My day started quite unspectacularly. After my morning routine of looking briefly into my computer files, I went to breakfast, expecting nothing special. I had just sat down when Uli, the expedition leader, approached me and asked whether I possibly wanted to join the first helicopter flight, starting at 9 a.m., and help the colleagues of IMARES from Wageningen, the Netherlands, with their top predator counts. Well, what was I going to say. Of course I was very happy and I immediately agreed. Originally I had planned to sort the last part of the sample from Maud Rise in the lab, but the sample is fixed well in alcohol and could wait.
I did not have much time, 15 minutes had to be enough to recharge the camera battery, then I rushed to the helicopter hangar and wriggled myself into the survival suit. We had to wear this suit today because overnight we had steamed further to the north, and the ice floes had become fewer, thinner and more fragile, so that the helicopter could not have landed on ice any more in case of an emergency. The thick pack ice had been replaced by open water. When I finally had taken my seat wearing the unwielding overall – I wonder how astronauts may feel – we started at once. Jan quickly explains what my duties will be, and then we are in the air and surround the Polarstern twice to get a feeling for a 200-metre stretch which we are to survey on either side of the helicopter. Michiel marks the waypoints, Jan repeats, and then he gives the signal to start. After the first 15 minutes I begin to wonder why all the seals and birds are on Michiel’s side... am I blind? Is it that I can’t recognize the white snow petrels over white ice floes? No, turns out I’m not, all of a sudden I see the first group of small Antarctic terns, and then we are passing ice floes with seals and a penguin on my side. The penguin is small- must be an Adelie, I say. Jan is not sure, Jürgen turns and surrounds the ice floe. The penguin grows, the Adelie changes into an Emperor. A perfect demonstration of how an uneducated eye underestimates sizes and proportions. Now I know better and feel prepared, but we do not see any more penguins during our two-hour flight.
Jan is sitting in the front seat, besid the pilot. Those two therefore see most animals first. Jürgen the pilot, suddenly shouts: “There are whales ahead” – and plopp, the helicopter is lying on its side so that jan has a better view and can count more easily. Only seconds later Jürgen turns the helicopter on its other side to surround a group of five minke whales so that we can observe and photograph them – my stomach cries out for crackers! A short time later Jürgen spots the next group, another five Minke whales, coming to the surface with curiosity, breathing and trying to figure out what was happening up in the air above them. We continue seeing groups of three, two, and finally one single whale. The show they present is gorgeous. Normally I work with small marine isopods from the deep sea, and I am used to look at small things. The sight of these beautiful creatures and the graciousness and elegance of their movements fascinates me all the more.
Whales are common in this area of light ice cover. They feed mostly on krill, which is quite abundant here in the summer, as we were told by the planktologists reporting on their catches.
After about two hours we return to the Polarstern. Jürgen flies around the ship one more time just for me, and then we land softly. I get out of the heli, ready to give the whole world a big hug! In the afternoon I work on a presentation and down in the lab on a sample, dreaming of my experiences. My colleague Myriam is flying in the meantime, and she even reports the sighting of a blue whale. Andre’s photo of the blue whale’s head is chosen as picture of the day. But I am happy anyway and thankful for “my” Minke whales, and will think of them for a long time.
It is nice to have one more day in the ice. By tomorrow we will already have left the field of pack ice, and then there are some 4,000 km of open water with few single icebergs between us and our port of call, Cape Town.
Angelika Brandt, University of Hamburg
A Minke whale blow observed from the helicopter
Location: 68°30' S, 0°W
Minke whale surfacing
Location: 68°30' S, 0°W
Photos: A. Brandt
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Friday, 18 January 2008 12:56
What a day! 18 whales and a helicopter flight!Written by Polarstern Expedition
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