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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?

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.