Blue Whales

At sea, Spitsbergen. Day 39. 6th August 2013.

Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife

At 11:30pm, we were summoned on deck for a sighting of a couple of blue whales.  It being very far north in summer, there was still plenty of light and the sun wasn’t intending to set.  We sailed along with them for some distance, although they were several hundred metres away.


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife

Blue whales are the largest animal ever known to have lived, at up to 30 metres long and 180 tonnes in weight.  This is one of the reasons why you are most unlikely to see a blue whale in an Olympic-size swimming pool.  The largest dinosaurs may have been as long but their length is usually an extrapolation from just a few vertebrae and as land animals, their weight was a fraction of the blue whale.


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife

It is much easier to photograph a blue whale than a humpback whale because they swim along in a straight line and surface several times before going down.  This means it is easy to predict where it may come up again and may also account for why they were hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century.


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife

Taking photographs of the whales is one thing, but including some of the setting gives another dimension of context.


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife

We were somewhere near the north-west corner of Spitsbergen.


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife .


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife .


Blue whale, Glacier, Nature, Photography, seascape, Spitsbergen, Travel, Whale, Wilderness, Wildlife .


12th April: Patagonia (Peninsula Valdes)

Today we piled into a bus for a trip to Peninsula Valdes, a world heritage area due to its wildlife.

Our wildlife encounters started in the carpark when we arrived. This is a zorro or Patagonian Fox. Actually not a true fox, it is a member of a South American genus intermediate between dogs and foxes.

We were also met by small armadillos (zorritos), completely unafraid of humans and nuzzling determinedly into packs and pockets in search of food.

A handsome zorro or patagonian fox. Both the zorros and the zorritos were fruitlessly cruising the carpark looking for handouts. They must get some or they wouldn’t be there, though there were of course notices prohibiting it.

The zorritos were scuttling around like clockwork toys on steroids.

Further on from the carpark, near the edge of the water, there were several colonies of sea lions, all females and pups.

Here, beyond the kelp gulls, we see a female who has been calling pups to her. This might be related to potential danger from orcas in the water.

Turkey vulture overhead.

In the distance are two colonies of sea lions, with attendant gulls. There is also a French film crew, nestled above the second colony.

There were a few elephant seals on the beach, as here with a sea lion pup in front.

Sea Lions.

A sea lion parliament, perhaps.

Photographers waiting for action. Peninsula Valdes is one of the two areas in the world where orcas deliberately beach themselves trying to snaffle seals (the other is a French subantarctic island). They go after the pups, mainly sea lions or perhaps elephant seals.

An elephant seal pup and sea lions in the foreground.

We didn’t see any beachings but the orcas cruised past late in the afternoon, shortly before we had to return to the ship.

(That’s a cormorant behind the orca that is showing a bit of tail as it goes down).

… And so they passed on through …..

… and all the sea lion pups got to survive on this day….

On the bus on the way there and back we saw guanacos, rheas and maras. Maras are small animals related to cavies or guinea pigs and one of their forms of locomotion (which we observed from the bus) was a peculiar one called “stotting” where they bounce around on stiff legs as though they have had a sudden attack of tetanus and the ground is electrified.

27th March: Antarctica (Deception Island)

Above, a battleship or aircraft carrier made of ice. It is 10am and we are just leaving the Gerlache Strait.

Today we spent all day sailing from near Vernadsky Station to near Arctowski Station on King George Island.

By the late afternoon we were sailing past Deception Island, the remains of a huge volcano. Here we are off to the south, about 4 kilometres from land.

Click on the image above for a much larger view that you can zoom in and out of and zot around in. It opens in a new screen. First click the bottom right button for full screen. Then use the mouse wheel or the [+] and [-] buttons to zoom and drag with the mouse. These instructions also apply to the five images below that expand to much larger sizes (where indicated). It usually looks better if you don’t zoom quite all the way in.

Following images are also of Deception Island, over a period of about an hour and a half.

Above, a small island off the coast. Click for a much larger view.

I was greatly struck by the moody monochrome landscape as we passed by in somewhat gloomy weather. It was mid-autumn so the snow had been melting all summer. In other seasons, the land may have been entirely covered in snow, obscuring the remarkable black and white patterns.

All these images are in colour and in many cases, only the colour of the sea betrays that.

Subtle and dramatic patterns in abundance.

A sizeable moulded iceberg, starkly differentiated by its colour from the monochrome landscape in the background.

Deception appears at first as a solid substantial island but is the remains of a huge volcano with a massive caldera at its heart. At just one place there is an entrance and this is it, known as Neptune’s Bellows. Inside there is the remains of an old Norwegian whaling station and at one part of the inside shore, the volcanic activity makes it possible to swim in the otherwise frigid Antarctic waters.

Unfortunately, the water at the entrance was too turbulent and there was an iceberg lurking just beyond the mouth so we were unable to go in. That grey shape behind the entrance is the iceberg.

This is just past the entrance. I was intrigued by the sheer rugged cliff and the smooth concave shape, perhaps a natural amphitheatre, beside it.

Is it a photograph of Deception Island or a Japanese landscape print from the eighteenth century? (Click for much larger image).

Deception Island, west coast (click to explore much larger image).

