Postcards from the minke whale expedition pt 3

By Andrew Burns 7 November 2013
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AG creative director Andrew Burns blogs from aboard an AG Society sponsored expedition to research minke whales.

ON DAY FOUR OF the trip, it’s a blustery start with the south-easterly blowing at about 20 knots. There are no whales about, so we make for Pixie Reef where I dive with instructor Lee. On this dive, I see a reef shark and float past huge fan corals. It’s a little gloomy as there is no sun up top.

The next day we head to an area near the bottom of Ribbon Reef number 10, to a place called Two Towers, with the hope that we might see some whales.

We have seen many whales now, but it is difficult to say how many individuals there are, as the experts need to look closely at their markings to distinguish them. Researchers will have a better idea once the photos are checked and cross referenced.

One of the whales has been noted as having a large bite scar on its side – the possible result of a shark attack, a great white or even a tiger shark. In the Southern Ocean, orcas are thought to be whales’ main predator, but minkes can swim quite fast – they have a top speed of over 20 knots – and so they’re able to sometimes out-run orcas.

In one recorded instance, an orca in the Northern Hemisphere chased a whale for over eight hours with the whale eventually out-running the shark and escaping. Others, of course, are less fortunate and juveniles are especially vulnerable.

Minkes reach maturity at about five years of age and may live up to 60, growing to a maximum of about 8 m. But their average size is about 6 m and their weight around 5 tonnes. Even with their huge size, there is no feeling of threat and there is a calm about them. When you look into their eyes, you know they are looking at you.

So little is known about these animals and every encounter brings us a little closer to understanding their world.

In the Northern Hemisphere, around the UK and the Canadian Gulf of St Lawrence, the minkes are seen during the feeding season. Ursula Tscherter studies the whales in the Gulf and she is one of the researchers on our trip. She says that after the whales feed, they disappear and no-one knows where they go for the rest of the year.

Conversely, in the Southern Hemisphere, on the Great Barrier Reef and the west coast of Australia, we see them now – during the short breeding season – and then, as in the north, they disappear. With only so little time available for research, not much is known about these animals, and what is known is only gathered during these short events.