This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Next to tick off the bucket list, the world’s top ocean predator – the killer whales. Having never seen these before, I travelled to Antarctica with very high expectations, knowing estimates of these animals in Antarctic waters to be somewhere in the region of 70-80,000.
On just our second day in Antarctic waters, we kept the schedule free and were instructed to get outside and look for big black and white animals. Within a few hours in the Weddell Sea, we were surrounded by several groups of Type B killer whales.
We were lucky to have killer whale scientists on board the ship and within a few minutes of the sighting, they were launching the Zodiac in order to get closer to these animals and collect their data.
The scientists, from the NOAA, were using drones to fly above the animals and take pictures, which give them accurate information about the size and health of the whales. This new technique of observation also allows them to see what the whales are getting up to beneath the water, observe new behaviours and also make more accurate counts of pods.
As you can see, the killer whales in the pictures have very brown colouring where stereotypical killer whales would be white. This is a result of the cold water temperature – the brown is actually diatoms (a type of single cell algae) living on the surface of the whales. Normally, killer whales would have a good blood flow to the skin, which would prevent this diatomaceous growth. However in cold waters, this would involve the loss of too much energy.
If you look closely at the images, you can see round circular scarring on the whales, these are from cookie cutter sharks, which are only found in the tropics, a bit bewildering considering these killer whales are seen in Antarctic waters all year round.
Also, it was strange that the same individuals, photographed on different days, often had high diatom growth followed by clean skin. The NOAA team previously put tags on these whales which showed that they make very rapid journeys to the tropics to get manicures before swimming all the way back south!
Next up were the Type A killer whales, which are much more like the killer whales seen in the northern hemisphere. These are larger and tend to be more black and white than the Bs and they feed on Minke whales and elephant seals.
Using a combination of the saddle patches, markings and fin shape it is possible to identify individuals using photos. We were lucky to see the same group of Type A killer whales near Ciervo Cove on both expeditions, as confirmed by photos.
There are two types of B killer whales. ‘Little’ Bs, which tend to dive deep and feed predominantly on fish, supplemented by the odd penguin! And ‘big’ Bs, which opt for washing seals (especially Weddells) off the ice to feed. Having seen the little Bs several times already, we pushed further into the Weddell sea into the thicker ice and, as we hoped for, we found a group of big Bs, giving us the “full house” for the area we had been.
Since conditions were calm, the ever eager scientists launched the Ribs and returned with some alarming images of the whales. The whales were not in particularly good health, with much of the skeletal features of the animals visible in the pictures. Possibly, this was a result of lower prey scarcity, with very few Weddell seals observed on the ice. However, at this stage the scientists could only hypothesise.
We also had a team from CBS on board who did a piece on these encounters, which you can see by following this link below…
Fortunately, the trip did not end on this low since sightings continued wherever we went. My season culminated with one of my favourite nature experiences ever, as a group of 40 little B’s passed straight across the bow of the vessel in the crystal clear Antarctic waters.
Clip showing footage from a couple of the Killer Whale encounters
This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Antarctica
Another blog from my latest amazing trip to Antarctica, focussing on Humpback whales this time. You’ll be glad to know that there is less blood than in the previous post.
Having lived for a year on South Georgia, immersed in the depressing history of Antarctic whaling and the impact of humans on Baleen whales, it was amazing to sail through Antarctic waters and see first-hand how the whales are bouncing back. Sightings of baleen whales were frequent with the most common being humpbacks: these majestic 36 tonne beasts were almost ubiquitous throughout, it was an absolute pleasure.
Almost without fail, by the time breakfast was served on board National Geographic Explorer, there had been a blow, or a sighting of the distinctive hump, or flukes of these animals.
Possibly the best experience of my time on board came as the sun was setting on an already eventful day of killer whales and penguins. Stupidly thinking the excitement was over for the day, I retreated to my room in order to download a few photos, when the call of ‘feeding Humpbacks’ came out over the tannoy.
