It all started in the wee small hours – I won’t say ‘sunrise’ as there hadn’t been one for weeks – but Janet (my room-mate) was having a shower and I was snoozing in the bottom bunk, contemplating getting up.
A hushed whisper came over the tannoy – Dick, one of the naturalists, apologising for waking us but, if anyone was interested, THERE WAS A BLUE WHALE ON THE STARBOARD BOW! He had maintained the whisper, but my brain turned it into a shout – I leapt up, got dressed for zero degrees in record time and dashed to top deck (thus assuring my cardio exercise for the year).
One of our Gardening Australia group, Anne, had spotted it, and it was thrilling to see – the largest animal known to have lived, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). It quietly meandered near the boat for quite a while, and Bruce again took much better shots that I did.
I’m used to seeing lots of humpies (Megaptera novaeangliae) along the east coast of Australia, and they often breach. Blue whales also do, but this one was not so energetic.
The blue whale is a baleen whale, sieving up to 6 tonnes of krill and copepods a day from the summer waters, and summer in the Arctic provides lots of prey through upwelling of currents.
Like other whales, blues were heavily hunted, almost to extinction, and the numbers haven’t increased much since then. They are estimated to live to 80-90 years of age. Females don’t start reproducing until 10-15 years old and give birth to a single calf every two or three years, so the rate of increase is slow. They are protected from hunting these days (world population estimate is 10,000), but orcas occasionally kill them and the most disturbing death rates (for all whales) are those from ship strike and plastic ingestion.
Here’s a handy guide for identifying levitating whales:
But you are more likely to see this in the distance, if the whale is even on the surface:
On one of our land excursions, we came across two vertebrae of (probably) an old kill by humans. Things take ages to break down in the Arctic due to the extreme cold and fewer breakdown bacteria.
It was another of those ‘gosh, wow’ days in Svalbard.