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Antarctic Journal

February 5, 2003

Whale Breath

Giant petrel
A whale was here.
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I am kneeling on the floor of a zodiac, just off the pier. Suddenly, a crackly voice comes from our marine radio: �You�ve got whales dead ahead of you, so you might want to slow down.� The transmission, from Scott Kelley, an artist at the station who is taking in the view from a rocky point, is meant for the crew of another boat, not ours. But the news that whales are nearby convinces me and my fellow boaters, Laura Hamilton and David Ensworth, to revise our plans to visit a penguin colony. Using the tongue-in-cheek nickname we�ve given our boating party, Hamilton alerts a dispatcher of the change: �Palmer Station: this is �we�re outta here�. We�re gonna check out the whale.� As we round Bonaparte Point, where Kelley is standing, we see the other boat but no whales. They must have dived. Humpback whales, the only species seen here so far this season, usually dive for three to five minutes at a time. Eventually, of course, they surface, as they are mammals and need air to breathe. Often when they do come up, it is far from where they went down. Slowly, we approach the other boat. Its crew are standing, scanning the choppy water. �The whales are behind you.� Kelley�s on the radio again. From his superior vantage point he�s spotted them surfacing. Both boats spin around and head for two whales, now visible as a pair of dark arcs, low in the water.

Over the next hour we follow the couple, farther and farther off shore. Their backs are black and smooth, with a single, stubby, dorsal fin that looks vaguely like a lopsided chocolate chip. We can hear the raspy snort of their breathing when they surface. They make several shallow dives at a time then arch their backs and dive deep, sometimes raising their t-shaped fluke in the air as they depart. Then we wait, wondering where they�ll surface. These humpbacks (their distinctive fins, and coloring leaves no doubt about what kind of whale they are) are probably feeding. Despite their huge size, humpbacks feed on tiny, shrimp-like krill. Instead of teeth, their mouths are equipped with filters called baleen, which trap krill and other small sea life. This has been a banner year here for krill, which have congregated in schools not far off shore. The scientific name for the humpback is Megaptera novaeangliae, which means �big wing of New England,� because the first scientific description of the species was in New England. They used to be common, but by according to the National Audubon Society�s Guide to Marine Mammals of the World, 200,000 of them were killed in the Southern hemisphere between 1904 and 1983, cutting their numbers by a factor of ten. Today, they appear to be recovering.

Humpbacks whales are a playful species and seem to be curious about and, perhaps, even to enjoy occasional human visitors. They are not considered aggressive or dangerous. Nevertheless, as we glide over the spot where we think the twosome may surface, and count the seconds, we can�t but feel apprehensive. After all they are wild animals, and they can grow to more than 50 feet long and weigh nearly 50 tons. Usually when they come up for air they barely break the surface. But sometimes they breach, propelling their bodies straight up and fly completely out of the water. They splash down with a tremendous belly flop that could easily capsize a small boat like ours. Suddenly, not ten feet from our rubber vessel a huge black mass arches out of the chop. A thin line of white, the whale�s belly, is showing below the massive torso. And a huge eye stares at us. Then it�s gone. It surfaces again a little farther away. Amazed, I hear a snort and see right into the blow hole as the titan exhales. I expected to see a hollow opening, but this looks more like a frisby-size nostril, with a divider in the middle. Then, as the diver disappears again, a sour smell envelops our vessel. I won�t try to describe whale breath. But needless to say, this humpback had not brushed its baleen today.

In the Teacher Guide section, look for these related projects:

  •  Journal Jeopardy
  •  Wildlife Mural
  •  Wildlife Quiz

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