lights, sirens and mad scramble to deploy the third small boat. (And a big thank-you to the MTs and ship’s crew who got the boat ready in record time).  Off we went into the Gerlache Strait to collect photos and biopsies of these rare creatures.  By now you will, of course, suspect that these animals eluded us, just like the killer whales did.  And, sadly, you are correct.  The group of 15-20 whales were making 30-minute dives, in water that was 700 m deep, likely diving to the bottom to feed.  Even with the slightly erratic (“port-beam, no, no, starboard beam, no, no, port beam”) guidance from the Palmer, we never closed on the animals.  Eventually, it got dark, the wind picked up, and we had to return to the ship, empty handed.

Despite our lack of success with the killer whales and beaked whales, it was another great day.  We recovered a D-Tag, deployed a Crittercam, and many of us got to spend time in the small boats doing (or trying to do) biology in the Antarctic.  And you can’t really ask for more than that, can you?  Well, I suppose another latte would be nice…

One thought on “Gerlache Strait (Tues., 6/1/10) – Chasing Phantoms

  1. Lattes?

    REALLY? Andy – are y’all getting lattes this year? I heard you have a good cook, but I did not know about the lattes! I really got gipped! Congrats on all the sightings – must have been the same killers that eluded us last year – they are fast!

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