Blue whales in the Denmark Strait

29 Jul 2011

Blue whales cure seasickness. Or they stave it off for a while, at least.

We woke this morning in the Denmark Strait where a great upwelling of water flows out into the world ocean. Water from this 900-kilometre wide strait takes about 1000 years to reach the Southern Ocean. It is home to the largest creatures ever to inhabit the planet -- the blue whale. This morning we saw at least three of them, including a mother and calf that came so close to the ship that you thought you could touch them.

Their arrival precipitated a rebirth of sorts. The Denmark Strait is notorious for its rough waters. Since we left the protected waters of the northwestern peninsula of Iceland we have been cruising at about 20 knots directly into the wind. The ship’s up and down motion in the swells had the predictable results and dinner was a dismal affair with diners few and far between. Most of the students and a lot of the staff had taken to their beds or spent hours walking the decks hoping the fresh air would cure their seasickness.

When the whales were spotted at around 0800 an announcement was made over the ship’s intercom. Suddenly, people at appeared at the deck rails, cameras and binoculars in hand. The mother and calf stayed with us for nearly an hour, running along just below the surface of the grey water, their blue hides visible from the ship. They surfaced many times, presenting their blow holes and backs in a slow arc that revealed only a small portion of their massive bodies.

It is rare to spot a blue whale. There are a few old Arctic hands on board who had not spotted one until today. And the students, many of whom had emerged like Lazarus from their cabins, saw them on their first day at sea. It has led to some speculation about what else might be in store in the coming days. In fact, we saw more whale spouts tonight but they were much farther off and whatever they were -- and the speculation was blues by the size and frequency as well as the length of time between dives -- they didn’t want to play near the ship.

We are bound for the southeast coast of Greenland and expect to see land by morning. Our goal is to make our way through the ice, which the charts tell us is thick along the coast, into Napassorssuaq Fjord. Very few of the fjords in this part of Greenland are charted. That means were don’t know how deep they are. But the captain of this vessel has been there, and he has made his own chart and it shows a depth in places up to 500 metres, plenty to bring in the ship.

If we can’t get into the fjord, we will play in the ice. We’ll drop the rubber zodiacs over the side and cruise in the ice. Because in the Arctic, where there is ice there is life. We’ll be on the lookout for polar bears, seals, walrus and the illusive narwhal with its singular tusk.

The wind dropped tonight as we came into the lee of Greenland. The water is calmer, and reflected back the blue sky that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The energy is back and the students have gone to bed anticipating more adventure tomorrow.



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