A sensational six weeks in the Southern Ocean



Hello everybody, Ocean Conservationist Nina here with an update about an exciting and busy six weeks in the Southern Ocean.

How did that happen?! So, ORCA had been invited to take part in a distance sampling project in conjunction with Hurtigruten, the British Antarctic Survey and the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands government to identify cetacean hotspots. ORCA’s expertise in spotting, identifying and recording cetacean species was needed so that a better understanding about these amazing animals in this equally amazing region.

And so it was that over Christmas, I travelled to Punta Arenas, Chile, and boarded MS Fram before setting sail on the adventure of a lifetime. For the next six weeks, I was on board as the Ocean Conservationist, and during that time, ORCA’s job was to survey the Southern Ocean in search of whales, dolphins and porpoises around the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula.

The data collected through distance sampling surveys will be used to create conservation guidance for specific areas and will shed light on cetacean population dynamics, behaviour and abundance in this little-studied region. The guidance will then be used to implement mitigation strategies to reduce ship-strike events occurring around these areas.

Distance sampling takes place from a raised platform, usually the bridge of a vessel and requires three surveyors. Two people keep a keen lookout on each bridge wing while the third surveyor records the effort and sightings data. Each person rotates every thirty minutes to ensure everyone gets a break from the concentration needed to study the sea. If we spot something, the surveyor on either the port or starboard side immediately takes a reticle reading through their binoculars and an angle reading from the angle board, to ensure the animal is recorded in its original position. The recorder notes down the time and GPS location before inputting any sighting information.

When I was not collecting data from the Frams’s bridge, I was out on deck watch... in the (very) cold! I had some truly breathtaking moments while on board and was lucky enough to expand my whale and dolphin repertoire, including spotting some ‘firsts’, which I was incredibly excited about. During my wildlife watches out on the bow, I managed to spot sei whales, fin whales, humpback whales, hourglass dolphins, Peale’s dolphins and Commerson’s dolphins, to name a few. It was especially heart-warming to share these encounters with avid wildlife watchers on board, who took such a keen interest in the marine wildlife around them and often joined me out on deck.

One of my favourite encounters was early on in the first voyage. We’d left the Falkland Islands the previous evening and had a couple of sea days ahead before reaching South Georgia. I was up bright and early for my morning wildlife watch, but the weather had other plans. We had relatively thick fog, so visibility wasn’t great, but I persisted as I had a really good feeling… I was not disappointed! I was nearing the end of my deck watch as the fog continued to close in, and visibility was declining rapidly at this point, when all of a sudden, I spotted a dark shape quite close to the ship. I tried to follow it with my binoculars to get a positive ID, but it only flashed up once more before it descended into the mist. I managed to see a small dorsal fin, so noted it down as an unidentified cetacean. Just as I logged this sighting in the OceanWatchers app, I saw twelve long-finned pilot whales gliding stealthily through the water within 250m of the ship. I was absolutely gobsmacked as they seemed to swim past effortlessly and in slow motion. Their glossy black heads poked above the surface as they came up to breathe, and their chunky, curved dorsal fins were truly unmistakable. I was jumping up and down as these were my first ever pilot whales, and to my surprise, no one else was out on deck with me. There was something quite special about having this particular encounter all to myself.

I had such an incredible time as an Ocean Conservationist, watching for whales and collecting data for ORCA during my time in the Southern Ocean. While the pilot whales were a special and unexpected encounter, ultimately, my favourite sightings had to be as we approached Deception Island during the first voyage. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I, along with some of the expedition team and several avid guests, were outside, keeping a keen eye on the sea. It was a sea state 2, relatively calm with a moderate swell. Suddenly, out of nowhere and quite far towards the land on the starboard side, many of us could see multiple blows in the distance. At first, we thought they were fin whales because the blows were tall and straight and could be seen with the naked eye, but the glare was really obstructing our view. We hadn’t seen any of the bodies or fins of the animals yet, so they were still unidentified. We’d had fin whales and humpback whales all afternoon, popping up here and there, so we knew those species were inhabiting these waters. We all kept our keen eyes on the blows until, all of a sudden, several unmistakable tall, glossy black dorsal fins glinted against the sunlight. Many of us shouted “ORCAS!” simultaneously, and there was an excited buzz that rippled throughout the bow. We immediately made a ship-wide announcement so guests inside could also come and have a look at these incredible animals. The atmosphere outside was tantalising – guests were rushing around trying to get a glimpse of these huge predators and were asking all kinds of questions about their behaviour and diet. It was the perfect opportunity to offer a species spotlight session and tell people more about orcas and their behaviour. We were still all enjoying watching several pods in the distance, when, to our surprise, two orcas popped up close to the ship, and one extremely large male then started to bow ride! It was at this moment we saw that the orcas were, in fact, Type B2 orcas and had a prominent light grey colouration along their flanks and below their saddle patches. They also had a light yellow hue, which is due to diatoms that attach themselves to the skin of cetaceans. By this time, over seventy guests were outside, snapping away with their cameras, huge smiles on their faces. It was a real highlight for me, one I will never forget..and I am sure they won't either.

These voyages introduced me to my first wild penguins, and one particular location in South Georgia blew my mind. We landed on Salisbury Plain on Christmas Day, and it is simply one of the most epic wildlife spectacles on earth. Over 60,000 breeding pairs of king penguins inhabit this area alone. Fuzzy brown chicks and tall, black and grey adult penguins were waddling around in all directions, completely unphased by our presence. When we reached the colony, all that could be seen was a sea of black and orange heads flickering from left to right, framed by long, green tussac grass. There were also thousands of Antarctic fur seals and pups roaming around, so you had to stay alert whilst enjoying the indescribable surroundings. It was an amazing way to spend Christmas, and I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed such remarkable wildlife in their natural habitat.

The most unexpected moment, and something that will stay with me forever, is seeing a fragment of Iceberg A76A. Iceberg A76 first broke off from the Ronne Ice Shelf in May 2021 and was the largest iceberg ever recorded to exist. It didn’t last long, however, and split up into three main pieces in the same month, now called A, B and C, respectively. ‘A’ is the largest remnant of the original iceberg and is approximately 135km long and 26km wide. It drifted for roughly 2000km within the Weddell Sea until late October 2022, when it entered the Drake Passage. Unfortunately, it will likely be pushed into the South Atlantic and break apart within the next few months. As we were viewing the iceberg, we actually witnessed a small calving occur. Whilst this is amazing to see, it is a stark reminder that we need to help protect this precious ecosystem and that our great whales are indicator species and ecosystem engineers, which play an integral role in regulating our climate.

ORCA’s vital work with its partners down in Antarctica is helping to identify cetacean species hotspots and population numbers so we, along with other governing bodies and organisations, can implement mitigation strategies in the areas that require protection from certain threats, i.e., ship strike. We all want to see oceans alive with whales, dolphins and porpoises, especially in remote areas like the Southern Ocean, and there is a better chance of that, thanks to ORCA.