The largest creature that has ever lived
What you need to know about the Blue Whale
Our Expert Says… "All the statistics about these wonderful creatures are incredible… Their heart is the same size as a compact car; their tail flukes are wider than a soccer goal; their mouth is large enough to hold the equivalent of almost half a million Big Macs at once, but the opening to their throat is only the size of a beach ball… The list of amazing facts can go on and on!"
The blue whale is one of the most iconic whale species. Growing to almost 30m (100ft) long and weighing up to 190 tons, blue whales are the largest creature ever to have existed on earth. And yet these gentle ocean giants feed on tiny, half-inch long crustaceans called krill.
Almost hunted to extinction by commercial whaling in the 20th century, there are now thought to be around 20,000 blue whales in the world’s oceans - 90% fewer than in 1911 at the start of large-scale whaling operations. Hunting of blue whales was banned in 1966, but recovery of the species in areas where they were hit hardest - including the Antarctic - has been slow. Some estimates of Antarctic populations show that although numbers are increasing by around 7% each year, there are still less than 1% of the number of whales in Antarctica compared to pre-whaling populations. Blue whales are officially designated as an Endangered Species.
One of the places in Antarctica with good numbers of reported sightings during the expedition season is around South Georgia Island. For arctic populations, there are regular sightings around Svalbard.
There are 4 sub-species of blue whale, and those seen in Antarctica and the southern oceans are different than those encountered in the arctic and North Atlantic, although they are almost identical in terms of size, coloring, and behaviors.
Because of their deep ocean lifestyle and relatively small numbers, there is very little known about how blue whales interact other than the very strong bond between mothers and calves until they are weaned, common to many whales. Blue whales are generally solitary creatures, although they have sometimes been observed traveling in small groups. We know very little about their mating behavior or where they breed and give birth.
Despite their enormous size, blue whales are known to be predated by orcas, particularly calves. Again, not much is known about the success rates of orcas against blue whales, but there have been several photographic studies that show evidence of scars consistent with orca teeth marks on around 5% of the blue whales that were photographed.
The main threats to blue whales are man-made. Several blue whale deaths from ship strikes are recorded every year, and there are less frequent reports of blue whales becoming entangled in fishing nets or deep-water fishing pots. There are also concerns about marine noise pollution causing behavior change in blue whales among other species.
Climate change is also thought to be a potential disaster for blue whale populations, as rising water temperatures will dramatically reduce the prevalence of the krill stocks on which they feed.
Blue Whale: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Blue Whale can be observed
The outer bay can be a very good area for whale watching and an area where Blue Whale can be seen for cruise ships departing or arriving at the mouth of the fjord.
Isfjorden is the largest fjord system in Svalbard with spectacular geology, such as the Devonian sediments along Dicksonfjord and Ekmanfjordat. Most cruise ships sail out the first evening, a chance to enjoy the scenery, to explore the rest of Svalbard, before coming back to consider landings and explore parts of Isfjorden on the last full day.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
South Georgia and Scotia Sea
South Georgia Island (known as Isla San Pedro in Spanish) is often described, quite rightly, as a highlight of many peoples’ Antarctic cruise experience.
The remote, rocky main island is 850 miles from the Falkland Islands and the same distance from the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s quite mountainous, with a central high ridge and plenty of bays and fjords on its coast, making for some stunning views and remarkable photographs.
There are 8 smaller islands (the South Sandwich Islands) located 400 miles to the southeast which are rarely visited.
South Georgia has a human history mainly centered around the sealing and whaling industries, with relics such as try pots and sunken whaling ships to be discovered. Many people also pay a visit to the grave of Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous Antarctic explorers, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack while in South Georgia.
Part of one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the variety of the wildlife to be found in South Georgia is what attracts most of its visitors. From the world’s largest king penguin colonies to beaches crammed with elephant and fur seals, to breeding colonies of the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, the wandering albatross, to innumerable species of seabirds, South Georgia is a destination that serves up “days of a lifetime” every day!
The shallow seas off South West Svalbard and the drop-off into deeper waters are probably the best places for whale watching in Svalbard.
In addition to the Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, and Blue Whale, the SW is a good area to see White-beaked Dolphins (more elusive to the NW), whilst heading further out to deeper waters, there is the chance of spotting Sperm Whales and the Northern Bottlenose Whale.