What We Learned From Circling Birds

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On Lake Erie, when you look out over the water and see birds circling it usually means there are schools of bait fish near the surface, or, depending on the type of birds, it could mean a decaying snack. Today we learned that down here there is a third possibility. Especially when the birds are accompanied by:

Antarctica Part 1 1649The dorsal fin of a killer whale.

Then four:

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Well, it doesn’t take long to figure out they’ve killed something big, and now the feast begins:

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Or, rather, the frenzy:

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At the time of this event, the naturalist on board speculated that the victim was probably a baby Humpback. Well, that had us all bummin’. It wasn’t until we got back and we started going through thousands of these photos that we found the culprits in the act.

In the picture below one Killer is kind enough to bring the victim, most likely a sea lion, to the surface for the dining pleasure of his friends. For good reason, it appears that killer whales don’t care to dive thousands of feet down just for a bite. A large part of their effort went to keeping the corpus delecti near the surface. By the way, I bear no ill will to sea lions, but if it turned out to be a baby humpback, I wasn’t going to tell you. I know how you people are!

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We found that the table manners of Killer Whales could stand improvement. You will see a very large piece hanging from this whale’s jaw:

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What started as a small group of four, by the time the carnage was over became a large group of around fourteen. It would have been something to have a microphone in the water. I’m sure there would have been lots of chatter. At last, dinner was winding down.

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Of course, still pictures can only tell so much. I posted the video on YouTube:

(Sorry for the camera shake!)

As we were crossing the Drake Passage we were informed by lecturers that a team from the US program at Palmer Station would be coming on board the ship on our second day here to tell us what they’ve been doing and how life is in such a place. Later, the captain came on the PA and said he had received a call from Palmer Station and was advised that the weather forecast for tomorrow was not good, so they were coming on board today. As if we hadn’t already had enough excitement!. Sure enough, I went out on the balcony and here came two Zodiaks:

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Soon they were knocking on the door!

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They passed by quite an iceberg on the way in:

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After dropping off the science crew, the two Zodiaks headed back. That is Palmer Station in the background. Apparently an iceberg has come to call in their harbor.

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A lot of people thought that as soon as they got on board they would want showers or laundry or something like that. Not so. They have all that stuff at the station. What they really wanted was salads and fresh fruit. The crew made sure they were well fed before their presentation. The first lady who spoke was introduced as the head of Palmer, but that doesn’t quite match up with the staff list on their web site. She is a scientist and might be in charge of research or of outreach or both. Or she might be the Queen of Antarctica. I should have kept better notes.

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She introduced the team and talked generally about the research being done at Palmer, which has to do with climate, oceanography, penguin studies (they are the canaries in our global mine), and much more. Then she turned it over to one of the scientists dealing with climate:

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This is how the ice shelf has changed at Palmer since 1975. That is not true of Antarctica as a whole, however, as in some areas there is growth. Antarctica is the last, largely unpolluted, area on Earth left for climate study. The impact of the studies done here have a global reach. Except they have apparently not reached Florida yet. Then is was time to meet the team:

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First there was a presentation from the lady on the right, who is not from Palmer, but has some connection to it.

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Then each member of the team had a chance to talk about what they do. All the science people applied for grants through the National Science Foundation and were funded to come here to complete and publish their projects. A few are undergrads but most are Masters or Doctorate level researchers. Some of the people presenting were part of the support team. The guy in the knit cap is a carpenter who came here because he was sick of Minnesota winters. Another of the support team, a plumber, got here simply by Googling “Jobs in Antarctica”. There was a lengthy Q&A which was very informative and funny. Then is was time for them to go back. What an impressive team it was!

If you are interested, here is the link to the Palmer Station web site:


And, the National Science Foundation site related to Palmer and polar studies:


Well, what a big day our first day in Antarctica had been! We thought our adventures were over. Not so fast! The Zaandam has an on-board water purification system which produces water of good, but not drinking quality. As a result, we are not allowed to discharge waste into Antarctic water. We had to go 12 miles offshore. Well, as it turned out, the bad weather forecast for tomorrow arrived early. We found ourselves rolling for awhile, then the captain brought out the stabilizers. What a difference! Here were the conditions as noted on our TV monitor:

Apparent wind is the wind you feel when you are in motion. With the data from the screen I calculated the true wind at 64 mph. The waves were running 15 ft. plus. On a small boat, the quickest way to visit Davy Jone’s Locker is to take a wave on the side. But small boats don’t have stabilizers. (Wish they did!). The captain took all the seas on the side and kept us at an angle of heel of about 10 degrees.  How do I know? We were rolling pretty well when we were in the open ocean some time back so I took my ear buds, added some weight and made my own inclinometer:

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On that night, the black thingy extended past the dark stripe on the right. Using sticky notes on this screen I have calculated the sustained angle of heel to be about 10 degrees. Enough to cause slight discomfort, but not enough to have you throwing on your life jacket as you run screaming in your underwear down the hall. At last we were having the weather some of us hoped for!

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