Bull elephant seals bask in the rare sunlight in the Antarctic. Pictures: Carolina Mantella
Bull elephant seals bask in the rare sunlight in the Antarctic. Pictures: Carolina Mantella

The Drake Passage, named after the 16th century sea captain, privateer, slaver and navigator, Sir Francis Drake, is an infamous stretch of water between South America and Antarctica.

It can boil like a cauldron, sending towering waves crashing across the bows of ships, leaving passengers prostrate on their bunks, nausea their cabin mate. It is known as the “Drake Shake”.

On the other hand you can experience Drake Lake. From the deck, watch Commerson dolphins from the deck surfing the bow wave as the ship cuts through a rolling, glistening sea beneath a cobalt blue sky peppered with Cape petrels, Antarctic prions and albatrosses.

On my most recent voyage to Antarctica, I had experienced the Drake Lake and, while I was thanking the weather gods, we were offered something special: two blue whales, the largest living mammals on Earth, more than 27 metres long and weighing 150 tons apiece.

These gargantuan cetaceans – a male and his mate – glided in slow motion ahead of the ship, graceful and silent but for the blows that ejected a 9m vertical spout of water into the air.

Between 1904 and 2000 more than 2 million whales were slaughtered. About 360 644 of those were blue whales. With only 2 000 of these magnificent creatures left in the Southern Ocean, it was an exceptionally rare sighting.

Our voyage was all about marine mammals and whales in particular. It was a golden opportunity to study these titans during their feeding fest on krill, before moving to warmer waters. Krill is a 6cm crustacean forming vast swarms that live on phytoplankton. It is key to the survival of marine mammals and penguins in the Southern Ocean.

I had an added interest. Like many others I continue to protest against the practice of keeping killer whales (orcas), beluga whales and dolphins in sea parks for entertainment and breeding programmes.

Sea World, the multi-billion-dollar business with three parks in the US, which house 23 killer whales, claims that studying them in captivity benefits science.

Yet how can these mammals, often kept in unnatural conditions, shed any scientific light on general whale behaviour? Another argument is that it gives everyone the chance to witness these creatures.

However, perhaps the tide is changing. Before sailing, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Democrat from Santa Monica, had proposed a bill that would ban the use of killer whales for entertainment purposes in California. Possibly other states would follow.

For the next 10 days in Antarctica we were going to be under the tutelage of scientist and whale expert Dr Ari Friedlaender of Oregon State University.

Thirty-eight years old, tall, thickset with a beard and pony- tail, Friedlaender would prove to be a man of unfaltering patience.

We spent several hours a day on the zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) cruising among the ice floes. A little distance away, Friedlaender, with the assistance of Allyson Fleming, who presently works in the Washington DC State Department of Fisheries, would be in their own zodiac, tagging and taking samples from the whales.

At the end of a long day and once back on board, between giving illustrated talks, Friedlaender would face a myriad questions from passengers mesmerised by these near-mythical sea creatures. Mesmerising too, was his crossbow, the tool he uses to take samples from whales.

By firing an arrow into the side of a whale – which feels “nothing more than a mosquito bite”, he says – the head of the arrow with a float attached collects tissue biopsies before dropping into the water to be retrieved by the scientist.

The samples are then frozen and taken back to the labs, providing important data such as molecular genetic and pollutant studies, stock structure, the sex of the animal, population structures and other similarities and differences between individuals and stocks.

On the third day and in the Neumayer Channel, lined with glacial ice, we were quickly surrounded by a pod of at least 20 minke whales.

This was unusual as they mainly travel singly or in groups of two to four. The second smallest of all baleen whales, they are outlandishly curious and circled our zodiacs repeatedly.

Between 1971-1981 Soviet and Japanese whalers caught 65 000 minke whales in Antarctic waters until banned by the International Whaling Commission. Japan claimed that the killing of some 3 600 whales in the last 14 years was for scientific purposes.

Yet very little, if any, of the science has been shared on the international platform. More important, scientists like Friedlaender are proving that it is not necessary to kill whales for scientific research.

Whales were not the only marine mammals we witnessed on our spectacular voyage. Fur seals bobbed in the water, elephant seals huddled on the beaches, the bulls tipping the scales at a magnificent blubbery 3 000kg. The crabeater, the most abundant seal species, lay sluggishly on icebergs with a weary eye on the orca.

However, the mean and not so lean killing machine was the leopard seal. Behind those brown doleful eyes was a powerful predator that took full advantage of the recently fledged gentoo penguins that were plunging into the water for the first time.

As if showing off, the leopard seal would swim towards us, the dying penguin in its razor sharp teeth, throw the hapless bird into the air, only to catch it and disappear into the depths.

By the seventh day, and in the glorious icescapes of Wilhelmina Bay, it didn’t matter where you looked, humpback whales floated asleep like semi-submerged submarines, others fluked, causing the zodiac passengers to let out involuntary whoops.

Occasionally, a large knobbly (tubercles) head would appear vertically out of the water to inspect us, an action known as “spy hopping”. Some passengers in sea kayaks had more than they bargained for yet the sensory powers of these gargantuan creatures, all of 16m long and weighing more than 30 000kg, never once endangered our crafts.

Before we turned north, orcas, with their distinctly black-and-white colouring and large dorsal fins, were spotted from the bridge of the ship, far in the distance. These beauties of the Southern Ocean, covering 200km a day, are of the dolphin family. They live within a complex social grouping system, not unlike that of humans. Juveniles remain with their mothers throughout their lives and as many as four generations can be found in one pod with a language specific to that group.

Once incarcerated in sea parks, their social groups are torn apart with calves snatched from their mothers. Trained by a reward system to perform in inadequately small pools, it is not surprising that injury, and in some cases death, of the trainers occur. (These methods are detailed in the award-winning documentary, Blackfish.)

Whales and many cetaceans face a challenging future. Entanglement in fishing gear is common, as are collisions with ships. Oil and gas exploration generate extreme seismic noise, both high intensity and low frequency sounds, from air guns towed behind boats. The sound travels for thousands of kilometres in the ocean, masking communication between whales.

Yet climate change is the biggest threat. Krill needs ice to breed and feed. Less ice, less krill, and there’s a seismic change in how marine wildlife will survive in the oceans.

Friedlaender remembers a season in Wilhelmina Bay, some years ago, when he counted 500 humpback whales feeding on 2.3 million tons of krill that measured 200m thick. Will he witness this again?

It takes about 20 years for the science that Friedlaender and his colleagues are collating to give an accurate picture, but let us not forget that whales and all marine creatures are the barometers of the condition of our oceans and planet. - Angie Butler, Sunday Tribune

l Angie Butler is a polar historian and co-owner of Ice Tracks Expeditions. To join her Marine Mammal voyage from March 16-26 next year or other voyages contact [email protected] or ice-tracks.com