Dispatch #5


It is now Thursday, 2/27/2003


After the great dragging catastrophe of Tuesday afternoon, we went back over what was left of mooring C1, and sure enough it was still standing. They put it in sleep mode, not expecting that a prince will come and wake it up.  Then we steamed off at a great rate towards the inner passage between Adelaide Island and the mainland, arriving in the middle of the night and remaining there until dawn.


Wednesay morning it was sunny and almost no wind, as we started up the protected passage.  The peaks reached 3000 feet on both sides, and the passage narrowed to about two miles in the Gullet and Tickle Channel. Both Zodiacs were moved to the main deck, and the one that got crunched by the winch was reassembled and reinflated and the spare motor attached. The only signs of the collision were several smears of red paint on the side. We put out the other Zodiac with six aboard, piloted by Jamee and flying the Skull and Crossbones. They had a glorious ride all morning, up to the point where we hit solid ice across the channel, but they didn't see much, aside from a few orcas and some seals. The Zodiac came back aboard for lunch. For the next three hours Captain Robert piloted the ship through the almost solid ice. The Gould is not an icebreaker, but is “ice capable.” This means you could make a hole in the hull if you hit something solid at 10 knots. We were moving quite slowly through large floes of snow-covered ice. When the floes were less than about three feet thick we made good progress. Leads would open up as we went forward. The floes were crisscrossed with tracks of seals, penguins, and other birds. When thicker and more irregular ice blocked our path, we would sometimes drive into it, then back off and approach again at a slightly different place. On one occasion the bow rose at least ten feet in the air before we backed off. We had to weave our way around many larger icebergs. During this time the mammal observers estimated they saw over 100 Weddell and Crabeater seals hauled out on the ice. Little groups of Adélie penguins were standing around, or lying around, or toddling or scooting  around.  I wish we could have gotten closer to them.  Periodically there would be a seal right in the path of the ship, and it would lie there, raise its head, finally get alarmed and go galumphing off to the side, or into the water. It wasn't completely obvious to me that we would make it through; last year they had to turn around, and the last part was the most difficult. At one point Captain Robert could be seen and heard from the top of the weather mast, telling Bob to tell the mate to “go over there!” Even before we finally broke through to clearer sailing, we could see signs of whales in the open water ahead.


Zan and I had been determined to get on the next Zodiac, if at all possible.  The trick is to be all ready to go, so that if there is room, you can get on. Luckily it worked out for both of us.  Rick was driving, Deb Glasgow kneeling in the left of the bow the entire time taking photos, Mark on the right with the crossbow, Zan behind him handling the radio and putting sample cylinders on the darts, Sue on the left directing things, and myself with nothing to do but enjoy the ride. The weather wasn't quite as good as in the morning, but the whales were magnificent and in all directions, mostly humpbacks with a few minkes.


We went scooting in between small icebergs in pursuit of various groups of whales.  In passing we saw lots of fur seals, including a tight little group in the water that followed us briefly, popping their heads up to see what we were up to.  There was an occasional Adélie penguin; one in particular was scrabbling rapidly up an impossibly steep flute on an iceberg; it barely made the summit.


The objective of the whale work is to obtain information on individual whales, their sex, where they go in migration, how they spend their time, who they hang out with. Unfortunately there is no good way to tag whales permanently. For positive identification one needs to obtain biopsy material, which could include skin and blubber. The skin is used to determine sex, individual identification, and other genetic information. The blubber is used to study environmental pollution levels or for other purposes.   Fortunately the undersides of the flukes of humpbacks are uniquely patterned in black and/or white; this is the best feature for identification.  The dorsal fins are quite helpful also, but they can change with time in unpredictable ways. Ideally they would get photos of the underside of the flukes and both side views of the dorsal fin. It was amazing to me how quickly Sue and Deb could separate out the individuals we were seeing by subtle differences in dorsal fin shape, giving them descriptive nicknames. It is imperative to get good photo ID material before collecting a specimen. When we had picked out a whale, Rick would approach quickly from behind, stop the Zodiac about 30-40 yards behind, and Mark would have to time his shot very quickly before the whale submerged. One of the whales we wanted was very difficult, hiding between two others and rarely blowing. Another group got annoyed and let us know it, so we backed off. The dart ideally bounces off the whale and floats, and is brightly colored for retrieval. It is equally difficult to photograph whales, because of the timing of the shot with their behavior.


The necessary follow-up work to this trip will involve hours spent with online databases of whale photos, trying to see if these animals have ever been observed anywhere else.


While all this was going on, I was able to experience being in a small inflatable boat in icy southern waters with these marvelous animals. They displayed many interesting behaviors that I couldn't fully appreciate: communal feeding, tail flicking, spy hopping, lunge feeding, and more. Three and a half hours passed in no time. We were a long way from the Gould; they kept calling us to ask us if we could still see them. The second Zodiac was also put in the water, and another group got to share the experience.  Finally the Gould called us in, as the sun was getting low, and we climbed up the ladder to the Gould, saying that it never gets any better than this, and went in to find that dinner had been saved for us.


After the magic of yesteday, today is a travel day, work day, and fix the ship day.  I went to bed at midnight, after looking at all my photos and movies from yesterday and trying to write down what happened.  At 0430 this morning I could tell the ship was going through ice again.  In my cabin near the bow I could feel the thump and hear the swishing sound of every piece of ice. We were through about breakfast time. We are hurrying north through inland passages to get into position to go for that one last acoustic mooring.


Bob decided that today would be a good day for me to work on the salinity calibration.  During the CTD casts the salinity is measured continuously.  For calibration, at a series of depths the sample bottles are closed.  We measured those salinities in the lab a few days ago in the form of conductivity ratios.  We need to get the results into the computer, calculate the bottle salinities, and compare them with the CTD salinities.  Not exactly rocket science, but it needs to be done, and I've enjoyed learning to use MATLAB, a nifty high-level programming language for working with arrays.  Meanwhile Bob is massaging the weather data.


At lunch we realized that the scenery outside was pretty amazing.  We were going through a very narrow channel between steep rock faces plastered with hanging glaciers.  The vertical relief is too great to capture with an ordinary lens.  There was a strong wind gusting to above 60 knots from the east in spite of the terrain, making closely spaced whitecaps and whipping up water devils. We saw penguins standing high on snow slopes, and walking diagonally uphill on snow slopes. The wind whips the krill up into the air and some snow slopes are colored red with krill.  The diagonal path the penguins were taking was red also; they must habitually take this path.


Now we have reached a protected harbor at Port Lockjoy and have stopped to rearrange the damaged winch on the 01 deck. A minute ago they were using the main crane to separate the cable spool from the rest of the winch.  It was too cold and wet to watch for long.  There is a small camp at this harbor, and even a sailboat. I heard that a cruise ship was sighted this morning, I'm really sorry I didn't see it.  All this time that is the only ship we have come anywhere near.


Irene Beardsley