Blue whales are the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth, being up to 100 feet long and weighing 200+ tons. To put that in perspective, their tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant!
Seeing one in Antarctica would have been amazing, but being rare I wasn’t so fortunate this visit. I would also have liked to have seen orcas, also known as killer whales even though they are the largest dolphin, but it wasn’t to be.
However, I did see humpback whales feeding, lunging for krill. Magnificent.
Their distinctive shape and the way they raise their flippers out of the water make them easily identifiable.
Humpbacks have one of the longest migrations of any mammal, summering in Antarctica and wintering in the tropics. Those here, at the Antarctic Peninsula, winter mainly off Brazil’s coast, so it is highly unlikely they would be those we see along the coast of Australia.
The whale team on my expedition were keen to not only identify individuals, which can be done by pattern-matching the undersides of the flukes (tail fins), but also to get skin, blow spray and faecal samples for their research (under special license). They used an underwater microphone to listen for the whales’ songs then cruised gently towards them. Getting samples was non-invasive and the whales were unperturbed by their presence.
I was even more privileged to see an Antarctic Minke Whale. Unlike the Humpbacks who scoop krill near the surface, Minkes feed at greater depths. This solitary female seemed fascinated by our ship, swimming around it and diving beneath the hull.
She put on a good show by rolling several times before submerging, enabling the whale team leader to identify her gender.
Whales play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere; on average, each great whale sequesters an estimated 33 tons of CO2, thus playing their part in the fight against climate change. However, 6 out of 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection. An estimated minimum of 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of fisheries bycatch, while others succumb to myriad threats including shipping and habitat loss.
The World Wildlife Fund has a lot more information about whales, including an option to adopt a Blue Whale. You can find out more information here.