On game reserves the modus operandi is to guide using 4x4s. In the Antarctic we more often than not conduct ‘drives’ in powerboats, or, as they’re collectively known down there, Zodiacs.
Being sturdy, stable, and even more fun to drive than a dogsled pulled by a team of clowns, Zodiacs allow us to get right in amongst pretty much everything that Antarctic waters have to offer. Helming a zode, replete with ten excited guests, you might find yourself cruising between towering icebergs; rising and falling on the waves generated by a local ice calving event; spattered with crimson water as a leopard seal energetically dispatches its kill right next to your boat; or coated in a wet mist of krill scented water, freshly fired from a whale’s blowhole. Yes, zodiac cruising is about as personal as it gets ‘down south’.
Every cruise has its highlight, but if I had to pick a wide-angle ‘man of the match’, it’d be the whales. Whales are the real star of Southern Ocean boat safaris. There’s no two ways about it. Nothing gets your pulse racing like watching a silvery coloured minkie slip beneath the sponson of your Zodiac, or seeing the outline of a fully-grown humpback emerge from the crystal clear depths directly beneath you, its white pectoral fins shining through the azure waters off either side of your water chariot. It can be scary! And of course zodiacs are black and shiny, not unlike the whales themselves! So, when those fins look like they might be coming in for a bit of love…. Thats when my hand starts twitching on the pull-start!
Anyway, a cruise with a whale always makes for a good day in the office. A cruise with two whales usually constitutes a highlight of the voyage! A cruise with more whales than you can count? Well….. That NEVER happens! Right?
It was February 2013, and we were into the latter half of my first season guiding ‘down south’. I’d been in the field for almost three months. During that time I’d had some encounters that had blown my mind; the kinds of experiences that you might be reticent about telling your mates back home in the pub for fear of killing the conversation! The Antarctic is a stunning place, and we’d been to some unforgettable spots, but one of my favourite Zodiac cruising locales had become a place called Pleneau, or as we affectionately call it: ‘Iceberg Alley’. This is where big bergs come to die.
Located immediately south of the famous Lemaire Channel – one of the Antarctic Peninsula’s most spectacular waterways – Pleneau is a graveyard for large tabular bergs. These Herculean cocktail coolers drift up the Antarctic coast from ice shelves further south. Some inevitably become grounded in the shallows, and Pleneau is one such grounding trap. Here the bergs slowly waste away over a number of years, striking some truly spectacular poses as they drip and crumble through their death throes.
As they die these icebergs achieve more in terms of shape, hue and texture than any impressionist, surrealist or post-modernist painter ever has. If you are such a painter, then think long and hard before you visit. It will either inspire you or depress you to the point of despair, because whatever fancies of form the human brain can concoct, nature has already been there and done that! Cruising in Pleneau I always half expect to turn a corner and be confronted with a stilt-legged elephant, or a massive melting pocket watch! But I digress….. Who would have guessed that I’m a glaciologist eh?
We were halfway through what was already proving to be a well above average Pleneau zodiac cruise. All twelve boats were on the water and we were exploring the berg maze in perfect weather. There must have been a krill bloom in progress as the wildlife that day was spectacular. I had already seen four leopard seals cavorting around a single lagoon-shaped iceberg. Four leopards! Ninety nine times out of a hundred they are seen alone, so seeing group interaction amongst leopard seals is a real treat! But wait…. this story is supposed to be about whales, no?
I was just beginning to think about starting slowly back towards the mothership when I heard a strange noise. It was a sound which is hard to describe. Imagine what a church organ might sound like if you tried playing it in a swimming pool. Or perhaps conjure the noise a regiment of Napoleonic riflemen firing after someone had replaced all their rifles with whoopee cushions….. Imagine that and you might be somewhere close to what I heard.
At first I was at a bit at a loss. What was it? My first thought was: “Wow, that sounds like a LOT of whales all blowing at once!” But that was ridiculous. There were just too many blows! So, I decided it was probably just the noise of my Zodiac’s wake lapping against the serrated edge of an unusually shaped iceberg. That was genuinely possible. But, a few minutes later, I heard it again, and this time closer! I couldn’t resist. I had to indulge my fancies and go looking for the source.
I made sure everyone was sitting securely and opened up the throttle, nipping between icebergs like a New York taxi driver dodges traffic. I quickly came into a large opening in the middle of the berg field and slowed my engine to idle, waiting for some indication of where to head next. Moments later I heard the noise again – like the sound of a compressed air machine gun – and I turned around to look in the direction from which it had come. We couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. There in front of us, only some twenty or thirty meters distant, was a forest of translucent whale blows, hanging momentarily in the air as a swarm of shiny dark mounds slipped through the water beneath them, light dancing on dark wet skin. There were so many!
It took a couple of hesitant moments for me to pluck up my nerve and get on the VHF:
“All zodiacs, all zodiacs. Colin on channel seventy two. I’m here in the clearing towards the northern side of the channel with at least ten….. No, maybe make that more like fifteen minkie whales.”
There was silence over the radio for an audibly long time. Either everyone thought I was mad, or everyone thought I was pulling their leg. Either way, surely there couldn’t be that many whales! Eventually one voice, that of my friend Pam, came back over the airways in a Durban accent. She sounded sceptical:
“Are they hanging around? Do you think its worth us coming over hey?”
I replied in short order:
“Guys. I really don’t think this many whales can hide!”
Within minutes twelve Zodiacs and a flotilla of kyakers were bobbing about in the ice clearing as the water around us virtually boiled with whales. We eventually decided (well, Natalie our marine biologist decided) that there were AT LEAST thirty individual animals, all moving together. They circled us, approached us, and swam directly beneath us so that at numerous points there was more whale under my Zodiac than there was water! I was properly scared for the kayakers!
We stayed with the pod for about half an hour, extending the length of the cruise considerably. Generally we avoid messing with the schedule as the galley staff make meals to a strict timetable. But some things are more important than hot pork schnitzel! Not many things, granted. But some….
Eventually we left the animals to their own devices and one by one the zodiacs were recovered to the ship. Soon enough it was time for our evening ‘recap’, when the team specialists deliver an educational synopsis of what we’ve seen that day. There was very little dissent over what the star attraction was, but being the glaciologist it was my job to wax lyrical about the icebergs we’d been cruising in the midst of only an hour or so previously. But of course, as soon as my slides appeared on the screen and I began to enthuse down the microphone a cry went up:
“Whales! Port side!”
The pod were back, racing and breaching alongside the ship as we steamed back into the Lemaire Channel and north. Breaching! Minkies are almost never observed breaching! It was spectacular to watch, but rather difficult to compete with. I delivered probably one of the most awkward and least well attended presentations of my lecturing career to date. Still to this day I suspect that those minkies were listening in and timed their display on purpose. They’re smart beasts after all! And, my great grandfather was an Antarctic whaler. Someone must have told them!
In the course of three seasons spent in Antarctic waters I have never seen as many whales in the one place before. Perhaps I never will again. It doesn’t matter. Memories like that are the reason I love my job.