Small Boat, Large Whales

Just before suppertime on Friday evening the krill team sent out a radio broadcast: they’d spotted five humpback whales feeding just off Outcast Island. The two whale biologists at Palmer Station grabbed their orange float coats and asked if we wanted to come along. What happened over the next three hours was well worth missing dinner.

The team studies whales and dolphins by sampling minute amounts of their skin and blubber. The work entails following enormous creatures in very small boats over a cold, deep ocean. It reminded me of the old tales of whaling, except thankfully we weren’t trying to kill whales—we were trying to learn more about their population size, diet, and genetics. Click through the slideshow to learn more about humpback whales and how the team studies them:

Iceberg and WhaleA Rotten Start to a Long CareerBroader Than Our BoatA Fast-Paced Game of Who's WhoA Tell-Tale TailA Moving TargetFishing With a Net of AirQuite a MouthfulA Fine Coating of Whale Breath

Dr. Read and Swaim are part of a four-person team studying whales along the Antarctic Peninsula. The other two, project leader Dr. Ari Friedlaender of Oregon State University and Dr. David Johnston of Duke, are to the south of us on the Laurence M. Gould, the ship that brought us here. Humpback whales were severely overhunted in the early twentieth century, and this research will help scientists understand how the whales are recovering. It’s illegal to hunt or harass whales, and the scientists on the team have to get two sets of permits in order to be allowed to do their research. The restrictions help make sure the research doesn’t harm the whales. Over the past 15 years, tens of thousands of whales and dolphins have been safely sampled by researchers using these methods. We’ll take a closer look at how the sampling procedure works in an upcoming post.

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  1. RICK LUDESCHER January 11, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    Herman Melville writes of the humpback: “He is the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.” (Moby Dick; or The Whale; Ch. 32: Cetology)
    Clearly not so gamesome after lunch!

  2. Allison from Ranney January 12, 2015 at 12:06 am #

    I’m so glad that my class has the opportunity to follow your progress in Antartica, and help with your research. Best of luck during the rest of your exploration and we will be following along from New Jersey!

  3. Katie Gardner January 12, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    Having seen Humpbacks and fins from a large boat off Stellwagen Bank, I can only imagine the thrill and terror of being so close to these large creatures in such a small boat, I’d love the opportunity to see them so up close and personal. Chris, your pictures are truly inspirational, I do hope that the whale spume didn’t damage your equipment, I had assumed you use waterproof casings for the cameras and lens when out on the zodiacs just in case of the unexpected, is this not the case given your groan?

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 11:26 am #

      Hi Katie – Thanks for the question. I turned it over to Chris, and here’s his answer:

      “I have several different levels of protection for my equipment while I am photographing in the field, depending on the conditions. When the zodiacs are moving, the cameras and lenses are stored in a waterproof hard case. I also always have one camera in an underwater housing with a pole & trigger assembly that allows me to quickly dunk the camera over the side–that’s how I capture gliders and marine life below the surface. However, this setup is extremely heavy and unwieldy–impractical for ‘topside’ shooting. I occasionally use rain capes for the cameras, like yesterday when we were in wet snow all day. If it’s not raining and the waves are light, I don’t use any protection at all for the cameras. It is much easier to access the controls and respond to quickly changing action. The Nikon cameras I use are all weather sealed and perfectly capable of handling light precipitation. I always dry them off in the lab at the end of the day to make sure the moisture doesn’t work it’s way into the electronics.”

      Thanks for reading and for asking! – Hugh

  4. Linda Librizzi January 12, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    Wow amazing pictures, thank you.
    Seems the whales knew you were there and they did not get close enough to harm you (or eat you for dinner)!.
    Why didn’t they come in contact with you?
    How do you think they knew you were not a threat to them?

    Can you please describe what the fluke is?
    Do the barnacle bother the whales?

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 10:20 am #

      Hi Linda, Thanks for reading. I think the whales chose not to come into contact with us simply because it would be an inconvenience to bump into us. I don’t know why they don’t see us as a threat—certainly 100 years ago, humans in boats were hunting humpbacks and were most definitely a threat. But for some reason whales tolerate having us around and just go about their daily activities slowly and gently. As for what a “fluke” is—it’s just the name that’s given to a whale’s tail. So when you look at picture #5 in the slideshow, you’re looking at a fluke. And I don’t think barnacles bother the whales, although they may create a little more drag as the whales swim through the water, the same way barnacles can slow ships down. Thanks for asking! – Hugh

  5. Elsa Fleurial January 12, 2015 at 10:11 pm #

    I love these whale pictures! And its very interesting how you identify each whale.