As a kid, I read about bubble net feeding whales and had seen footage of it numerous times on David Attenborough documentaries. For those others who have seen this footage, you will understand why seeing this activity has been on my bucket list for years. However, travelling to Antarctica, I had no expectations of ticking this off the list, since it was my understanding that such behaviour had only been observed in Alaska! Bubble net feeding is obviously a foraging method where the humpbacks blow clouds of bubbles around their prey at the surface. This traps the prey between the bubbles and the surface allowing the whales to swim up with their mouths open and take huge mouthfuls of prey.
The video bwlow shows one of these events happening and you can see the bubbles at the surface before the humpbacks lunge through open-mouthed
Humpback whales that spend summers in the Antarctic, exploiting the rich cold waters, migrate north to spend the winters in the tropics around Costa Rica. Here, there is an overlap with the Northern Humpbacks that spend their summers in Alaska and migrate south also to Central American tropics. The hypothesis is that these Northern whales, having learnt and practiced the behaviour in Alaska, migrated south to Central America before continuing through to Antarctica.
As a result, you now have whales practicing bubble net feeding in Antarctic waters. The humpbacks have uniquely marked flukes which allow them to be identified.
Hopefully, the individuals we photographed in Antarctica will have been observed previously in the world and we will get a better understanding of how this behaviour has spread.
And when you get bored of the whales (as if!) the sunset and the ice aren’t too bad substitutes!
I was recently approached by Will Harper-Penrose from Woodmansterne Primary School and Children’s Centre via the wonderful medium of Twitter. His year two pupils were learning about the Antarctic and exploration, and he got in touch to ask about the possibilities of doing a Q&A Skype session.
Unfortunately, South Georgia’s internet connection was not up to a Skype video so, on hearing that, Will came up with a much more imaginative way to ask the questions. Being a music teacher, he composed a song for his pupils to sing, asking questions like ‘Have you seen a penguin sliding on its belly?’ and ‘What do you eat in Antarctica?’
As you can see for yourself, the video, song and dance are awesome and put a smile on everyone’s face on base. Completely aware that this amazing video would outshine any video of mine, I used my surroundings on the island to assist me, featuring penguins, seals, icebergs and boating, here is a compilation of some of my footage from a year on South Georgia.
I hope that this will entertain the kids and hopefully inspire one or two to become polar scientists
As you may be aware from my previous post, I have exchanged my South Georgian life for life at sea for three weeks. I am working on board a krill fishing vessel, researching by-catch (which is minimal) and also making whale and seabird observations to inform future conservation decisions.
Seemingly, I am here at a good time of year since within seconds of leaving Cumberland Bay, we were seeing the first spouts as whales blew all around us with the sun setting.
As we set about fishing, sightings continued, predominantly of Humpbacks, which were obviously exploiting the rich masses of krill 200m beneath the surface. When you see a distant whale blow, it’s easy to forget what is lying beneath. These Humpbacks can measure 16m and weigh up to 36 tonnes.
As the days have progressed, the sightings are getting better and better with several species seen so far. Fin, minke, southern right, sperm and orca (not seen by me!) were all spotted, as well as thousands of seabirds, seals and penguins.
South Georgia was the hub of whaling in the not too recent past and estimates suggest that numbers of baleen whales reduced by 90% as a result of it. So it’s absolutely incredible to see such high densities of whales in these waters.
The most frequent bird sightings involve the petrel species, with South Georgia Diving, Kerguelen, Great Winged, Antarctic, Cape and Giant Petrels all present in various numbers. Both Southern Fulmers and Antarctic Terns are also abundant with the occasional Wandering Albatross sightings.
Conditions on the whole have remained calm and clear, allowing good sightings throughout the trip. With the boats moving at very slow speeds, animals tend to pay little attention to the vessel, allowing for up close sightings.
Humpback whales migrate south for summer to feed on the krill rich numbers. These animals will be on their way north back to their breeding grounds, where they will breed in August time.
Although it is the wrong time of year, I have seen several humpbacks displaying, launching their magnificent bodies out of the water. One of these was close enough for me to capture on camera!
