published Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Journey to Antarctica: Whales, Wows and Wonders

Thom Benson
Iceberg ahead
Iceberg ahead
Thom Benson
Follow live updates as the Tennessee Aquarium's Thom Benson travels to Antarctica from Chattanooga

  • photo
    Our first sighting of Antarctica on the journey
    Photo by Thom Benson

The expedition got off to a big start when the captain of Le Boreal announced sighting humpback whales off the port side of the bow. We all grabbed our camera gear and headed forward. This was the first of several humpback whale pods we saw before finally leaving the Drake Passage.

Someone spotted some Adelie penguins porpoising near a small iceberg fragment. When I pointed my camera towards the blue piece of ice, it became obvious that the birds were fleeing an awesome predator - the leopard seal. It might be hard to estimate this particular animal's total size based on this image, but these seals can reach 11 feet in length and weigh more than 1,100 pounds according to A&K marine biologist Charley Wheatley.

More whales brought us back to the ship's bow later in the morning. I have never seen so many whales in one place. At one point there were three humpbacks swimming along side by side. Later a pair appeared right below us on the starboard side of the bow.

Right after breakfast, the first iceberg of the trip was sighted by an eight year old boy from Birmingham, Alabama. We were heading into what is known as "iceberg alley." This shot illustrates how monstrously huge these blocks of ice truly are. (Especially when you consider two thirds of the iceberg is below the waterline.) These flat-topped icebergs are called tabular icebergs. These form when uniform layers of ice are laid down over long periods of time, and are unleashed when ice sheets break up. Fractures one ice sheets and glaciers are being watched by climate scientists very closely.

NASA's Operation IceBridge recently discovered a major crack in the Pine Island Glacier which is located in western Antarctica. This crack is nearly 20 miles long and more than 150 feet deep. NASA researchers say the last time the Pine Island Glacier cut loose a significant iceberg was in 2001. View the "Watching the birth of an iceberg" video on the NASA Operation IceBridge website here.

After lunch, we enjoyed a nice presentation about all 17 species of penguins. The A&K staff produces "enrichment" programs for the passengers of Le Boreal covering all aspects of Antarctic exploration; wildlife, geology, history and climate science. All directly relate to what we are going to be seeing in the next 24 hours.

Immediately after exiting the on board theater, naturalist and Zodiac driver Russ Manning was greeting people at the top of the stairs to direct people outside for our first amazing glimpses of Antarctica. The brightly lit frozen landscape was simply stunning. Until this very moment we had been traveling. Now the expedition could begin.

Tomorrow we will explore the edge of the pack ice in an area that the crew very rarely has a chance to see. We don't know what we'll find, or how many landings we will be able to make. But rest assured, it will be an adventure.

We stayed up late hoping to capture some "Alpine-Glow" shots of the majestic mountains and icebergs. Cloud cover prevented that, so we took penguin cocktail party pictures instead.

Every low-topped chunk of ice passing by the ship was examined for penguins. If any were hitching a ride, we would head out into the cold to capture shots of these guys floating along. All were Adelie penguins who had chosen the safety of relatively large pieces of ice to rest comfortably without fear of being eaten by leopard seals or orcas. In their "little tuxedos," it appeared like they had simply gathered for a cocktail party aboard a ship.

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