Day 6 |
Jan 18, 2012

Shag Rocks en route from Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 53o 30’ S, 039o 30’ W
Weather: Foggy early, then partly cloudy with very calm seas
Air Temperature: 10o C / 50 o F
Pressure: 1004 HPa
Wind: 45 km / hour

Today we have been very pleasantly sailing in unusually calm seas, slightly ahead of schedule. The Silver Explorer recently crossed the Polar Front, also known as the Antarctic Convergence. This is a very cold circumpolar current that surrounds the Antarctic and forms the biological boundary between life forms in the colder Southern Ocean from wildlife in the more temperate climates to the north. Often the warmer, more northern air slips over this invisible line in the sea to collide with the colder ocean, forming advection fog, the most common type of oceanic fog. With had a bit of this fog early in the morning but clearing throughout the day as we pass into colder regions.

The Expedition Team was up quite early standing ‘whale watch’. In the past we have had particularly good luck in spotting these magnificent creatures just off Shag Rocks – a small formation that we expected to pass in the mid-morning. These tiny but craggy islands are located on top of an underwater oceanic plain that rises out of the depths. At this point oceanic currents often cause an upwelling of food that can attract the largest animals on Earth. After some hours of searching the cry went out ‘whale blow on the horizon’. Many guests were already out on deck and almost everyone else came out soon after the public address announcement from our Expedition Leader. With binoculars I could tell that they were Minke Whales of about 10 meters in length. This type of whale is well known for its relatively brief encounters and this was also the case as they soon disappeared.

It was a nice but too brief interaction for us and thus we continued to search the seas around the ship. At first our efforts were rewarded with our first sightings of Antarctic Fur Seals, which breed on South Georgia Island, our destination for tomorrow. That was great but we were all still hoping for something more.

All of a sudden our patience was rewarded by a special treat, a humpback and southern right whale feeding in close proximity. It is incredibly unusual to observe these two different species next to each other. These wonderful beings range in size from 15 – 18 meters in length and the Expedition Team members had the great opportunity to discuss and point out the many differences in physical characteristics between these large mammals, particularly the dorsal fin on the Humpback and lack of such fin on the Southern Right. The latter whale was hunted to near extinction, as it was the ‘right’ whale to kill and whalers focused first on this species. Despite almost 30 years of protection, there are still only thousands of these animals across the entire planet, so we were so pleased to see such a rare species. In addition, the whales also took a short nap after dining and thus our encounter time was particularly long.

We were getting ready to begin our first presentation of the day titled “Krill – Small but Mighty” given by Robin Aiello, our expert Marine Biologist on board. It is always amazing to me that the largest animals on Earth feed on krill, some of the smallest creatures on the planet. If our whale observations had stopped here, we would already have had an exceptional day.

However, the start of Robin’s presentation was completely blown out of the water (so to speak) by the sudden and unexpected appearance of both Blue and Fin Whales. These are the first and second largest species ever seen on planet Earth, larger than even the biggest dinosaur. The Blues, like the Southern Right Whales, have numbers that are only in the thousands on a worldwide basis. In addition, these beautiful creatures were lunge feeding – leaping up through the surface of the water to catch their small prey. It was spectacular, unusual, awesome and so much more. These two species range in size up to 30 meters in length with a record size of 180 tons.

We could not have asked for a better whale encounter with so many different species along with great visibility, close interaction and long encounter times. All too soon it was time leave the whales to their normal routines and continue on our voyage towards the magical island of South Georgia. Yes, finally Robin was, with perfect timing, able to give her presentation about the krill, the very creature that was being consumed by the whales earlier in the morning.

Soon after the discussion of krill, most guests moved from The Theater to the Panorama Lounge for an excellent cooking demonstration put on by our Executive Chef Christian along with our Pastry Chef Jose. These two gave an excellent display of their culinary arts, which was both tasteful and funny.

After a brief lunch I found myself up in The Theatre getting prepared to give the first of our two afternoon presentations titled “Shackleton, By Endurance We Conquer”. This one of my favorite topics as I have literally spent a lifetime learning about this incomparable leader who had a clear track record of always being willing to give up his life’s goals in order to ensure the survival of the people in his expeditions, a characteristic that was all too uncommon at the early portion of the 20th century during the beginning of modern Antarctic Exploration. I put on my special Shackleton shirt and went forth to have some fun, yet was myself amazed when at the completion of the presentation, questions from guests, both in group and private format, continued for almost an hour after my formal remarks. It is always great to have such an energetic, enthusiastic, and inquisitive audience!

Next up in the afternoon lecture series was Shoshanah Jacobs who presented “Life in the Southern Ocean”. This too was especially appropriate as it gave a comprehensive overview of the different species that we will be encountering now that we have passed into the truly colder waters that surround the continent of Antarctica. Once again everyone was quite interested in learning so much more about the unusual creatures that we have the privilege to observe during our visit to this cold environment that is so unlike any other place on Earth.

Our day was full of whale wonders along with the opportunity to learn more about the animals and history of this unusual and rarely visited part of our world. Even at such an early stage in our voyage, many guests have already commented to me that they don’t believe they will be able to adequately convey the beauty and wonder of this place to their friends and family, with the intention of now just saying to them, ‘You’ll just have to come to see these amazing wonders for yourself!’