Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day! (imagine my melodic
voice singing this on a clear, crisp and sunny morning)
The wind blew through pretty quickly, and left us with nothing overnight. We
just got the sails back up and are peacefully sailing along enjoying the
early morning sun. We have been lamenting the absence of any whales though.
The last whale we saw was before Rio. So, as the topic of conversation this
morning, I thought I would do a blog post on whales. Especially as there are
a few good stories left untold from before Rio.
Many southern hemisphere whale species spend the winter months in the
tropics mating and giving birth, and should now be heading south with us
towards Antarctica which has the best feeding grounds in the summer. We were
really lucky to witness a humpback whale giving birth the day before we
arrived in Rio. Of course you can’t see much of the process as it is
underwater, and we really didn’t want to get close and disturb the whale,
but at the surface we could see the fluke (tail) upside down and flailing
around, as well as the occasional wave of a flipper.
Humpback whales are nicknamed winged whales because these flippers can be as
big as 5 meters long!!That’s about 1/3 of their full body length. The
flippers are rather knobbly along the front edge which helps to give them
good manoeuvrability in the water. Humpbacks feed on schooling fish and
krill (small shrimp-like organisms). They sieve these out of the water by
taking large gulps into their expandable mouths. They then force the water
out of their mouths, sieving it through their baleen to keep the fish.
Humpback whales are baleen whales, and this means that instead of teeth,
they have a mesh or sieve made up of long thin plates of a hard material
(rather like a fingernail) called baleen. Although they have a large mouth,
baleen whales only have a narrow throat and can only swallow small fish and
krill (not humans!!). To concentrate the fish or krill into a smaller area
in the water, Humpbacks dive underneath the school, and then spiral upwards,
blowing bubbles that create a net around the fish. At the end, they lunge
through the school of fish, mouths gaping. Humpback whales are dark on top
and white underneath, and have white markings underneath their flukes. These
markings and the pattern they create are as unique as a fingerprint, and
humpbacks are identified by this for scientific monitoring. If we get a good
picture of the underneath of a whale fluke, we can send it to scientists to
help them track the movement of the whales.
One morning before Rio I was on the helm gazing out absently across the sea
when a minke whale (a small – 7-10m – baleen whale) jumped out the water.
It’s body hung sideways in the air, it’s white belly showing, for a second
before it crashed down into the water and was gone. I didn’t see it again.
Despite there being several people on deck, no-one else was looking in the
right direction so this was my own private show. Unfortunately that means
some of the crew do not believe me and think I am seeing things.
We can’t wait to see more whales, and especially expect to see humpback and
minke whales in Antarctica. And who knows, maybe some bigger whales too. I
am still on a sharp look out for killer whales (Orca). It’s my dream to see
one, and we should see them coming with their 1-2m high dorsal fins standing
tall out of the water. The chances should be getting better near the coast
of Argentina and down in Antarctica. Fingers crossed!!