Guest Post by Sea Shepherd's Eva Hidalgo: Antarctic Encounters
This year we are extremely lucky to have a science partnership with the Sea Shepherd fleet currently in Antarctic waters pursuing Japanese whalers. Our science liaison Eva Hidalgo is on the Steve Irwin and sends this update:
As we are patrolling the Southern Ocean in our pursuit for the illegal whalers, we are going deeper and deeper into the stunning calm seas of Antarctica. Far past what they call the furious forties, the roaring fifties and the screaming sixties; the seas at the edge of the ice and below the Antarctic circle often offer a much different landscape of stillness and quietness, being broken just by the distant blow of a whale and the murmur of our engines.
This far south the sun never falls beyond the horizon on the summer solstice, and every evening a combination of the lower sun rays of the day with the atmosphere, stains all the icebergs around; turning them into warm red and orange statues.
As the bow of the “Steve Irwin” cuts the glassy water like a razorblade, I sit quietly soaking up the last sun rays before they disappear into the clouds; as I feel lucky knowing they may be the last ones for days, maybe weeks. I look down to the deep, amazed at the dark intense blue water, when my eyes get caught into tiny pools of jumping creatures. They seem to jump their way away from the steel hull of our ship; what I believe they perceive as one of the bigger predators they have ever encountered. I look close with curiosity until I realize that these little jumping schools are krill, the favorite food of the whales and other inhabitants of Antarctica.
This is the whales’ home for the austral summer. I grab the binoculars and looked around hoping for a distant spout, scanning as far as my sight can reach; which on this calm day may be up to the horizon. At first, my eyes find the Shonan Maru, the security vessel that the government of Japan sends with the whaling fleet. Its job is to report our position to the factory vessel, the Nisshin Maru; so they can keep a good distance from us. For a second I feel down, until I remember how the Bob Barker is free of a tail and closer to the whaling fleet, giving us a good chance of finding the Nisshin Maru and stopping the illegal whale kill once again. And until then, we are keeping them on the run.
As I keep scanning the sea around us, I am very excited to finally see a small figure moving rapidly across the water. Indifferent towards our presence or to the battle that is unfolding to save its species, what appears to be a minke whale is surfacing around the tiny waves. I believe it is possibly enjoying some of the schools of krill of the area; frenetically cutting the water with its sharp dorsal fin.
Since we entered the Antarctic Ocean, we have had numerous sightings of whales. Each of them unique and exciting, it is an opportunity to learn more about the life of the Southern Ocean whales. For that reason, we are recording each and every sighting in our Marine Mammal Sightings Log, a combined effort between all the ships and Ocean Alliance, that we hope will be of great use to increase our understanding of the species that visit Antarctica each summer.
Thus far in our “Operation Relentless” journey, we have been able to record amazing sightings of what we believe to be humpback whales, orcas, minke, fin whales, and even a sperm whale. But we were lucky enough to also have had a very unexpected encounter. In one of our helicopter runs to track the illegal whaling fleet my dear friend, photographer and Operation Toxic Gulf crew member Eliza Muirhead, photographed what we think to be a very rare marine mammal: the strap-toothed beaked whale (Mesoplodon layardii).
Very little is known about this rare species of whale. With its unique pair of teeth growing and wrapping around its jaw, (what gives this beaked whale its common name) this male surfaced for about 30 seconds before going back to the depths, where it’s believed to feed mainly on squid.
From very few strandings and sightings, this species is believed to live around the cool-temperate waters of the southern hemisphere. However, this encounter took place approximately 170 miles south from what is considered to be the southernmost limits for this species. This may be the very first sighting of a strap-toothed beaked whale south of the Antarctic Convergence, the current that acts like a “liquid barrier” between the colder Antarctic waters and the warmer oceans of the north.
This exciting event made me realize once more how little we know about the Southern Ocean ecosystems and the marine mammals that inhabit them. From its higher latitudes to below the Antarctic Circle, there are many species that need to be protected today.
So in our efforts to stop the illegal Japanese whaling fleet from killing whales in the name of nonsense “science” we will continue to collect data that we hope will bring a better understanding and protection to the whales of Antarctica, not bring them closer to extinction.