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Valentines day massacre -14th Feb 2010

This morning at breakfast the talk was, for once, not about Killer whales. Rather, it was about who had remembered (or not) to send messages, flowers, chocolates…. to their partners back home. But by 7:30am we had whales. They were Type A’s – the big black and white whale killers. There were about 20 together in a tight social group, shallow breathing in the flat calm golden morning water. They were super aware of our boat. Tom and I got a few shots and then we backed the boat right off and waited.

They stayed tight and social untill about 11am. Then they turned north and sped up.  At about midday they fanned out over what looked like about 5 miles and continued north.  Something was afoot. Everything felt right but no one on board the Fleece breathed a word of how right it felt. It’s pretty easy to jinx these situations with too much chat I have found. At about 1.30 Bob shouted up a big splash about 2 miles to the west. I got my binoculars on it. It was a Minke whale porpoising with Killers in hot pursuit and, thank the sweet lord, they were coming straight for us. Dion took the helm and with a huge cloud of blue smoke opened up the throttle on the Golden Fleece’s diesels and turned to intercept. The pursuit was much faster than I imagined, a sustained 9-10 knots. The Minke was fully porpoising – throwing it’s 10 metre, 5 ton body mostly out the water just like a dolphin. Only the female Killers could keep up, the males and Juveniles lagged way behind. The females flanked the Minke keeping close to it’s head. On board everything was running well. Tom and I were well coordinated by producer Liz. Dion’s skill at the helm kept us close but not too close. John and Bob the scientists worked furiously covering the event in stills. Everyone was ready for the kill. Honestly, I expected it to last twenty minutes tops. The Killer whales chased that Minke whale for two and a half hours. They ran it down over 25 miles. In the end they tore a massive section of blubber off it’s back just below the dorsal fin. The Minke whale slowed which allowed the big male Killer whales to catch up . Once they were there they killed it. I think they were ramming blows underwater. The Minke Whale shuddered a couple of times. And then a male came along side, put it’s chin on the top of the Minke’s head, pushed it underwater and drowned it. I usually have no trouble staying dispassionate and disconnected at these events. I see my job as the recorder. I didn’t feel that today. In the moments after death, as I watched the Storm Petrols pick tiny droplets fat from the surface of the water, I felt the loss of the life of the Minke whale in my heart with an ache of true sadness.

Chin! – 10th Feb 2010

I love this picture! It’s taken by John Durban one of the biologists we worked with. John spends most of his time taking pictures of dorsal fins that he then uses to identify individual whales. Dorsal fins are great because you always see them when the whales rises to breath and most importantly, they are all different. Usually the dorsal and a bit of the back is all you see of the Killer whales from the surface. However, whenever whales are moving fast, especially in rough water, there is a chance you might see a bit more of the head. Whenever John sees this happen he shouts “Chin” – referring to the fact the killer whale is showing a bit of the lower jaw. This is a classic bit of “Chin”!!


Bob and John – 8th Feb 2010

Bob Pitman and John Durban.  Armed but mostly harmless.  Our NOAA scientists take there positions once more for another season with Antarctic Killers Whales.  We worked with these guys last year on the Killer whale wave-washing sequence for Frozen Planet.  It is truly a pleasure to be in the field with them again.

Bob Pitman and John Durban © Doug Anderson

Bob Pitman and John Durban © Doug Anderson

Types of Killer Whales – 7th Feb 2010

Jerome Poncet

Jerome Poncet at the wheel of the "Golden Fleece" © Doug Anderson

So we sail on the beautiful “Golden Fleece” once more from the Falkland Islands to the cold south. A very similar crew to last years killer whale killing season save the substitution of cameraman Tom Fitz for Doug Allan and Producer Liz White for Kathryn Jeffs. We are going for Killer whales again but not the pack-Ice Type B’s of last year. Type B’s? I should explain. There are 4 “Types” of Killer whales in the Antarctic. They are called Type A,B,C and D. Each Type looks quite different to the next and they all seem to live in very different ways. A’s look like your classic black and white Killer whale. We find them mainly offshore (away from land and ice) and they seem to kill baleen whales – probably mostly antarctic Minke whales. Type B’s are what we filmed last year. They are brown and white with a big eyepatch and are heavily associated with the pack-ice. They seem to kill mainly seals (sometimes by wave-washing). Type C’s are small fish eating Killer whales only found in the Ross-sea. Type D’s are rarely seen. They live well offshore and have a tiny eyepatch (it’s almost gone). On this trip we are looking for mainly A’s and B’s. But we don’t need anymore wave washing behaviour. Last year we found hundreds (about 350) type B killer whales, and a few type A’s, miles north of the pack ice in the straits around the islands near the top of the Antarctic peninsula. They must be feeding on something. We suspect they are using the straits to pick off Minke whales and possibly elephant seals as they migrate south.  The straits act like a kind of funnel for animals as they travel south. I’m not sure if it happens here but certainly in other parts of the world Killer whales use straits and passages as ambush points. So we have a plan. Stay north and see what they are all killing. If they kill, film it and hope it makes a piece of television. So simple, should be easy …….right?

