Thursday, December 20, 2012


Does anyone know what humpback whales sound like when they're singing? Because I do.

Their songs are something that you can't imagine existing naturally on this planet; for such a huge animal, it's a remarkably delicate melody. It comes from everywhere, this high-pitched warbled that could almost be mistaken from a bird is coming from the entire ocean, not a single (enormous) creature.

They were feeding, taking advantage of an explosion that we've recently seen in the krill population. Krill, tiny little shrimp-like critters that feed on phytoplankton, are the basis of the entire Antarctic food chain. Everything eats them, big and small, from fish to penguins to whales. The last few weeks here have seen remarkably beautiful weather, with clear skies and endless sunlight, causing an massive bloom of phytoplankton growth. A bit after the bloom, along came the krill in similarly massive numbers, so many that as we drove our zodiac boat along, they were leaping out of the water in front of us. It was like rain, but in reverse; the drops were jumping out of the water.

Penguins like krill as well, and there were large numbers of them in the water with us, darting around like little torpedos and snapping up all the krill they could.

The water wasn't this clear just a week ago; the krill had done an excellent job of cleaning it up. Even with the clear water, tracking the penguins in it was incredibly difficult; their clumsy aloofness on land is exchanged for astonishing nimbleness and speed in the water.

But the whales!  They would dive to just under the surface, turn sideways and take an enormous mouthful of the krill they'd driven to the surface.  Their mouths would open ten feet wide, giving us sight of what passes for whale teeth; baleen, delicate structures used to filter the krill out from the seawater.

And then they'd dive again, to repeat the process over and over.  We followed them at a very respectful distance, mostly drifting with the currents with the engine off.  The only sounds we had were humpback whales breathing and singing.

And to think, they pay me to live here.