Entry for July 21, 2007
|Expedition vessel Evohe, amid the whales
Aboard the Evohe, we don't notice it much, except for the thrumming of the wind through the taut steel rigging. Outside temperatures hover around 4 degrees Centrigrade, or 39 degrees Fahrenheit, without factoring in the windchill. However, inside the ship, "room temperature" has a different meaning. The salon has a little oil heater that keeps it a toasty 60+ degrees F. Cabins are only heated briefly during the day (to conserve fuel), and so they are running about 50 F, perhaps a little lower. But the heads (bathrooms) are ventilated, and so those little rooms run about 40 degree F. Taking a shower (a rare event) is a real test of fortitude (or perhaps peer pressure!).
But the show must go on, and all photography and science teams went to work. Brian and Mauricio tried a few different areas, and found poor visibility and moving whales, providing few opportunities for underwater photography. The biopsy team had bad karma in the morning, missing whales and experiencing equipment failures on all fronts. On Evohe, Roz and I analyzed data, since the whales were all too far away for us to work. So lunch was a bit quiet with discouragement, although these days are typical of field work, where despite years of experience and the best of gear, everything goes wrong.
|Auckland Island trees
In the afternoon, the sun came out, and the biopsy team went back out to try again. Brian elected to stay home, so Roz and I took their zodiac and went out to do some health assessments. Now, some days you chase the whales, and some days they chase you. We started with two pairs of right whales near the Evohe, and then moved off to the north to a couple of sheltered coves. We then encountered a subadult about 35 feet in length, who decided we were very interesting, and began following us, its head perhaps 5 feet behind our idling outboard. We drove straight for over half a kilometer with the whale close behind us the whole time, then started slowly circling in an attempt to shake it off. Instead, a second whale nearby joined the first, and pretty soon, we were playing ring around the rosy with two right whales, one with its head only feet from our stern, and the second with its head touching the tail of the first whale. We went around like this 3 or 4 times at an idle - I am sure they were wondering what we were, and I know we were wondering what they were thinking! We finally got free, and headed back to Evohe, but on the way, we were waylaid by a different subadult who decided that we were the new playtoy in the bay, and started following us around at an uncomfortably close distance. After some slow-speed evasive maneuvers, we idled back to Evohe, leading our new pet to the ship (come to think of it, maybe we were the pets). That whale stayed around Evohe for at least another hour or two while we tried to warm up.
Upon our return, the Evohe crew was scrambling around to go rescue the biopsy team, which had broken down near the entrance to Port Ross. With this strong westerly wind, a boat could easily get blown out to sea (next stop, Chile!). With fading light Steve and Murray raced off in the second zodiac to find them and bring them home. Unfortunately for the biopsy team, the wind was against the tide, so they were stalled in a rough sea near Rose Island. Fortunately, the tide was incoming, so their zodiac was carried inshore, instead of out to sea. All returned safe and sound about an hour later with grand stories of danger, valor, and high seas adventures, none of which any of us believed. Besides, they looked like drowned rats, so their credibility was a bit low to begin with.
A remarkable feature of the right whales in this bay is their curiosity. At each anchorage, the Evohe has been mobbed by whales of all ages and sizes for the first 12 hours. Even after being at anchor for several days, right whales still approach and circle the boat every day. And the whales following the zodiac (reported above) provide another example. While we see curious right whales in the North Atlantic, they are mostly calves. Here it appears that right whales have reverted to their natural state, largely out of contact with humans and civilization. And that natural state includes a lot of curiosity.
It makes one wonder about the historical whalers. We used to think those guys were daring and clever hunters, able to outguess and chase down these animals under trying conditions. But these "primal" whales suggest that the early right whalers had it easy - hunting animals like the ones that surround us would have been like shooting fish in a barrel - and this highlights one reason for the extraordinary speed with which the right whale populations were decimated.
Stormbound in the Aucklands,