Captain Scott’s Hut – 26th Nov 2009

Today we visited the base hut of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. It’s not far from where we’ve been diving at Cape Evans. One of the girls from Carey came out with us and brought the key. We drove the Piston-bully there between dives. It was a beautiful, quiet, touching experience I think for all of us. Everything is perfect and untouched. The stores are still on the shelves. The sheets are on the beds. The papers lay on desks as if just put down. Everything is one hundred years old. And all of it is as Scott would have seen it before leaving for the pole. He died, exhausted in a tent not 60 miles from here. I felt sad to think he never had the peaceful feeling of relief coming home to this place.

Grand day out! 25th Nov 2009

Lots of this job I do requires trust. Trusting the skills of the people I work with to keep me safe.  And they must trust me too.  Today was all about trust.  Today we went diving in a Helicopter.  There were four of us – me, Hugh my assistant, Steve a diver from the base and Kathryn our producer.  We packed the Bell 212 early and flew 105 miles to Granite harbour.  Once we got there we had three minutes to fly around and find a crack or a hole to dive through – the helicopter just didn’t have the fuel for more time.  We touched down and the crew dumped us and the gear on the ice.  The helicopter took off and left us.  We found a seal hole just big enough to get through with the filming equipment.   My assistant Hugh and I got our gear on and dived in.  We spend over 3 hours in the water.  Nine hours after it had dropped us off the helicopter came back.  We packed our gear and flew back to Macmurdo.  Days like today don’t happen without everyone involved having the absolute highest skill-sets.  But thats not enough.  There was no way to make today risk free. No amount of paper work could make it totally safe.  We had to trust each other.  We did and together pulled off the single most exhilarating days diving of my life.

Drill baby drill! – 19th Nov 2009

This is how you drill a dive hole in 6′ of sea ice Macmurdo stylie!

Macmurdo Sound Antarctica - Drilling a dive hole

Macmurdo Sound Antarctica - Drilling a dive hole

Macmurdo Sound Antarctica - Drilling a dive hole

Brinicle? What’s a Brinicle? 12th November 2009

Tonight Hugh Miller is the happiest little cameraman in Antarctica.  Hugh has been moonlighting – if such a thing is possible in 24 hour daylight.  By day he has been doing the underwater lighting for me and by night he has been finishing the build on his latest underwater time-lapse rig.  Simply, it’s a couple of digital cameras, in underwater housings, that take pictures every few seconds – when you play back the pictures the whole scene is sped up hundreds of times.  He finished it 3 days ago and today he captured in time-lapse a “Brinicle” growing.

6 weeks ago I’d never heard of a Brinicle either.  So here is the science bit.  They look like giant underwater icicles and hang from underneath the sea-ice.  They can be as big as a foot wide and 30 feet long.  They grow because when the sea-ice gets cold and freezes a very salty brine is also formed which does not freeze – don’t ask why, I did and regretted it.  The Brine is heavier than sea water so starts to flow down through the pores and cracks in the sea-ice.  In places it flows out so thick you can see it like a sort of underwater haze.  Because the Brine is colder than the water it starts to freeze it.  When conditions are right this freezing starts forming a tube.  The Brine flows through the centre of the tube and freezes water as it flows out the end.  And that is how a brinicle forms.

There are lots of little ones growing all over the place, and a few big dead ones, but we didn’t find a large one in the process of growing until a week ago.  It was 8 feet long with brine pouring out of it. Hugh and I filmed it with my camera and then came back to the hut to warm up.  We went back in about 2 hours later.  It had grown by 2 foot, hit the seabed and then formed a river of ice about a foot wide running 25feet down the slope.  It was carnage. Urchins and starfish had been frozen into the ice river.  Some were still alive but most had already snuffed it.  It was amazing and we got good coverage.  That evening we dared to talk of another that we could cover with the Time-lapse gear – not yet, at that time, completely built yet.

This morning, in almost exactly the same spot, we found another.  It was the first time that Hugh’s time-lapse rig had ever been in sea water.  The Brinicle we found was about 3 feet from the seabed and flowing really well.  Hugh and I swam the cameras and lights across.  Hugh pressed go.  We came back 3 hours later.  It had done the same as the first – hit the sea bed and made an Ice river down the slope.  Hugh reset the cameras and pressed go again.  We went in late and dragged the cameras out.  Hugh has just rendered the image sequence into short films.  They are rough but the results are amazing.  It looks like a witches spell.  A dangerous finger of growing ice extends down and captures the poor little urchins and starfish in an icy web.  Some make it away just in time but most are frozen in. It is one of the wildest weirdest things I have ever seen in wildlife.  This is going to be  a sweeeeeet little sequence!

