Jul 132018
 

Whales are so mysterious, rising from the deep the way they do. It begins with an impression of presence, then your eyes discern a change in the darkness of the water, then, yes!, there’s something there. Right there! See it? A whale!

For those, like me, who mainly come from earthbound realms, seeing whales could never get old. Sometimes they are so distant that you only see the far-away puff of “blow” as a whale exhales at the surface. Sometimes you get lucky, and they swim past more nearby. Either way, it must be impossible to be a lover of nature, and not love whales.

Humpback blow

Humpbacks rising from the deep!

Here’s some interesting sleep research trivia related to whales. Sleep occurs in phases, include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, the tone of voluntary muscles is completely absent, rendering one essentially paralyzed. This bodes poorly for mammals who are swimming! Not wanting to drown, dolphins and whales have evolved the ability (researchers say) to skip REM sleep. However, the restfulness produced by NREM sleep is so essential that marine mammals do something called “split-brain” NREM sleep. “When it is time for sleep, the two sides of the brain can uncouple and operate independently, one side remaining awakes while the other snoozes away,” according to Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep (p.64).

During our time plying the Antarctic waters in January & February, 2018, travelers aboard the National Geographic Explorer saw fin, minke, humpback, and killer whales, and also a couple of the mighty (and mighty rare) blue whales. Even our naturalists were excited to see the blue whales there in the waters south of the South Shetland Islands.

Killer whales surface near the ship!

Our collective excitement stemmed from knowing how, as seal populations faltered in the face of the hunting frenzies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whale hunters swept into the region. They targeted one whale species until it became scarce, then another, and another, until the whalers worked their way through populations of humpback, blue, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales. Now, most have rebounded some, but they’re far from safe.

An artfully-arranged whale skeleton

The blue whale population is still rebounding from the decimation of their numbers. In all, more than 300,000 blue whales were taken. The world population now estimated at about 2,000 is still just a fraction of the pre-1911 population. To see them at all, even for seasoned veterans, was highly encouraging.

The whale’s blow-hole — up close!

Blue whales aren’t the only ones in trouble, though. The killer whale researchers onboard our ship said that those they studied on this visit seemed thin. Their theory is that as sea ice diminishes (the place is warming faster than anywhere else), there are fewer stores of krill, which are the shrimp-like creatures relied on for nourishment by all the creatures along the food chain there. Of course, this is worrisome. The researchers are dedicated to monitoring the situation. Armchair whale lovers everywhere: support the science being done on behalf of these magnificent creatures, won’t you?

May 042018
 

As mentioned in the previous blog post, ice is the most prominent feature in Antarctica. No surprise, considering that the continent is covered with it. Add to that the ice shelves and sea ice that greatly enlarge its area in winter.

Under the ice are vast mountain ranges and sprawling plains, crushed to elevations measurably depressed by all that massive weight on top.

This was a huge iceberg!

Scientists report that if all the ice in Antarctica melted, it would raise sea levels by about 200 feet. It’s pretty cool to see on this photo from NASA how the continental US would look superimposed on the “white continent.”

Closer up, ice offers an unending array of otherworldly and beautiful vistas. Here are some more images from my January/February 2018 visit to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The suggestion was made after the previous blog post to mention how incredibly hard old glacial ice is. It’s an excellent point. I tried to bite some crystal clear glacial ice in Alaska once and was unable to make a dent. The effort nearly broke my teeth!

Notice the seal tracks!

My reader went on to comment that the density of glacial ice is, “part of the reason the Titanic came away so badly damaged, and why the [National Geographic] Explorer [our ship] pushes relatively blithely through sea ice, but is very, very respectful of even small pieces of glacial ice. Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it is still going to be bad for the pitcher. Ditto ships and glacial ice, I believe.” And he’s right!

Home Away From Home

%d bloggers like this: