What Will Climate Change Mean for Whales? These Scientists Hope to Find Out.
2 p.m. local time, March 10, 2016, Post #1
On a blustery autumn day in Ushuaia, Argentina, 54 degrees south of the equator near the shredded, mountainous tip of South America, final preparations are under way on the M.V. OrteliusM.V. Ortelius, a vessel strengthened for navigation in polar sea ice. This evening, tugboats will nudge her into open water, and she’ll depart for Antarctica.
On board will be 140 passengers and crew, including a team of scientists led by Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University in Newport. The ship will spend most of its 15 days at sea exploring fjords along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula—the gracefully curved tentacle of land that reaches up toward South America.
The peninsula is suffering from climate change in a way that few other parts of our planet are. Ari and his crew will be studying the connections between glaciers and whales, hoping to understand how the latter are responding to dramatic changes in their environment.
Ted Cheeseman, who’s running the tourist side of the operation, will also contribute to the science. For several years he’s been crowd-sourcing tourist photos from his cruises in order to contribute to a growing database of uniquely identified whales. Since humpbacks can be distinguished by the black-and-white marks on their tails—plus the odd scar from an orca attack—photographs taken here and there make it possible to document their movements over thousands of miles.
One of the many fjords we’ll visit is Andvord Bay. It’s bleak and beautiful, surrounded by jagged mountains. Glaciers pour into the bay from every side, their smooth surfaces ruptured and spider-webbed with crevasses large enough to swallow semi trucks. The smooth water is often strewn with bits of floating ice ranging in size from golf ball to apartment building. This glacial ice formed from snow that fell on the peninsula thousands of years ago, when modern humans were still mingling with Neanderthals and painting pictures on cave walls. On some days, Andvord Bay is so quiet that you can hear faint pops and crackles emanating from the water: the sound of those glacial chunks slowly melting.
Andvord and its neighboring bays can seem lifeless on shore, but below the water’s surface it’s a different story. During the austral summer and early fall, from December to April each year, these waters bustle with krill. A cubic yard of seawater (roughly enough to fill a bathtub) can hold 2,000 krill, and up to two million tons of these little critters can congregate in a single bay—enough to pile into two Empire State Buildings.
The continent’s knack for growing krill makes it a crucial lifeline to ecosystems in far-flung parts of the globe. Each year, thousands of humpback whales migrate to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula to feed on those krill. Many come from coastal waters up and down the west side of South America, but a few migrate from as far away as American Samoa, just south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean—a round-trip of nearly 12,000 miles.
The peninsula owes its massive krill output to a finely tuned alchemy of glacier flow, winter sea ice, gentle winds, and even its undersea canyons, which guide the flow of deep-ocean currents. But this alchemy is starting to change.
The west side of the peninsula is warming five times faster than the rest of the planet. Average winter air temperatures in its northern section have risen a staggering 11°F in the last 50 years, and ocean waters are also warming, leading to thinner sea ice, which melts earlier in the spring. Sea ice used to cover this area for seven months each year. Now it only lasts four months.
Krill production seems to be falling in the hardest-hit, northern parts of the peninsula. And though it’s true that humpback whales are continuing to multiply as they recover from intense whaling in the decades after World War II, another iconic species, the Antarctic minke whale, is falling in number.
Friedlaender and his colleagues hope to learn more about these whales over the next two weeks. We’ll venture out with him in small Zodiacs as he sidles up to whales and tags them with tracking devices. He’ll monitor their detailed movements as they dive and lunge through swarms of krill. In some cases, he’ll even capture a whale’s-eye view of their underwater world using cameras attached to the trackers.
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By eavesdropping on the private lives of these whales, Friedlaender hopes to learn how exactly they hunt for krill, how much energy they expend doing it, and how quickly they can put on the fatty blubber that will carry them through the rest of the year. By understanding the challenges they face today, he can predict their fate as the peninsula continues to warm in the coming decades.
This will be an unusual research expedition in that many of the passengers on the ship are actually tourists. Government-run research vessels are in high demand in the Antarctic, and Friedlaender, who has monitored whales on the peninsula all summer, has taken advantage of this opportunity to get down there one more time and observe them during the critical month of March, when summer gives way to fall.
Enough for now. The wind is kicking up, and we’ll depart soon. National Geographic will be represented by four people on board: me (the writer), Carolyn Van Houten (photographer), and Brian Adams and J.J. Kelley (both TV videographers). Wish us well—a storm is blowing into the Drake Passage as we speak, and our next 48 hours en route to Antarctica may not be so pleasant.
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.