As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures
A regular follower of this blog, who wishes to remain anonymous (don’t worry, mum – it’s our little secret) frequently complains that there isn’t enough factual information in some of my posts so here goes on one of favourite subjects …
Macaroni Penguins are the largest of the six crested penguin species. They breed between October and March. Adults arrive at the colonies and lay an A egg and a B egg. Colonies are usually on rocky slopes or in the tussocks. In the majority of nesting attempts, the A egg will fail when the B egg is laid and the B egg will then subsequently succeed. Once the female has laid, the male and female share the responsibility of incubation for the first 12 days. This is then followed by a 10 day shift by the female, followed by a 12 day shift by the male. Once the chick has hatched, the male will continue to guard and incubate the chick for 20-25 days whilst the female completes daily foraging trips. This is followed by a “crèche” period, where chicks gather in small groups for protection, allowing both adults to forage.
Adults tend to stay on the colony overnight and forage from early morning until late evening. After the chicks have fledged, all birds will leave the colony and head to sea, often migrating north, until the following breeding season.
Range – Mainly found breeding around the Antarctic Convergence – Sub Antarctic Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, south of other crested penguins Status– Declining – IUCN threatened species Productivity – 1 chick per nest Incubation Period – 35 days Fledging Period – 60-70 days
Total Population: 10,000,000 pairs Largest populations: South Georgia 5,000,000 pairs Diet: Mainly krill and small fish Fact: Macaroni penguins complete an ‘ecstatic display’ in pairs, which allows pairs to recognise each other
Weight: 4.5 – 6Kg Height: 24-28 inches Fact: Their crest develops with age
Sexual Dimorphism: females smaller Diving Depth: 50m – birds spend little or no time at the base of their dive meaning the dive is V shaped Diving Time: 2 minutes
Sexual Maturity : 5 in females – 6 in males
Fact: Males will return to the same nest annually to display – more often than not breeding with the same female in consecutive years (mainly monogamous) Predators: Leopard Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals and Killer Whales
Well, the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel made a visit this week and made two incredibly important deliveries to the base! First of all was Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne and her accompanying party of VIPs. A thoroughly enjoyable day was had by all and thanks to the planning of our Government Officers we managed to make it through without any mishaps! It is always very exciting to discuss the work we do here with people who are knowledgeable and interested.
The second important “delivery” for me, though, came in the form of an amazing batch of handmade postcards from Wood Farm Primary School in Oxford. Firstly, thank you all for the remarkable effort you have put into the making of the postcards. I don’t know who you got to take the pictures but they must be very talented. Secondly, I hear you all had a very successful performance of Robin Hood over the Christmas period, so congratulations!
I will do my best to reply to your postcards when I can. But for now I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to you guys and your questions. I’d also like to compliment you all on your phenomenal handwriting and interesting questions. So here goes …
David, Neha, Zidane and Kaysian (Maid Marian) – How have you been doing in the Antarctic?
I am doing really well down here. It is very weird living on an island where the animals outnumber the humans by so many but I absolutely love it. I originally came down here to get away from my mum’s nagging to do the washing up but my base commander is just as persistant.
Poppy – How was your journey?
My journey down here was amazing. It was calm on the whole and we saw thousands of birds, including lots of Albatross. We also saw dolphins and the blow of lots of whales.
Alfie (archer) – Have you seen any whales, sharks or fish?
We have indeed. We saw a number of whale blows on the journey down here and have had humpback whales in the bay. Unfortunately, we don’t get any shark sightings down here but if you see later, I have uploaded a picture I took whilst in the Galapagos of a Hammerhead. The sea here is full of fish and as a result is home to one of the most sustainably run fisheries in the world.
Thomas – Did you see a baby seal come out of its egg?
Sorry, no, Thomas. The main reason for this is that seals are mammals and therefore give birth to live baby seals rather than laying eggs. Here is a short video I put together of the baby seals (only a few weeks old) practicing to swim in the shallow waters of Maiviken.
Billy – Do you take any breaks on the 14km walk to Maiviken?
Not always, but there is a lovely hut on the way which overlooks a lake and sometimes I stop there for a cup of tea and a chocolate bar!
Kenzie, George (the archer in the school play) and Liam – Have you seen any new animals?
Almost all of the animals I have seen here are new for me. I have always wanted to see a Wandering Albatross and now I have!
Danny – What is the weather like there?