A Southern Right Whale, going down. Very different tail shape to the humpbacks at Vernadskys. They were called right whales because the were the “right” whales to hunt, since they floated after being harpooned and killed. Once they were incredibly numerous, now sightings are rare.

Snow, ice, islands and water.

Panorama of the western coast of Deception Island. Click to explore much larger view.

Turbulent waters in a wild Antarctic seascape.

A vagrant iceberg in a sculptured seascape.

A final glimpse. A last panorama from Deception Island. Click image to explore much larger view.

24th March: Antarctica (Argentine Islands – Afternoon – Licensed to Krill)

After lunch we headed off again in the zodiacs.

Fur seal preening

Crabeater seal

GPS Location. (green arrow)

Humpback whale tail and fairy tern

This was to be the day of the Humpback Whale as we continuously tracked humpback whales from our zodiacs. There were evidently large congregations of krill. We would follow the Antarctic Terns circling overhead, then a big patch of bubbles might rise to the surface and shortly after the humpbacks themselves would appear, sometimes quite close to the zodiacs.

GPS Location. (Green arrow)  At least as I write this, the google map is a bit misleading in that the  satellite images were taken in winter and there’s a big iceberg here – so ignore that.  All following images of the whales were taken close by, roughly two kilometres north of Vernadsky Station.

This is the underside of the whale's head and at the right, the lower jaw (the whale is on its side)

Whale tails.  The patterns on the underside of the tail are unique to individuals.

Two whales going down

There are three whales here. One has just come up with a great gulp of krill.

Antarctic tern and humpback whale. This is the head and the blowhole, perhaps looking something like a riveted armour-plated submarine from the American civil war.

As you can see from the light, it is now quite late in the afternoon

Eventually, it was getting late, we turned back and made for the ship.  Had we stayed for just another five minutes, I would have been able to show you a breaching, a whale soaring into the air, full body-length.  Altogether, a most amazing day. Some of the expedition staff who had been on many voyages to Antarctica said they had seen nothing like it.

A small iceberg eroded into a dramatic shape

24th March: Antarctica (Argentine Islands – Morning)

Having arrived in Vernadsky Station, we had several days to explore the surrounding area while the ship unloaded the supplies for the station for the winter. Here are some of the views from the zodiac:

Seal, variety not recorded

Gentoo Penguins

Blue Eyed Cormorant - but it's a juvenie so the eyes aren't yet blue

Maybe a cannonball fired in an intergalactic war ...

Ice, rocks and snow. The shape of the snow on the rock reminds me of cromagnon cave painting of wild cattle from Southern France some 20,000 or so years old.

A couple of humpback whales, massive enough in themselves though dwarfed by the scale of the landscape

Going down ...

Just a bit of tail

We’d been out for maybe an hour and a half and now came in for lunch. The images from the afternoon will follow in the next post.

24th March: Antarctica (Gerlache Strait and Lemaire Channel)

The weather prediction was for rain and 30-knot wind but fortunately it turned out to be a very rare fine, still and warm Antarctic day. We passed through the southern end of Gerlache Strait in the pink glow of dawn and Lemaire Channel an hour or so afterwards. Around 10am we arrived at the Ukranian Vernadsky Station to disgorge scientists and supplies over several days.

Here we are well before dawn in the Gerlache Strait. I think this is Fridtjof Island with Wienke Island in the background. Both these islands are between Anvers Island and the mainland (the Antarctic peninsula).

GPS location (Green arrow shows position of the ship, where I took the photo from).

The snow wasn’t just on the land. It had been snowing on the ship during the night as well.

It’s now dawn and the sky is a deep delicate pink. Perversely though, I prefer a more monochrome look for this image. The GPS reading tells me where I pressed the shutter but I can’t be completely sure what direction I was facing in. I think this is the Kershaw Peaks at Cape Willems.

GPS Location.

Also, I think, the Kershaw Peaks.

Probably Bob Island, a small Island south of Wienke Island.

GPS location (green arrow).

I think this is near the southern tip of Wienke Island.

We’re probably looking towards the dawn and therefore to the East, so probably on the left the Cape a few kilometres south of Cape Willems and maybe the “islands” are icebergs.

GPS location (Green arrow for camera location)

In the image above, it’s now over an hour later than the previous image. We’ve gone away and had breakfast and come back. We’re now entering the Lemaire Channel and this must be a view of the mainland, near Cape Renard or False Cape Renard.

In this whole wild and austere landscape, man is strictly a visitor, on sufferance by nature.

GPS location (green arrow).

On the right, we can see the moon still high in the sky. This means we are looking to the West and therefore the snowy peak is on Booth Island.

This is a view of the manland, near the previous image except on the opposite side of the strait, probably just before Cape Kloos.

The two images above almost join up with each other, though they are taken a couple of minutes apart so the viewpoint is different. On the left of the top image is the Leay Glacier. The peak in the image below is either Mt Scott or another peak somewhat to the north of it.

Dramatic clouds in the sky. I think we are probably looking at the South end of Hovgaard Island.

GPS location.

We saw a few minke whales in the Penola Strait, between Petermann Island and the mainland, when we were getting close to Vernadsky Station. This is one, against the sun. The vertical “mist” is not flare, it’s spray from a blow and the whale is just about to go down again.

GPS location.