Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thanksgiving (Nov. 24)

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home! Our Thanksgiving has been anything but conventional, but I have even more than usual to be thankful for.
I woke to very first thing I'm thankful for today -- the sun. It seems to circle endlessly here. It shines its light, and by its light, I see the ice and the snow and the sea and sharp mountain peaks. Its light is the reason for all the life I see and have seen, which today especially was incredible.
I'm also thankful for phytoplankton and Antarctic krill today, and by the time you've read the rest, you'll understand why I care about microscopic and very tiny oceanic organisms.
We're right at the end of our time in Antarctica, and my mood was a little mellow and contemplative. I felt as though I've seen so many amazing things that I wouldn't see anything new today. I was kind of hoping for a leopard seal, which I'd already seen but wanted a little better look.
So with that great level of expectation, I boarded a zodiac for a little cruise in the bay. I was content to wonder at the mountains and see the icebergs, and I was beginning to say goodbye to this special place.
As so often happens, I was completely wrong in my attitude. My expectations were far too low. I heard and blowing sound and then saw one of the naturalists point, and he yelled, "KILLER WHALE!" I saw the ripples and then a sharp, black spike materialized out of the sea ice and crested several feet out of the water. The whale disappeared, but I sensed that I needed to look down in the water. The sleek, black shape became clear through the darkness of the water and sped straight toward our zodiac. The whale swam right under us! It was probably close to twice the length of the zodiac. That alone would have made the day, but it wasn't about to end.

Orcinus orca

We soon located the rest of the pod and followed them down the bay as quickly as we could through the thick ice. We caught up and saw one of the whales poke its head above the water to look at the top of the ice floes. The others soon joined in and found a seal on top of one of the large pieces of ice. The next thing I knew, a huge wave crashed against the seal's ice. The whales appeared on the other side as the wave passed through. They coordinated and rushed toward the ice together and dove to make a wave to knock the seal into the sea. As all this coordination and intelligence struck me, another wave struck the seal, and it struggled to keep its place on the ice. The pod turned to look at the seal, and each individual took a look at what they discovered to be a leopard seal. In that moment, I think they decided that the leopard would put up more fight than he was worth. They moved off down the bay again.

Killer whales seal hunting.

It was absolutely amazing to see such teamwork, creativity, and cunning in animals. The knowledge of the physics of making wave and the collaboration to make it happen seems beyond the capabilities of mere animals. This behavior has only been documented in killer whales a handful of times before. Apparently, it's one of the key groundbreaking scenes in the as yet unreleased in the US BBC nature series.
As a friend of mine would say, today was all time.
In the afternoon, our ship was invited to visit the Palmer research station. Palmer is one of only three American research stations in Antarctica. Suffice it to say that some really incredible people endure some really crazy conditions for some really good science. The scientists joined us for our evening recap, and that brings us back to krill. The scientists at Palmer are studying krill as the keystone species in Antarctica. The sun provides the energy for the phytoplankton, and the krill eat the phytoplankton. Everything from penguins to seals eats krill, and the killer whales eat both. Without the sun and krill and phytoplankton, I would have no killer whales to be thankful for.

Palmer Station.

Believe it or not, this was the only sign with Antarctica on it on the whole trip!

We were very at home in Zodiacs.

It all comes full circle. As I write, the sun hangs just above the horizon, and it seems like it's been there for a hour. The glacier next to Palmer is orange, and the ice has choked the harbor so that it looks like white, rocky land. It's the sort of unearthly scene that seems normal in Antarctica.
An Antarctic sunset.

No comments: