Thar She Blows

Having appeased the cosmos with our little musical offering we had now to round up our New Years resolutions and slip back quickly into navigation mode. Speculating that we may be able to use our return sail to South America for something positive in the whale study vein, we had offered to take a group of volunteers organised by Falklands Conservation on a reconnaisance tour of the West Falklands Group. It had been noticed in recent years that a sizeable population of sei whales had been gathering in the area of Berkeley Sound, close north of Stanley and FC had made some inroads into a new study of this group led by researcher Caroline Weir. It seemed pretty likely that we would be too early in the season to sight any whales this year, but as Keri and I chugged our way out of Stanley Harbour to head west, just as we passed the Cape Pembroke light an enormous, sleek, black sei whale surfaced right beside Saoirse, lingered for nearly half a minute before retiring its huge bulk back below the surface. Game On!

It’s always a bit of a nerve wracking occupation getting round the north coast of the East Falkland and back into the shelter of West Falkland, so we sped over this 110 mile stretch as fast as possible, gaining the anchorage of Ships Harbour just before another full gale blew through. The plan was to meet the first group of FC volunteers at Hill Cove the following day, but a tense adventure with the anchor chain which had twisted badly in our haste to leave Stanley and refused to be winched back aboard, had us stuck there for a day longer. Still , we managed to embark the first group without problem. One of the main planks of these studies has been an effort to identify individual whales by dint of the time-honored technique of photographing the specific markings on their dorsal fins. This technique has so far been missing from our own efforts in Patagonia so we were dead keen to get a handle on how it is done from more experienced people. We were introduced to the concept of “effort”. Being “On effort” means having rotating groups of experienced observers on deck full time, scanning for the presence of whales and recording as much data as we could from each sighting. It takes a stubborn determinedness and is definitely an English pursuit; it works as long as an endless supply of tea is maintained. Also, we hoped to gain valuable experience deploying our new hydrophone, an extremely sensitive instrument which can record frequencies as low as 5 Hz. This is the basso profundo of sea sounds which we first captured last year in Patagonia. This technique we also hope to apply in Patagonia this year, since accoustics promises to be a powerful tool where vision fails us.

After a slow first day, our good omen at Cape Pembroke proved correct and we were rewarded over the next days with dozens of sei whale sightings and close passes. The reason sei whales are so thinly studied is that it has hitherto been virtually impossible to get close to them. To my knowledge, very few have ever been successfully satellite tagged in the wild, but after some days of close observation it was exciting to speculate how this might be accomplished. To understand their large scale movements in the sea is key to understanding and protecting this most enigmatic of species. Who knows what other secrets of the deep may also be entrained with these studies?

Over the next 10 days, with two teams of volunteers ably organised by Andy Stanworth of FC, we cruised slowly down the outer western edges of the Falklands as weather permitted, logging sightings, manoeuvring Saoirse into positions where recognisable fin photos might be taken and drinking copious quantities of tea whilst being supremely grateful that we could definitively record the presence of these graceful creatures in the season allotted to us.

Rounding out the whole trip, we stopped off at Beaver Island where Jerome Poncet has spent his life with his two expedition boats Damien II and Golden Fleece. He lent us the benefit of his massive experience in Southern Ocean sailing and we happily waited out a succession of westerly gales there while spending time in his wind and solar powered workshop, thrashing Saoirse’s engine room back into order after installing the new generator.

Next: Back to South America and into the summer program.

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