The weather should be warm here now as it is summer. However this season, conditions have been poor with strong winds (70mph), heavy snow (nearly a foot in a day) and temperatures rarely making it above 0 degrees.
Kyle 2 (the singer not actor) – What is it like when you meet a blondie?
It’s great when you see a blondie. It is always great to see something rare and unexpected. Because they are so uncommon, you get to know each of their personalities.
Blake – How cold is the water and can the animals feel it?
The water temperature varies between 0 and 5 degrees around the islands but a lot of the animals will go even further south and be feeding in -2 degrees. They have many adaptations that allow them to stay warm in the water such as thick fur or feathers and lots of fat. Large amounts of fat also make it easier for the animals to float making swimming easier.
Reece – Have there been any injuries yet?
There most definitely have! Unfortunately, we have had five medical evacuations so far this season (4 tourists, 1 staff). One suffered such a severe seal bite that the helicopter had to meet the boat to get the casualty back to hospital in time
Jenilsia– What is your favourite place and food?
My three favourite places in the world apart from here are the Farne Islands in Northumberland, The Galapagos, and The Pantanal in Brazil. My favourite food is Nutella!
Savannah– Which Part of Antarctica are you in?
I am on South Georgia, a Sub-Antarctic Island in the Southern Ocean.
Ayesha (soldier) – Do common dolphins swim where you stay?
We have many species of marine mammals around the islands but common dolphins tend to be found in warmer waters, north of here. However, there may be some sightings in the Southern Ocean from time to time.
Maariah– Have you seen any Pandas?
Just like you, I love Pandas, and I wish there were some here. However, there is unfortunately no bamboo here for them to feed on. Pandas tend to live in the mountain ranges of Eastern Asia.
Eugenia– Do you like living there?
I love living here. It is very different from England. There is no traffic to wake you up in the morning (although the seals do just as good a job!)
Poppy (narrator of the school play) – Have you seen Santa’s workshop?
I haven’t, I’m afraid. I haven’t been in touch with Santa recently but last I heard he was living in Lapland which is in the Arctic. I hear you were all very good and he brought you presents to school!
Ellie, Zidane, Danny, Elliot and Kieran– What is your favourite animal you have seen? And why?
Every day here, my favourite animal changes. I think that Snow Petrels are stunning birds and very mysterious in the way they appear out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish. But I love the personality and aggression of the Antarctic Fur Seals the most. Working with these guys every day is an absolute pleasure.
Kyle – Have you been doing anything exciting?
Every day I do something exciting here! My work is amazing, I get to be outdoors most of the time and see lots of really cool animals. And if I get bored of the animals, then I just start a snow fight! In the winter when I have more free time and there is more snow then I can ski right out from base.
Wuraola– Is there any food?
Fortunately, we have lots of food here. When we first arrived a huge ship came in full of lots of supplies for the year. We also get the Fisheries Patrol Vessel every 6 weeks which brings us supplies of fresh fruit and veg. We are however restricted to 3 chocolate bars a month and the milk is powdered so the tea tastes horrible!
Lleyton– Could you send me a picture of you next to a seal? – Could I have your autograph?
I will see if I can sort a postcard just for you mate!
Alexzandra – How many species of animal did you see in your entire life?
Too many to count. I have been very lucky to visit lots of incredible places for work and pleasure during my life and have encountered thousands of different species in Africa, Europe, Central and South America and now here.
Tanvir, Joel (one of the outlaws) and Kaysian (Maid Marian)– Have you found any interesting animals?
All the animals are interesting in their own right. When you work with animals every day, you see more and more interesting behaviours. Yesterday I spent almost 2 hours watching the fur seal pups chasing the Gentoo Penguins around the beach!
Another time, I spent an entire day in a Macaroni Penguin colony and don’t think I could get bored of watching these feisty penguins scrapping with each other!
Kyle 2 (the singer not actor)– Can you put a picture of a shark on your blog?
Here is a picture of a shark. It is not taken around South Georgia as we have very few species here and they are only found in the deep sea. Also we can’t dive here, so we would have to catch them to see them.
Sumayah – Did you sail or fly on an aeroplane there?
