Errera Channel, Port Lockroy
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
So begins Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick, considered by many to be one of the greatest American novels written to date. Melville speaks of the Yankee-era of whaling, man against leviathan, the brave and courageous against a dark and sinister greater force. This epic tale romanticizes the notion of whaling, and makes for an incredible stage on which to paint the struggle of whalers and the harshness of the life they lead.
Fast forward to the 20th century; gone are the Nantucket sleigh rides and the idea of a man standing in a small boat and hurling a harpoon into the back of his quarry. All of this has been replaced by mechanized, industrialized, and efficient whaling methods brought on by the industrial revolution and faster and more efficient ships and techniques. Whaling had transformed from the romantic to the tragic, as wholesale slaughter of whales had become the order of the day. Everywhere we travel on this expedition; the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, and even the Falkland Islands there will be signs to remind us of this past chapter of human endeavors.
Sunrise this morning found all on board National Geographic Explorer surrounded by whales in the Errera Channel. Fin, humpback, and minke whales were all feeding in and amongst the pack ice as the ship headed for Neko Harbor in Andvord Bay. Ice conditions simply wouldn’t allow us into our original planned destination so we diverted to Paradise Bay, where we had even more encounters with our blubbery friends. To the casual observer it would seem that whales are everywhere here in Antarctica, but those of us in the know recognize how truly special it was to see fin whales so deep in the Gerlache Strait.
Our afternoon was spent at Port Lockroy, partially on Jougla Point on Wiencke Island. Here man’s past relationship with whales is on full display as literally hundreds of bones lie strewn along the beach, evidence of the shore-based whaling station that used to process whales here. The numbers of whales killed in the Southern Ocean in the 20th century are simply staggering; more than 725,000 fin, 360,000 blue, 208,000 humpback and 400,000 sperm whales were taken in an industry that drove these species to commercial extinction. In total over two million whales were killed and processed in the Southern Ocean. To put that number in perspective; that’s 56 whales killed each and every day of the year, for each and every year of the 20th century!
Sailing back into the Gerlache Strait after dinner the plight of whales was left behind as a waxing moon was rising off the port beam and the setting sun bathed the entire sea around us in glorious pastel pinks, reds, and oranges. Humpback and minke whales continued to show themselves amongst the ice when a small pod of killer whales surfaced off the starboard bow, surrounded by ice in a molten sea of warm colors. Surely there is a place for wild whales in this Southern Ocean, and more importantly, perhaps we humans can recognize, cherish, and protect just such a concept.