Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Humpback Whales!

Hello Possums! Welcome to 2017. I hope you all had a stellar festive period. My services as a doctor have been marginally more in demand than my skills as a seamstress recently which is refreshingly different. Nothing scary I hasten to add; it just means that the other seat in my surgery has been put to a slightly different use than being the receptacle of my knitting wool.

And this has shaken me out of the post-Christmas sloth! I was sinking into a certain level of torpor; failing to do any exercise and eating many, many biscuits. Things had reached the point where I was starting to blame the snugness of my jeans on an over-powerful tumble drier setting. Denial is great! But having to move out of my comfy doctor chair (it doesn’t swivel. It really should swivel) has done me a huge amount of good and I’ve actually hit the gym twice this week.

Very wisely, however, I’ve decided not to burden myself with too many changes at once so I’m still eating quite a lot of rubbish. I became very upset today when I realised that one measly day after the new chocolate bar selection had been put out in the bar, some horrible little individual had bought all the Bourneville chocolate at once! Hoarding it in fact! I was very close to losing all sense of perspective. How on earth am I supposed to cope when I’ve run out of my own supplies? But then I attempted to recover said perspective and thought about the fact that I have formed the resolution of becoming a new and better Helen this year. A Helen 2.0 in fact. Rock hard abs are an integral part of this beautiful inner vision; on a slightly lower level of priority I might think about trying to read more medical papers. But obviously the abs are the most salient point and so someone buying up all the Bourneville probably isn’t that terrible...

I think part of my inertia recently has been down to a slightly glum mood that has settled over the ship. This cruise has been tough psychologically for everyone. Bad weather and the thickness of the ice around Rothera have meant that the end of the cruise has been put back a number of times. Understandably people are very keen to get home to their families and friends; the delays are frustrating for everyone. The fact that this particular science cruise has no fixed destination is also quite difficult to deal with. I think it’s easier to cope with the idea of a cruise that is going somewhere; if the ship is constantly tacking backwards and forwards over the same patch of ocean then there is nothing to look forward to (however valuable the scientific data acquired is).  My dad was looking at the ship’s tracker and asked me if the captain had dropped something as we just seem to meander back and forth!

We should have something to look forward to soon though. The science should shortly come to an end and then we can start to make for Rothera. By now the onset of summer should mean that the ice has started to break up and the relief of Rothera can begin at last. I’m very excited by the thought of seeing my Rothera buddy; I’m told that I have a painting in return for the quilt that I made her! And I’ve got my fingers very tightly crossed for some cross country skiing. I also have an excellent quiz planned for the day after the science finishes which will mean that everyone can at least focus on trying to lynch me for asking such ridiculous questions instead!

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom though. Two days ago we were lucky enough to be visited by a pod of Humpback whales. We were sat on station and the whales obviously wanted to take a closer look at us. I was standing on the Monkey Island with the idea of getting an excellent view from above but one of our scientists clearly had a better idea than that! She was up on the bow just as one of the whales surfaced and exhaled. The poor women was enveloped in fishy breath and I could hear her shrieks from up on high. I may have sniggered a little bit. The whales circled us for fifteen minutes or so before deciding to head off into the ocean, one of them lazily flipping a fin in what seemed like a farewell salute to us.
Photo taken by Alexander Burton-Johnson

Photo taken by Jeremy Robst

Photo taken by Jeremy Robst

The friendliness of our humpbacks is probably not that unusual. Humpbacks have been known to interact playfully with bottlenose dolphins and they’ve apparently been seen in mixed-species groups that involved minke, fin and sperm whales. Wikipedia also tells me that humpback whales have been known to defend other species from the predations of killer whales. They’re clearly intelligent hunters using something termed as the “bubblenet” method of hunting. A group of cooperating whales swim beneath a school of fish and blow bubbles in ever tightening circles around them. The fish are unable to escape from the whales because of the bubbles and eventually one of the whales will pop up through the centre of the bubbles and take a big mouthful of all the fish!

In the context of their obvious intelligence, curiosity and social behaviours, it’s heartbreaking to note that they were hunted to the verge of extinction by whalers. Estimates suggest that the global population of Humpbacks dropped by as much as 90% during the height of the whaling years. Their stocks are now recovering and in some areas their numbers approach their estimated levels before the days of whaling.

Other than looking at sea mammals and doing a bit of doctoring, I’ve spent a lot of my time crafting. I felt that I needed a wee break from sewing after doing the quilt, the fishing net and the strange red canvas sock that lives on the monkey deck so I’ve been knitting instead. I rashly agreed to knit my other half a jumper before I left the UK. I’ve resisted making him anything for a long time because...I’m a deeply selfish knitter. When people ask me to make them something my usual response is “No, but I’ll teach you how to knit.” Strangely most people’s enthusiasm for the item seems to wane at this point! (Although I have also become a strange sort of knitting Johnny Appleseed, spreading knitting clubs wherever I go.) But I felt that as I was disappearing for nine months, my good girlfriend points might need resuscitating so he’s getting a very snazzy cardigan. The lucky son of a gun!

Anyhow, that’s enough babbling from me. I shall leave you with the advice that if you wish to look at some very pretty pictures of Antarctica you should go to Rich is the purser on board and apparently something of a dab hand with the old camera...



  1. Happy New Year Helen!! Love hearing about your adventure!! Xxx

    1. Thanks Beth! Glad you're enjoying! I hope the move went swimmingly? Happy New Year to you too! Hx