Mactown! – 27th Oct 2009

Well here it is! It’s not pretty but it’s home.

Macmurdo © Hugh Miller

Macmurdo © Hugh Miller

Below freezing – 23rd Oct 2009

Click for Weddel Seal calls

I’m 4 weeks in to this 10 week trip  and right now my life revolves around  diving down through a 3 foot wide hole in the 8 foot thick sea-ice to inhabit a super cold, super clear underwater playground for as long as my body can take it.  The water in Macmurdo sound is the coldest and clearest surface water on the planet.  500 foot visibility and -1.86 degrees Celsius.  It is so cold ice forms on the seabed between a depth of  30 feet and the surface.  This “Anchor” ice coats the seabed like a carpet. Everything looks like it’s from the abyss and most of the species here are.

When Antarctica got cold all the coastal marine animals died out and creatures from the deep ocean colonised  the shallow water.  Huge Sponges tattoo the slopes, some of the biggest may be over a thousand years old.  Massive Spider crabs and other weird creatures pick their way across the seabed. Urchins and beautiful Red star fish live out their lives in slow motion. The alien sound of Weddel seals add a soundtrack to everything I see.  I feel like a child in this landscape.  Every moment underwater here is new, ephemeral and profoundly beautiful in a way I did not think possible on this planet.

A family that slays together stays together

Our work is half done.  The most amazing trip of my life so far.  We found our Killer whales and they were doing what they do best.  25 attacks on Weddle seals in 3 weeks- quite a strike rate (weird but they leave Crab-eater and Leopard seals alone) Really the only seals we didn’t see them kill was one that got “Saved” by a Humpback whale and one that managed to get out onto a small iceberg.

We totally and utterly nailed it.  Every angle including some underwater wave-washing – achieved with a pole-camera I hasten to add. I may be a crazy wee Scotsman but no’ that crazy!  I will probably never get another sequence like it – an apex predator killing something in a completely new way.  I will die with the gentle thought that we did this and I was a part of it. Now onto Leopard Seals killing Adelie penguin chicks. Excited to be getting in with the Leopard seals again.  They get the heart pumping I tell ya!

Dion – 12 Jan 2009

Dion at the "Golden Fleece" window © Doug Anderson

Dion at the "Golden Fleece" window © Doug Anderson

Dion Poncet son of owner Jerome and co-skipper on this job – 30 years old and already an Antarctic legend.  One of those guys that when you say  “couldn’t have done it without you” you really mean it.


Pretty in pink – 10th Jan 2009

Sea-ice sunset © Doug Anderson

Sea-ice sunset © Doug Anderson

Filming bergs tonight.  Sun set and it went so cold and so pink.

Ice and a slice?

Hit the peninsula proper today.  Woke up, made tea and padded up to the wheelhouse. Jerome was picking his way through a massive Ice field.  Dion picked up some glacial ice from the water with the landing net.  This evening Jerome threw together  a jug of Caipirinia, putting the ice to good use.  It fizzed as it melted in the glass.  Had it with Krill Pate!  Just another evening in a little oasis of Frenchness in the Antarctic.

How do you eat an Elephant? – 29th Dec 2008

In Stanley now.  The colourful corrugated iron clad houses of the little town clings to the edge of the sound much as always.  And on the pier is our boat – the “Golden Fleece”.  Run by frenchman and Antarctic legend Jerome Poncet.  It’s a big experienced crew on this one.  Jerome,  Bob Pitman and John Durban from NOAA (Bob has seen more species of whale and dolphin than anyone else on the planet – I think only 4 species elude him),  Doug Allan (the other cameraman has done over 30 trips to the frozen south), Dion Poncet (Jerome’s son – Dion was born in the Antarctic delivered by his father whilst their small yacht was frozen into the sea-ice) and the whole lot of us lead by Kathryn Jeffs (producer on “The Frozen Planet” the latest in the BBC’s “Blue Planet” – “Planet Earth” sequence – who are, after all paying for all these shenanigans).   Were prepping the boat now.  There is a mountain of kit.  We even have a ciniflex heligimble on this one.  It’s the camera we usually use for helicopter aerials.  We are mounting it upside down on the wheelhouse of the fleece.  Doug will operate this one and I’ll use a Varicam on a Mako head (another type of stabilised head) outside as well as doing the underwater photography if the opportunities present themselves.    The first step though is to cross the Drake Passage – pretty much the roughest nastiest stretch of water on the planet.  Should hit the to of the Antarctic peninsula in 5 days and 3 further days will take us the sea-ice.  This job is huge.  But I think of a saying from a friend from SA.  Q. How do you eat an elephant?  A. One bite at a time.