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A humpback whale "spy hops" near Petermann Island in the Western Antarctic Peninsula on March 18, 2016. The term spy hopping refers to moments when a whale surges vertically out of the water in order to get a better look at what is above the surface. It also occurs when whales are very active with one another. Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten

Hunting ‘Gators’ in Antarctica

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Whale scientist Ari Friedlaender stands on the bow of a Zodiac while trying to deploy a limpet satellite tag on a humpback whale in Cierva Cove in the Western Antarctic Peninsula; Photograph by Caroline Van Houten

3 p.m. local time, March 15, 2016, Post #4

Our Zodiac glides past chunks of floating ice, through water as smooth and still as glass. Ari Friedlaender stands in back, steering the boat with one hand, his crossbow stowed conveniently at his feet.

We’re cruising through Andvord Bay, a fjord on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula that’s ringed by jagged mountains, with nearly a dozen glaciers flowing into it—though right now, most of that towering mass is out of sight and out of mind thanks to a heavy mist of fog and falling snowflakes that muffles sight and smothers sound.

Friedlaender is a whale biologist with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University in Newport. He and several other researchers are traveling on the Ortelius for two weeks, studying the behavior and movements of humpback and minke whales along the Antarctic Peninsula. He’s hunting for minke whales today—which promises to be a slow game of cat and mouse.

Though often glimpsed in these waters, minkes are little understood. They rarely tolerate a close approach by a boat before disappearing below the water’s surface. But if Friedlaender can get near enough to fire a shot with his crossbow, then he might just come home with a valuable prize: a biopsy of the whale’s skin and blubber, about the size and shape of a cigarette filter, that will be used to study the genetics of the whale and which breeding population it hails from. The biopsy will also allow him and his colleagues to determine the sex of the animal—a task that’s more challenging with a multi-ton whale than it is with a six-ounce hamster.

Our boat slides quietly past a crabeater seal dosing off on a saucer of floating ice—one of many snoozing crabeaters that we’ve seen. “It’s funny how the behavior of the animals fits the landscape,” says Friedlaender. “There’s a lot of sleeping and rolling around here.”

Outside this sheltered bay are the open waters of the Gerlache Strait, where circumpolar winds often stir up waves, sweeping away the fragmented, glacial brash ice, leaving the sea surface clear except for a few large icebergs. The Gerlache is frequented by a clade of killer whales (the so-called Antarctic type A) that readily attacks and devours minke whales (similar attacks also happen in the Arctic).

It’s mind-blowing to think that a whale should have to worry about being eaten alive by something even larger than itself, but that’s the price that Antarctic minkes pay for being small. They grow no longer than about 25 feet, making them smaller than a typical adult type-A Antarctic orca—and no match for a pod of them.

This constant danger is part of why minkes are so skittish, spending most of their time deep in the glacial bays of the peninsula, in a landscape that other whales rarely visit. Mountain ranges of translucent icebergs hang down from the roof of their world, seeping out a cold, blue light from the sunlit realm above. Broad, flat continents of sea ice drift overhead. Minkes are dependent on ice, whereas humpbacks, the other whales that feed on krill down here, prefer open water. These two species are now experiencing opposite trends as the climate warms.

Sea ice is declining rapidly on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The northern peninsula now sees 80 fewer days of sea ice coverage per year, on average, than it did in 1980. During 15 years of visiting the peninsula, Friedlaender has seen humpbacks multiply rapidly as they rebound from widespread Antarctic whaling in the decades after World War II. Minkes, on the other hand, are becoming more scarce: They used to account for 50 percent of the whales that he saw here—whereas now, they represent maybe 10 percent.

After an hour on the water, snow blankets our boat in white. Our ship and the nearby mountains have dissolved into mist, leaving us alone in our quiet little world of flat water and floating ice. We might as well be drifting in the middle of an ocean. I glance around for some new frame of reference and spot a dark cliff looming up on our right. I follow it with my eye, then realize that it’s not land at all but the sheer face of a tabular berg drifting, untethered, just as we are.

Friedlaender’s beard and green knit cap are frosted with snow. He shuts off the motor. He sits at the front of the boat, crossbow in hand, scanning the water surface all around for the tiny blip of a minke surfacing—and suddenly I feel as though we’re not in Antarctica at all but drifting instead on the still, foggy waters of the Florida Everglades, hunting gators. When the gator surfaces it will show us its eyes and the nostrils of its snout but otherwise leave the water surface undisturbed. “Minke whales are so low when they surface,” says Friedlaender. “They’re so small. You can only see them up to a hundred meters away.”

We finally meet up with our quarry a few minutes later—a call on the radio summons us to the boat of a colleague, where a minke has been spotted.

“It’s coming toward us. Keep your eyes open—it may swim under us,” says Friedlaender. He stands at the front of our Zodiac, a loaded crossbow in hand, waiting for it to surface so he can have a clear shot of its back, just below the dorsal fin.

“See?” he says. “There’s a fluke print going around us.”

Only seconds later do I see what he’s pointing at: a streak of disturbed water, four feet across, that traces a gentle U around our boat. That print on the water, painted by the whale’s fluke, or tail, reveals that it has visited our boat, passed stealthy around us, then disappeared into the depths. The encounter is over.

Even as Friedlaender removes the bolt from his crossbow, the minke’s print remains beside the boat, its texture somehow flatter than that of the surrounding water, like the imprint of a fairy or some other preternatural being.

Friedlaender starts the motor; we begin to move. The smooth print lingers behind us, receding into the mist.

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Writer Douglas Fox and photographer Carolyn Van Houten are spending 15 days aboard the M.V.Ortelius as the ship explores glacial fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula, conducting studies of humpback and minke whales. Follow their story here, then see more about life in Antarctica on the new show Deep Freeze, on the National Geographic Channel in fall 2016.