A Guest Post from Our Sea Shepherd Science Liaison in the Southern Ocean–Eva Hidalgo:
After a few weeks of sailing between the 60°S and the 70°S latitudes, the amount of whale sightings seemed to be below our expectations. That may not be very good news for our data collection program, where we collect information from all the sightings of cetaceans; but it was certainly comforting, as we don’t forget how the whaling fleet never sleeps. While the reasons for this lack of sightings may vary, as the days went by, it seemed to become a bit clearer where some of the whales were hiding. As we sailed into the mouth of the Ross Sea, the southernmost sea on earth, numerous small spouts were appearing on the horizon, and some encounters started taking place. The sun was shining on a relatively warm morning, when a pod of fast minke whales joined us, and started what seemed like a race against our ship across the calm ocean. During the summer months, while the rest of baleen whales seem to prefer the periphery of the Ross Sea, Antarctic minke whales seem to have found paradise in one of the most remote oceans on the planet.
The Ross Sea sits below 69°S, a bay looking like a bite into the Antarctic continent. Its unique environment holds one of the most productive marine ecosystems on earth, and its rich biodiversity includes many top predators like Antarctic minke whales, orcas, Adelie and emperor penguins, albatrosses, Weddell and leopard seals, and Patagonian toothfish. Being in one of the most isolated areas of the planet, its almost untouched ecosystem is as unique as it is fragile; and all its inhabitants strongly depend on its balance for their survival.
The minke whales that frequent this area in the summer months, and that we have come to defend from the harpoons of the illegal Japanese whaling fleet, are the smallest of the baleen whales. On many sightings they are frequently confused with large-sized dolphins, as their greyish body and very pronounced dorsal fin can be seen cutting the water at high speeds. During the Antarctic summer, they travel around the Southern Ocean in pursuit of their favorite food: a small crustacean called “krill,” mainly the species known as Euphausia Superba. These little organisms become the main source of food for many hungry predators of Antarctica, as they are freed from underneath the sea ice, beginning to melt with the arrival of the warmer temperatures, and where the krill have found a refuge to survive and reproduce during the extreme winter months.
Besides being majestic marine mammals, Antarctic minke whales have also been the protagonists of some of the most remarkable encounters that The Steve Irwin has ever had. On different occasions, young individuals have approached our floating home while drifting, winning the hearts of all the crew. In what seemed a curious and fearless attitude, they have approached and circled the ship for several minutes at a time. Just catching a glimpse of their eyes below the waterline becomes a moment that will never be forgotten. And it is in these connections where most of the strength that drives us is born.
As we sail across the Ross Sea, its wildness and remote beauty overtakes all my senses. My mind wanders, but never forgets about the deadly whaling fleet that is dumping blood into one of the most pristine environments on earth. As the sunset stains the whole sky around us, with colours that I didn’t even know existed, I look around and realize that what we are protecting is much more than just whales. We are protecting the delicate balance upon which the Ross Sea and Antarctica depends on. We are upholding the right for this ocean to be free from exploitation and human greed. We are protecting the future of the system in which every seal, penguin, fish and krill depends on. The balance in which, life in Antarctica, the ocean, and the planet itself depends on – the right for the last wilderness to remain wild, forever.
(Photos : An ice field from the air – Eliza Muirhead; Leopard seal in the Ross Sea – Eva Hidalgo; An Antarctic minke whale visiting the Steve Irwin – Tim Watters; Sunset over the Ross Sea – Eva Hidalgo)