13 Apr 2018

13 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Sixteen: Blue Whale

It had been a mixed day so far. First there was the disappointment with not being able to get a landing or even a zodiac cruise around Nightingale Island & Inaccessible Island: the two offshore islands of the Tristan da Cunha group. This was followed by some good Seabirds as we left Tristan da Cunha including the chance to get some photos of White-bellied Storm-petrels. Later that afternoon we had a magical, prolonged encounter with a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins in excellent light. The afternoon quietened down & many people disappeared down to the observation lounge towards the late afternoon. I suspect there had been an announcement of a late afternoon happy hour drinks. There were only a few of us were left on the bridge wing, when 20 minutes before last reasonable light, Josh Beck picked up a close diving Whale. It appeared very soon after & this time, Hans who was one of the Expedition team got onto it & immediately identified it as an 95% Blue Whale. Again it dived before I got onto it. The pressure had now increased as seeing a Blue Whale was one of my top targets for the Odyssey. Hans dived into the bridge & asked for the Plancius to be stopped. Fortunately, it reappeared & this time I got onto it. It was close & very big. Hans had also seen it again & happy it was a Blue Whale, he put out an announcement on the Plancius's tannoy: which resulted on people pouring out onto all decks.
Blue Whale: A blurry photo after my initial view. They have a small dorsal fin, especially considering how big they are
Although it was one of my top targets for the Odyssey, I knew that the chances of seeing a Blue Whale were not very high. In the reports I had seen they had only been seen in three out of seven years. What I had forgotten was in two of those years they were seen around South Georgia & in the third it was somewhere on the journey from South Georgia to Tristan da Cunha. So we had already passed through the best waters. There had already been a brief sighting on the 7 April about halfway between South Georgia & Tristan da Cunha, but I hadn't see that. So we were really lucky to have encountered this individual. Especially as it was further North than on the previous successful Odyssey trips. It was later identified as an immature Blue Whale of the Antarctic population (B. musculus intermedia). It seemed quite curious about us & perhaps that's why it hung around the Plancius for the last fifteen minutes of light. It is a pity we hadn't seen it earlier in the afternoon when the light was better, but nobody was complaining.
Blue Whale underwater: It's not easy to see on this photo, but there is a paler turquoise colour to the sea across the middle (horizontal) part of this photo: this is the Blue Whale. It was clearer to see in real life, than this photo suggests. This colouration allowed us to watch its movements underwater when it went into a shallow dive. I was confused as when the Blue Whale surfaced, it looked medium grey, but underwater it appeared to be this pale turquoise colour. I was later told that was down to us being able to see the real colour of the first few meters of sea, without any of the darkness of the deeper sea coming through & so we were actually seeing the sea above it, rather than the Blue Whale
The next time it surfaced was very close to the Plancius. I quickly pulled the 100-400mm in so I would have more chance of fitting it into the picture. Looking at the photos as I write this Post, I was using an 135mm lens & the exposed parts of the Blue Whale didn't fit into the photo, even allowing for only about half of its body was on view above the water. That's the combination of the largest animal every known to science & how close it was.
Blue Whale: This photo shows the large head, the protective ridge either side of the blow hole & part of the long back
Blue Whale: Starting a gentle blow
Blue Whale: Clearly a gentle blow as a strong blow can form a column up to 12 metres high
Blue Whale: This gentle blow quickly disperses. To me, this shows how difficult it is to try identifying Whales on their blow alone, as I don't this wouldn't have been possible to identify as a Blue Whale at a distance on this blow
Blue Whale: The blow was quickly over
Blue Whale: As its head dipped below the surface, we were able to see more of the back. There were a lot of blotchy diatom markings on it caused by algae blooms on the skin (similar to the diatoms markings we saw on the Strap-toothed Beaked Whale). Blue Whales are the only large Whale that shows these diatoms
Blue Whale: The back is so long that we didn't see the dorsal fin before it dived
Blue Whale: A better view of the central back & the dorsal fin
It surfaced on several more occasions, The light was poor & getting worse by the minute and consequently, the photos were not as good as earlier in the encounter. This Blue Whale certainly helped to make up for the disappointments with the lack of landings or zodiac cruises at Nightingale & Inaccessible Islands.