  6. Danielle January 13, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    Amazing pictures of the whales!

  7. brian francisco January 15, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    how big do the whales actually get?

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

      Hi Brian – humpback whales are roughly 45 feet long and weigh up to about 35 tons. Thanks – Hugh

  8. Britney school 28 January 16, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Hey, I had a question: When you are in the coldest weather how do you keep warm through out your mission?? 🙂

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

      Hi Britney – Two of the most important ways of keeping warm are to eat food and drink water. If your body doesn’t have food in it, then it can’t burn energy and keep you warm. Also, if you are dehydrated your body has a harder time keeping warm. We also wear lots of windproof clothing and lots of layers underneath so that our heat doesn’t escape. Right now it’s not as cold here as it is where you live—so maybe we should get some keeping-warm advice from you! Thanks for your question – Hugh

  9. Joeline school 28 January 16, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

    When getting samples of blubber do the whales do the whales ever start to get wild and become dangerous?

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

      Hi Joeline – Most of the time the whales don’t show any response when the scientists shoot a sampling dart at them. Every so often the whale does respond, by diving or occasionally by slapping their tail fluke against the water. The whales never get aggressive, however. The scientists keep track of each whale’s reaction so they can determine how much of an effect the sampling is having. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  10. Kelly S January 17, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    I am completely smitten with the documentation of this trip and all the parties involved. Keep up the GREAT work!

  11. Jesse R January 20, 2015 at 9:32 am #

    This is very interesting I never knew how important it is to study whales. Nice pictures by the way!

  12. Mariano Campos January 20, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    How come the whales don’t attack or dive away when they see a person or a boat near them?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 9:46 am #

      Hi Mariano – I don’t know why whales don’t attack or flee when we’re near them in a boat—especially since humpbacks were severely hunted during the twentieth century and so they have every reason to fear people. Basically, I think humpbacks are gentle animals that never evolved with the threat of predators once they reached adult size, so they don’t respond aggressively to us. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  13. Erika Reyes January 22, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

    Hello, I am one of Mrs. Hester-fearon 8th students, and I will like to know when getting the samples of blubber does it harm the whale? Thank You! Stay Safe!!

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

      Hi Erika, Good question. The blubber samples do not do any lasting harm to the whale. They sampling dart goes less than an inch into the whale’s blubber, and the layer of blubber is about a foot thick overall. With some whales, the dart does seem to sting slightly—the whale may flinch or hit the water with its tail. But they don’t seem to be bothered by it and they typically go right back to feeding or sleeping. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  14. Jennifer Chen January 26, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    Are Humpback Whales predators of the Adelie penguins? If so how do the whales affect the adelie penguin population? You stated in the article that you sample the Humpack whales skin and blubber How do you smaple it without harming the whales?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

      Hi Jennifer – Humpback whales do not eat Adelie penguins—they only eat small marine organisms such as krill and small fish, which they strain through the sieve-like plates of baleen in their mouths. The team samples the whales’ skin and blubber using a hollow-tipped crossbow dart. The dart collects about 3/4 of an inch of tissue that’s about as wide in diameter as a soda straw. Humpbacks have about a foot of blubber between their skin and the rest of their bodies, so the dart does not cause any lasting injury. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  15. ALexa Suero January 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    when you saw the whales did you get scared?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

      Hi Alexa – I will not lie – a couple of times when a huge humpback surfaced right next to the boat and directly behind me, I jumped. Its breath came out in a sudden, huge burst and the sight of so much whale so close was more than I expected! However, the humpbacks were very gentle and didn’t seem to mind us being there. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  16. Taylor January 28, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

    Was it scary encountering the whales in such a small boat?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:43 am #

      Hi Taylor – In general, humpback whales are gentle animals that don’t seem to mind having a few humans in a small rubber boat sitting nearby. But they’re so large that it was still a little bit scary when the animals surfaced right next to us with a big blow of air and their broad backs arching out of the water. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  17. Kelvin January 28, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    Did the whale do any thing when you saw it?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:40 am #

      Hi Kelvin – the whales don’t take a lot of notice of us. Occasionally when one was swimming right at us, it kindly moved out of the way so as not to hit our zodiac. But most of the time they just go on with their day. Thanks for asking – Hugh

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