Monday, 17 March 2008

Silent Giants

A flash of the white belly, flippers splayed and a hulking body in suspended animation portends a calamitous clap as the humpback returns to the surface of the bay. As we sat down to our breakfast Sarah caught the first breach out of the corner of her eye and soon everyone crowded around the doors awaiting a repeat show. In this case lightning did strike twice as the whales treated us to a repeat of the first pyrotechnic show. A few minutes passed with little more than a flash of dorsal fin and then it became obvious that they were heading for the bay. The humpbacks are known to swim right into the bay, barely 10 metres from the shoreline, to rub against the kelp and rocks; presumably scratching an itch. In this case, a pod of three humpbacks followed by a retinue of dozens of sea lions, swam right into the shore and lodged in the kelp for a several minutes before turning and hugging the shoreline past the camp. This kind of encounter with whales is a real privilege and one that we could only get at a place like Isla Carlos III.

The morning was spent kayaking out to Rupert Island a couple of kilometres off the south camp. As we rounded the sea lion colony at the headland the silence was broken by a chorus of barking and wailing and the splash of several hundred sea lions simultaneously staggering to the water and diving into the kelp. Within the seconds the first heads began to pop above the surface around us, bulging eyes staring before disappearing again. Young pups performed their acrobatics all around us diving and somersaulting for fun. After a couple of minutes watching the spectacle we could feel something strange under the kayak, looking over the side I could see an effervescence as bubbles burst on the surface. A pair of young males were under the kayak blowing bubbles for fun before swimming back to investigate the rudder.

After lunch the wind and waves had grown enough to take kayaking off the agenda so we decided to head out in the Zodiac with Juan to try and find some whales that he had not yet had the chance to collect skins samples from. Over the course of the next three or four hours we followed several pods including a pair that he had not yet sampled. In order to take the sample we had to approach the whales from behind and get within ten metres or so of the fluke. As we approached he would take aim with the crossbow loaded with a hollow bolt that, as the dorsal disappeared, he would fire into the muscle. The whole exercise took less than a couple of minutes, but required incredibly precise driving from the skipper who had to find the perfect balance between speed and discretion to avoid the whales taking fright and diving.

As the sun began to set we decided to head out for a final paddle in the now calm waters of the bay. Followed by our usual escort of sea lions we headed around to the north shore of the island. Most of the whales had now moved further out into the Straits but as we turned for home we came across a pair of whales less than a couple of metres off shore. Slowly paddling in their direction we awaited their re-surfacing (always a random event as they often change direction in a dive). Then, barely fifteen metres off the bow the first whale surfaced. Seeing and smelling the blow from a kayak gave us a completely different perspective as we were that much closer to the surface and the kayak is entirely silent. Paddling just fast enough to track them we finally saw them arch their backs in preparation for a dive, before the fluke appeared silently, trailing a shower of sea water, then disappeared without a sound below the surface.

We had seen humpbacks at a distance in Antarctica but the encounters at Isla Carlos III were spellbinding. The sheer quantity and proximity in the marine park is something rare indeed.

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