It's like something out of a dream: a minke whale gliding by under loose sea ice near McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. It's so calming that it's difficult not to become transfixed. Which is what happened to Regina Eisert, marine mammal expert at the University of Canterbury.
Eisert thought that minke whales were boring, according to the Associated Press. But after seeing the video and learning a bit more about them, Eisert is keen on them, and the insights they could provide regarding how marine mammals navigate icy waters
"I'm such an excited scientist right now!" Eisert exclaimed in a statement released by Antarctica New Zealand, the government agency tasked with supporting the island nation's activities in Antarctica.
A rare and fortuitous sighting
The footage of the whale underwater was something of a lucky break.
The camera was placed in a channel of water cleared by the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star to allow both the U.S. research facility, McMurdo Station, and the New Zeland station, Scott Base, to resupply. Breaking the ice also creates a sort of highway for whales to travel, so it's a prime spot to shoot footage. While the plan was to get hours and hours of footage, the camera had a technical snafu and only managed to get about 90 minutes.
"The plan was to film continuously across the icebreaker channel that is prepared for the re-supply vessel to cross McMurdo Sound. The water's so clear, you can see right across the 50-80 meter (164-262 feet) lane and monitor all the whales that use the channel," Eisert said.
"We had no idea that we had this footage until Anthony [Powell] found it when checking the camera back in Christchurch!"
Powell is an Antarctic film expert who developed the prototype underwater camera used to capture the footage.
A mysterious whale
A type of baleen whale, minkes are not particularly well-studied. Since they favor such a remote and challenging location, the cost and time necessary to study the whales is sizable. We know that they can grow quite large, up to 33 feet (10 meters) long and weigh up to 9 tons. Like other whales, they eat krill to survive, but there may be more to it than that, as this footage attests.
Eisert didn't see any krill where the whales were swimming and thinks they may have been chasing a small school of fish instead.
"We can learn so much from a small tissue sample, such as their diet — we think they just eat krill, but do they eat small fish as well? Also, DNA analysis can tell us whether Ross Sea minkes are separate from other minke whales on the Antarctic Peninsula or further north, or if they are all part of one larger population," Eisert said.
(A DNA sample from a minke whale is collected by using a small, modified tranquilizer dart.)
Eisert, whose primary research has focused on fish-eating orcas in the Ross Sea, is hopeful that the images and samples collected will help to further research of whale species in the area.