FOURNIER BAY, Antarctica — If there is a more beautiful place on Earth than here on a sunny, cloudless day, it’s hard to imagine it.
Mount Francois rises to a height of more than 2,000 metres, surrounded by ice sheets riven with cracks and slumps that will eventually give way and spill tonnes of ice into the ocean.
Iceberg glow aquamarine blue, while bergy bits glisten, translucent or black with no air bubbles to add colour.
It is an incredible scene that belies the fact that NASA scientists have determined that climate change is having greater effects here than anywhere else on the continent with melting glaciers and lower annual sea ice.
In addition to the glorious ice, there are humpback whales seemingly everywhere we looked.
A female with a calf and a juvenile make a bubble net, enclosing the krill — the tiny crustaceans which are the mainstay of their diet. The bubbles force the krill into the middle and then the whales hoover in the water and then strain it through their baleen to catch the krill.
Others fed in pairs or alone. All of them gorging on krill before they begin their annual migration northward. It is the longest migration by any mammals for these humpbacks, who will spend the Antarctic winter near the equator.
Clearly undisturbed by either the Zodiac or the soft thrum of the engine, everywhere we go in the bay humpbacks seem unconcerned with our presence.
They rise to the surface with a huge sigh and dive again, graceful, slow and deliberate. It’s no wonder they were a primary prey for whalers in the last century, who hunted them almost to extinction.
They come close enough that we are able to see their barnacled heads rising out of the water, their pectoral fins and, as they dive, their flukes — each fluke as unique as a human fingerprint.
A humpback whale dives in Fournier Bay, while feeding on krill in the rich Antarctic waters. The fluke is as distinctive as a human fingerprint.
Although minkes are known to frequent this bay, we didn’t see any. They, too, feed on krill. They’re smaller than humpbacks, fast moving and prefer to remain among the sea ice and ‘bergy bits to evade their predators. They are believed to be the most populous of all the whales. But there is little data on them.
After an incredible morning of whales and icebergs, ice sheets and sunshine, we move further south along the Gerlache Channel to Georges Point.
After nearly two weeks without seeing other ships, we suddenly find ourselves in a bay with three others including One Ocean Expedition’s other ship, Akademik Vavilov, plus a larger cruise ship and a Greenpeace ship.
Greenpeace is here mainly to raise awareness about the incredible richness of this area and to bolster support for this area to be declared a marine sanctuary by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Slumping glaciers and sea ice in Fournier Bay appear to engulf the Akademik Ioffe on a sunny summer day in February. It’s an illusion. But this part of Antarctica is most affected by climate change with lower annual sea ice and a faster retreat of glaciers than other parts of the continent.
While humpback whales are quite obviously making a strong comeback from near-extinction, blues are still endangered as are fin and sei whales.
While Greenpeace spokesman Willie Mackenzie credits the International Whaling Commission for having stopped whaling here, he said it lacks the power to protect other species including krill, which is being fished more heavily than before.
“Antarctica is relatively simple, almost everything that lives there is only one or two steps away from krill,” Greenpeace spokesman Willie Mackenzie said in a recent telephone interview.
It means that if something happens to krill, the whole ecosystem collapses, which is why the European Union first proposed creating a sanctuary at last October’s meeting of the Commission.
In addition to raising awareness of the area and the proposal, Mackenzie said Greenpeace is here trying to “shore up the scientific case for protecting this area. One of the challenges is that there is not a lot of information … we hope to add to that in the Weddell Sea using submarines.”
What is known is that every four years when there is an El Niño event that raises the water temperature by 1.5 degrees C, the krill stock collapses and produces a cascading effect, says Tony Martin, an animal conservation professor from the University of Dundee.
Penguin parents leave their chicks to die because they can barely find enough food to feed themselves.
So, as the ocean water warms with climate change, what will happen? Nobody knows. But as Martin says, El Niño years suggest that it could be catastrophic.
As the day winds down, we see another humpback resting or “logging” right up against an iceberg. It takes a look at us and slowly dives. We can see its body in the clear turquoise water as its huge white fluke rises in the air.
A few minutes later, we hear its sigh and even at about 400 metres away, we can see its fluke before it descends once again.