Bright Nights & Humpback Whales

Last night, despite – or perhaps because of – yesterday’s nonstop activity, the other teachers and I couldn’t fall asleep. The bright skies in the evening definitely have a significant effect on our bodies, and we’ve been finding that we feel wide awake late at night. I’ve been doing the majority of my blog writing in the ship’s library at 11:30pm or after midnight, and I still have a great view of the water and the porpoising penguins that frequent this area. Last night, our team of GTF teachers spent some time on the ship’s Bridge with the Safety Officer and a navigator spotting wildlife and learning about the complex processes involved in navigation of a large ship in iceberg-laden waters. We finally returned to our cabin, closed our porthole, and went to sleep just after “sunrise” this morning at 2:14am. Of course, the sun “set” (barely) at 12:07am, so I suppose you could say we technically stayed up “all night”!

Officers on the Bridge of the National Geographic Explorer

Later this morning, we awoke in the middle of Neko Harbour to cloudy skies and temperatures in the low-mid 30s. We began the day with a zodiac cruise around the harbor with photographer and GTF mentor Eric Guth. Each photographer and naturalist has a very different focus and area of expertise, and so every zodiac cruise is different. Eric is fascinated by and incredibly knowledgeable about ice, and so we navigated around icebergs and other “bergy bits”, always keeping a safe distance in case of calving (when a chunk of ice breaks off a ‘berg and falls into the water, sometimes causing a wave). We observed the different parts of the icebergs and hypothesized about how and when the icebergs might have formed. We also located a large piece of “black ice”, a perfectly clear chunk of ice with tiny rocks embedded in it that looked black against the water and likely picked up debris and broke off from the underbelly of an iceberg as it scraped along the bottom of the ocean. Although I imagined Antarctica to be overwhelmingly silent, it is actually alive with sound. Even the icebergs surrounding us in the harbor were surprisingly noisy and, when we all sat perfectly still, the ice sounded like a crackling campfire or a sizzling saute pan.

GTFs in Neko Harbour. Photo by our mentor, photographer Eric Guth.
A Wilson’s Storm Petrel dances on the glassy water of Neko Bay

Our zodiac cruise ended on land, and we disembarked and then moved up the slope a bit. We were told that we couldn’t stand around on shore at this site because a glacier calving event in November caused a small tsunami that was powerful enough to sweep the life jackets sitting on shore into the bay. We ascended a snow-covered hill in Neko Harbour and encountered several colonies of chinstrap penguins. Brown skuas – large predatory birds – kept swooping down over the penguin nests menacingly attempting to steal the last eggs of the season before the little guys hatch. I climbed to the top of the hill, and the view was incredible – white-blue glaciers on every side and the occasional echoing crash of small calvings happening around us.

A Brown Skua gets dangerously close to a penguin nest with eggs

While I was hiking, my colleague and fellow GTF, Peg Keiner, went out with the dive team and had an opportunity to operate the ship’s Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). She climbed into a small black box that contains the steering equipment, and stayed warm and dry above water as they remotely dropped the robot to depths of 75-80 meters. She captured some incredible footage of the creatures living below the water and ice, and I can’t wait to share it with my students since I know some of you were very interested in the ROV when we saw it in action in the videos we watched!

National Geographic Explorer‘s ROV

After a busy morning, we spent the afternoon watching for whales off the ship as we passed through Wilhemina Bay. As it turns out, we didn’t need to do much searching, as our ship was surrounded by humpbacks for nearly an hour! These giant water mammals engage in a fascinating feeding ritual during which they work in small groups to create a “net” of bubbles under the water that siphon krill to the top, and we had the opportunity to watch them do this over and over again – so cool! At any given time, there were forty or so whales around the ship, and it was hard to know where to look.

A Humpback Whale surfaces during a feeding ritual in Wilhemina Bay
Humpback Whales’ flukes can be used to track their migration. Check out to learn more about scientists’ efforts to track whale populations using crowd-sourcing.

Tonight, after our very long day and early morning yesterday, we were finally tired, and so we closed the porthole, put on our eye-shades to block the sunlight still peeking in, and went to bed bright and early.