Last evening we left the Falklands with its pleasing person-to-sheep ratio (only 3,000 people live in the Falklands; we toured one person’s sheep ranch that occupies a mere 15,000 acres.). Before we were entirely clear of the islands, we crossed a commuter highway for thousands of Sooty Shearwaters that were headed back to their nesting island for the night. I feel so familiar with these birds, but I think it’s the first time I’ve been near a Sooty Shearwater breeding colony during breeding season. I’ve usually seen them at the far end of their epic annual migrations, when they’ve reached high into the northern hemisphere and are traveling up off New York and New England, or, in the case of the New Zealand-breeding population, down the coast of northern California.
Today dawned upon us in the Scotia Sea between the Falklands and South Georgia Island, finding us heading into the morning sun. The crossing is about 600 miles.
The early morning brought contact with a pod of Killer Whales, having at least one adult male, several females and a juvenile. These big-brained ultimate predators are truly awesome to behold at sea.
The whales traveled in several sub-groups over a wide area marked by a large concentration of albatrosses, petrels, and prions. It seemed possible the whales had been feeding on a kill, and that its scent brought the birds in for scraps. I also thought it possible that the birds were hunting in an area full of squid or other food, and that this food also attracted some seals that the whales were hunting (we did not notice any seals, but there were several light oily slicks that might have come from large concentrations of animals such as squid). It was only later, reviewing photos, that we noticed one of the whales was carrying a hefty piece of flesh. So they had in fact made a kill just a little while before we came into the area.
Killer Whales, or Orcas, are the largest members of the dolphin family. They are among the most interesting animals in the world for another reason: About half a dozen “types” are found in the ocean, and in some places several types overlap in the same areas. Some range widely and hunt other marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals. Others, often in the same areas, are more local and hunt only fish. These types differ in color from the familiar black-and-white, such as the mammal hunters we saw today, to little-known Antarctic types that are smaller, with differently shaped fins, an almost greenish-gray color, and creamy light patches. Recent work by Robert Pitman and his colleagues indicates that some of these types should be considered separate species. They are likely the largest “undiscovered” creatures left on Earth.
We continued enjoying the company of several Royal Albatrosses. Today’s new birds included the brown-above-light-below Atlantic Petrel, and, most excitingly, that great grandmaster of the air—wielding the longest wings in nature at eleven feet tip-to-tip—the Wandering Albatross.
The weather has been exceptional and unusual for our entire trip so far. Last time I made this crossing, the Scotia Sea hurled at us a storm so great that it’s shrieking, foam-filled 60-knot winds and towering 30-to-50-foot seas stopped our 250-foot ship for 22 hours. Today though, we had such calm seas and so little wind that albatrosses were actually beginning to sit down; there was not enough wind to fill the great sails of their wings. These birds rely on wind to cover distance; Royal and Wandering Albatrosses are so adapted to gliding that they can’t really fly or even get airborne without a breeze. Mind you, sailors call these latitudes, where the wind can scream around the bottom of the world unimpeded by land, the “roaring forties” and “furious fifties.” They are normally the windiest place in any ocean. So, a question arises: what’s going on?
This day that opened with Orcas was bookended by sightings of other marine mammals. I had fleeting looks at a pod of dolphins new to me: Hourglass Dolphins with curved “falcate” shaped fins and white markings. And, we came upon a massive Fin Whale, the second-largest animal in the world. (It’s far larger than any dinosaur, and its cousin, the Blue Whale, is the largest animal known to have ever lived.)