The New Year and the Visit of the Not-Orcas

Last Tuesday, I was in the gym, when the station doctor ran through crying, “Whales in Arthur Harbor! Possibly orcas!”

Still in shorts, I scrambled with almost all 44 members of station over boulders to Gamage Point, the tip of Anvers Island that extends furthest into the harbor; we were all united by some instinctive desire to be as close to the whales as possible. As we scanned for spouts, the shout came, “look, a leopard!,” and a moment later, a leopard seal swam right up to the rock on which one of the waste management specialists perched. Leopard seals don’t tend to act aggressively towards humans, but their combination of curiosity, mass, and sharp teeth makes them quite dangerous. This seal decided we weren’t very interesting and dove out of sight, allowing us to turn our attention back to the whales. For twenty minutes, we watched them spout and breach, even swimming into Hero Inlet, which is only seventeen meters deep.

The white belly of one whale made us think it may be an orca, a species that has been seen in the area in past years, but not yet this season. The whale researchers set us straight later, and it turns out our friend is actually a humpback with unusual markings. Dozens of humpbacks have been frequenting Arthur Harbor and the surrounding area lately, delighting everyone. Check out the new pictures on the Photo page!

All in all, the pace of life at Palmer has picked up with the new year. On January first, I boarded the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam with a group of eleven others, in order to be part of two question and answer presentations. We left for the ship at 5:30 am and spent a dizzying day aboard. Highlights included eating fresh fruit and drinking Earl Grey, both of which had been missed at station for weeks, passing through the gorgeous Lemaire Channel, seeing small children, and meeting people from all over the world. Even though the new scenery and change of pace were welcome, it felt great to see a zodiac pulling alongside the ship to take us home that afternoon.

The next day, the Gould arrived, bringing with it fresh food, mail, and a boatload of scientists ready for the annual Long Term Ecological Research cruise. This cruise, which returns to many of the same sites every year, collects data about phytoplankton, penguins, whales, bacteria, seals, zooplankton, and more, which the scientists then spin into a fantastically comprehensive picture of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. We spent the weekend in a constant stream of activity, offloading and onloading cargo, preparing labs for the cruise, and welcoming new members of the community. After sending the Gould off last Monday morning, we’ve settled into a routine again, albeit a very different one, including plums, new personnel, and bountiful whales. 2015 is off to a great start here, and I hope it is for you too!


One thought on “The New Year and the Visit of the Not-Orcas

  1. Great post and so many wonderful new pictures! Happy New Year to you and everyone on station, and thanks for sharing your adventures with us. A question: When is the latest we can get mail to USAP in Colorado for the next silver trunk to Palmer Station, and is that the last time we can get snail mail to you? Take good care and here’s wishing that the ratio of whale and Adelie sightings to leopards remains HIGH. Please do a polar plunge for us! xo


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