Day 10: 10 January 2019

I have a number of one-liners that I have always longed to be able to spring forth at the right moment.

I have always wanted to jump into a taxi and yell ‘Follow that car!’ Or again, in a dinner-party situation, I have always wanted to look my hostess in the eyes, and say (in a somewhat imperious manner): ‘Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes.’* I have a bottom drawer full of ‘em. Today, however, for the first time in my life, I finally got to take one out and use it. I was on the back deck when a whale spouted about a hundred yards from the stern. I was totally ready for it. I pointed with one hand, cupped my mouth with the other, and then, like Starbuck (or was it Ishmael?) I hollered ‘Thar she blows!’

Such theatricals, however, are totally out of character for me and feeling a touch sheepish I looked around to see what my colleagues had made of it all. Not one of them had paid a blind bit of notice so I went below and made a cup of tea.

There is however a serious side to this. The whale I saw was a minke. Two days ago we saw another. But, as far as I am aware, that’s it. Where, I ask myself, have all the whales gone?

I decided to look back to see what Shackleton was observing in the way of whales at this time. It was quite illuminating. On this very day in 1915, the day in which he made landfall with the continent, he wrote:

‘Loose pack stretched to the east and south, with open water to the west and a good watersky … the Endurance continued to advance south. We saw the spouts of numerous whales and noticed some hundreds of crab-eaters [seals] lying on the floes … a few killer-whales with their characteristic high dorsal fin also came into view.’

Glancing back to Shackleton’s entry for the previous day I found the following: ‘Two very large whales, probably blue whales, came up close to the ship, and we saw spouts in all directions.’

I find all this so scary. These are the great feeding grounds to which the leviathans used to migrate every austral summer. Right here is where the greatest beings on earth – the 100 ft blue whales - would come to scoff. The largest population of this species in the world was based in Antarctica. But where are they and all their cousins now?

Shackleton’s marine biologist, Robbie Clark, a dour hard-working Scot, was particularly interested in the whales and, during the month they spent on South Georgia, where the southern whale fisheries were based, he studied carefully what he saw taking place on the flensing decks where the whales were laid out to be stripped of their blubber. He took notes and like many, including the then Governor of the Falkland Islands, the far-seeing William Lamond Allardyce, he became much disturbed by the rampant over-exploitation of the stocks.

In particular he was concerned for the humpback whale for which he was able to gather some reliable statistics. The first of the South Georgia whaling stations had opened in 1904, just ten years before Shackleton arrived on the Island. During that decade the annual catch had been dominated by humpbacks which, of the large cetaceans, was by far the most common in the near waters of Antarctica. As Clark put it, ‘up to the fishing season of 1910-11, humpbacks formed practically the total catch,’ but for the 1914-1915 season when Shackleton was in South Georgia, records from one of the stations (Leith) showed that the humpback kill had shrunk dramatically to only 15% of the catch.

After the Endurance left South Georgia for the Weddell Sea, Clark noted only two sightings of humpbacks, both within the South Sandwich Island neighbourhood. Clark later concluded that, because of their unrestricted slaughter, ‘the humpback stock is threatened with extinction’, and urged international protective legislation. Yet, despite the statistics and obvious diminishing returns, the Whaling industry was allowed to stagger on to the mid 60s, by which time the whale had been all but expunged from the planet. In recent decades they have been making a comeback and fifteen years ago they were again a fairly common sight around here. I know because I was here over ten years ago and witnessed this for myself.

So again I wonder why it is that we are not spotting them now. To my simple mind, if the whales are not here then their food is not here. As I think about it I see one fundamental difference between the just-avoided great extinction that Robbie Clark warned about, and the apparent absence of whales today. If the decimation that Clark noted had reached its conclusion, then the extinction, however sad, would have been somewhat contained. The whale was at the top of the trophic ladder, its annihilation would, to some extent, have had limited negative impact on the nutritional support structure below. When Shackleton was on South Georgia it came down to one simple equation; one harpoon equals one dead whale. Today, by contrast, it is far more complex, extensive, insidious and deadly. Today we are merrily chiselling away at the very foundation of these fragile food webs, and this has ramifications that go beyond horrific.

At the bottom of the chain are the microbial bacterioplankton, while at the top you have the grand charismatic species such as the penguins, albatross, seals and whales. It is a delicately poised food network in which everything, as if in some vast outdoor restaurant, is feeding on something else. If you are a phytoplankton, for instance, you will absorb your nutrients and photosynthesize, but just up the chain are the zooplankton, and they will be eating you. And if you are zooplankton (kind of shrimp-like krill) you are on the menu for just about everything above you, especially the whales.

Down here almost all the whales (the blue, the fin, sei, minke, right and humpback) belong to the cetacean group known as baleen whales. Baleen are comb-like plates attached to the upper jaw that filter zooplankton. Off King George Island, just a short distance around the corner from us, the krill biomass has declined by a staggering 80 per cent and is still falling. This can be linked directly to the loss of the ice pack down the west of the Peninsula, because juvenile krill live within the loose crystalline latticework on the underside of the ice.

And what about the penguins? In the same general area on the western Peninsula, in the last 35 years, the breeding population of adélies has declined by roughly 80 per cent. This can be attributed, both directly and indirectly, to climate change - the dramatic reduction in pack ice, the decline of the krill as well as the increased snowfall (as a result of the warming air over the Peninsula) that leads to melt-water that, in turn, chills the eggs and drowns the chicks. Whole colonies have literally been wiped out leaving what are called ‘ghost rookeries.’

And finally, what about those ‘hundreds of crab-eaters’ that Shackleton saw on this day in 1915. Crab-eaters don’t actually eat crab, they eat krill. And how many crab-eaters have we seen in the past 10 days? I have counted precisely three.

They say the Antarctic Peninsula is the canary in the coal mine for climate change, global warming and ocean acidification because everything down here is in such a delicate state of balance. Temperature changes have already risen by almost two degrees and the acidification of the sea has been relentless in its climb (because the oceans exchange gases with the atmosphere in such a way that all the pollutants we put up there eventually end up in the sea). And let’s not forget the reason we are down here - the collapse of the Larsen ice shelf which began almost twenty-five years ago and culminated two years ago with the calving of an iceberg four times the size of London.

See what I mean? It is scary stuff. And this is why the science that we are doing down here is so vital.

* * * * * * * *

0600 hrs. The whole ship was jarred when it had a go at a large ice floe that was more resilient then it looked. The ship then backed off and found a way around it, but by then everybody was awake. Some of the scientific kit registered malfunctions because of the bump. ‘Electonics don’t like that stuff’, summarised Ray at breakfast.

All day we were amongst the big flat-top tabular bergs that have calved from the ice shelves. At one point I counted 48.

We also spotted our first leopard seal.

By mid-evening we were off Cape Framnes. This was named by the Norwegian whaler/explorer Carl Anton Larsen who, in 1893, was the first down this way in his ship Jason, which was built at Framnes in Sandefjord where, some years later, the Endurance would also be constructed. It was Larsen who, in 1904, founded Grytviken, the first whaling station at South Georgia.

We should reach the Larsen C ice shelf (named after Carl Anton) during the early hours of tomorrow morning.

Weather fair. Noon position: 65 20.1 S, 059 28.0 W.

* A famous quote from The Count of Montecristo.