To arrive here, I had to take a plane to the Falklands Islands before sailing for 5 days on a ship.
Charlene– What are you bursting to see next?
The animals I would love to see more than anything down here are Orcas and Leopard Seals. Sightings of both are much more frequent during the winter here so I have all my fingers and toes crossed that, before I leave, I will have seen these.
Eugenia, Aaliyah and Dajah–How many species of animal did you see during work?
I have seen three species of seal, four species of penguin, two species of dolphin, two of whale, four species of albatross and lots and lots of bird species.
Ayesha– Can you post a picture of a Leopard Seal?
Unfortunately, I have not seen a Leopard Seal yet. They tend to spend our winter around the islands feeding on penguins and young seals. During the summer, they breed on the main Antarctic Peninsula on the pack ice.
Elliot – Have you seen any icebergs yet?
Yes, although so far they have been small. By April, we should be seeing much larger bergs off the continent. Some of these are as wide as the island (40km) and can be seen from space.
Maariah– Are you home yet?
I am still on South Georgia but I will come and see you guys when I am back.
Liam – Have you seen any icebergs falling down?
I have been lucky enough to see glaciers falling down (or “calving”) here. It is a spectacular sight with so much noise.
Jenilsia– Do you really love penguins?
How could I not love penguins?! They are unbelievably agile and efficient in the water and so comical and aggressive out of it.
Poppy – What happened to the baby Elephant Seal?
We successfully managed to lift the rock and rubble from on top of the seal. It had a few scrapes but he was soon sitting happily back in the shallows.
Billy – When you go near the animals, do any of them run away?
It is extremely important that we don’t cause the animals to run away. At this time of year especially, when the animals are breeding, it is important that the animals don’t exert any more energy than is necessary. Animals are scared of us so we must not approach them too close unless we really have to (like with the baby elephant seal in Poppy’s question).
Kenzie – Is it really cold there because it doesn’t look like it in the pictures?
It is very cold, especially at night. I try not to take my camera out when the weather is really bad in case it breaks, and I take lots of pictures when the weather is nice. It is not uncommon in the winter for temperaturs to be below -15 degrees and it is very rare for winds to be calm, so far the strongwest winds I have experienced have been 70mph. If both of these happen at the same time the wind chill would reduce the temperature to below -35.
Reece– Have you been chased by any animals?
Both the elephant seals and the Antarctic Fur seals have hareems, which they are very defensive of. A hareem is a group of females that the male is in charge of protecting. In Antarcitic Fur Seals this is usually between 5-15. For Elephant Seals, the dominant male (AKA Beachmaster) can have up to 100 females in his hareem. Sometimes for my work, it is necessary for me to walk through the hareems and the males will often chase me out the other side!
Savannah– Have you seen many animals?
I have seen thousands of animals. The islands are very different to England, though. In England, you have high species diversity (lots of different species) with often low abundance (fewer individuals). In South Georgia, we have only a few species but we have thousands of them. There are approximately 4 million Antarctic Fur Seals alone here!
Neha– Have you seen any interesting birds?
I have seen lots of amazing birds. Did you know that we only have one songbird (garden bird that sings) here? All of the others live most of the time at sea and only come to land to breed. Because the weather is very cold and windy here, all of the birds have to have lots of adaptations to help them survive The Brown Skuas in particular are extremely interesting. Everywhere you see them, they occupy a slightly different niche based on their surroundings. They are extremely intelligent animals.
Kyle – Are you coming back for Christmas?
It takes me a long time to get any post (like your cards) here, so we’re way past Christmas now and, as you are probably aware, still down in the Antarctic. What is worse is that I had to work all through Christmas. Science never sleeps!
Wuraola – Where are you living at the moment?
If you look at my Life on Base blog, you can see what my base looks like. I am living on a small sub-Antarctic island in the middle of the Southern Ocean called South Georgia!
Aaliyah– Would you please put a picture up of you?
Since you asked so nicely!
Thank you again for all your interesting and thoughtful postcards. Reading them really has put a smile on everyone’s face here in the Antarctic. We would love to hear more from you guys! In the mean time keep on working hard and behaving for your teachers or you will end up on the naughty step …