Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

The iconic "leaping" whale of the southern oceans

Information about Humpback Whale

Our Expert Says… "Young Humpbacks can be very curious once they are weaned and in their adolescence, and close encounters with young whales from the Zodiacs are a delightful experience. It's really encouraging to see their numbers increasing, and it has been very pleasing to see the Australian population come off the endangered list recently."

The humpback whale is one of the most well-recognized of the baleen whales, thanks to its long pectoral fins and obviously humped back, as well as its “signature” habit of breaching - throwing most of its body out of the water, to crash down on their backs.

There are populations of humpback whales in all of the world’s oceans, although it’s thought that they don’t frequently mix. Humpbacks feed in the polar regions during the summer, laying down fat reserves that they need to sustain them as they move towards the equator to breed and give birth in the winter. Because of this migratory behavior, humpback whales can travel up to 16,000 miles every year.

Humpbacks grow to around 15m (50ft) in length and weigh about 33 tons. Their pectoral fins grow to about one third the length of their body, with the longest ever measured being over 6m (20ft)!

In common with other baleen whales, humpbacks feed primarily on krill, small crustaceans, and schools of small fish. They show a wide range of hunting techniques including stunning prey with surface slaps of their pectoral fins, and the remarkable “bubble netting” behavior. Here they hunt in groups, and individual whales blow a steady stream of bubbles while swimming together in decreasing circles around a school of prey. The bubbles trap the prey, and as the whales come closer and closer, the school is compacted into a tighter and tighter ball. The whales then rush upward into the center of the school with mouths open, filtering the food out of the water using their baleen plates.

Juvenile humpback whales are known to be attacked by orcas, and adult humpbacks have been observed using their pectoral fins to defend calves against attack, “clubbing” the orcas to deter them. Great white sharks have also recently been witnessed hunting in a group to attack and kill an adult humpback whale. How common these attacks are is unknown.

Sadly, these magnificent creatures were commercially hunted during the 20th century to the point where they were on the verge of extinction. At the time of the 1966 moratorium on whaling, there were thought to be fewer than 5,000 humpback whales in existence. Although numbers have recovered since then to around 80,000 they are still down from their pre-whaling population of about 125,000. Humpbacks are still potentially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and from collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, as well as disturbance from underwater noise pollution.

Pictures of Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale

Highlights where the Humpback Whale can be seen

Elephant Island

Elephant Island is one of the outermost of the South Shetland Islands. The roots of its name are argued to be one of two reasons. Either the fact that Elephant seals were seen hauled out here in large numbers by the first person to discover and map the island, Captain George Powell in 1821, or that the island’s shape is uncannily like that of a baby elephant’s head with trunk extended!

The island remained unexplored for many years thanks in part to its lack of resources (just small numbers of seals and penguins and no native plants) and partly because of its steep volcanic rocks, presenting few landing points.

However, in 1916 Elephant Island became immortalized as the scene of the beyond-all-odds survival story that was Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

After their ship Endurance was lost to the treacherous ice in the Weddell Sea, the 28 crew were forced to make a perilous escape attempt. After months in open boats and stuck on drifting ice sheets, the team arrived at Elephant Island. Here they set up a base to stay at Point Wild while Shackleton and five members of his crew set sail in an open lifeboat for South Georgia - a journey of over 800 miles - to seek a rescue ship.

This stunning tale of endurance, determination, and the human spirit is brought home to visitors to Elephant Island by the Endurance Memorial at Point Wild. You can also see breathtaking views of the Endurance Glacier - named after Shackleton’s lost ship - as well as the stunning rocky terrain and its Chinstrap Penguins and seals.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
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 fully 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.

Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, and even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, often caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like and Lagøya can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.

Port Charcot, Booth Island

Port Charcot is a small bay at the north end of Booth Island. Booth Island is a rocky and rugged Y-shaped island off the Kiev Peninsula in Graham Land. It was first mapped in 1904 when the French Antarctic expedition led by Jean-Baptise Charcot over-wintered here.

After building a few rudimentary shelters and the cairn that can still be seen at the top of the hill, the expedition used Port Charcot as its base for exploring the area, that is close to the Lemaire Channel and the division between the NW and the SW peninsula . There is the remains of a stone hut used for astronomical observations and a wooden pillar with a plaque here where you can still make out the names of the first expedition members who wrote them almost 120 years ago.

In the bay where the Français was anchored (but difficult to reach with the ice) the letter 'F' was carved onto the rocks and can still be seen.

The walk to the cairn is delightful, although you’ll be carefully led by guides as wandering off the path can be treacherous, with loose rocks and crevasses. Visitors can also walk to the east where there is a noisy Gentoo penguin colony. Chinstraps and Adelies can also be seen on the beaches here. If you are lucky, you might get all three together!

From the top the views are stunning, especially the view to the SW, towards Pléneau Island Island, overlooking 'the iceberg graveyard'. This iceberg graveyard can be explored on a spectacular Zodiac cruise, either from ships anchored off Port Charcot to the 'NW' of the Lemaire Channel, or from ships anchored off Pléneau Island and Booth Island that had sailed through through the Lemaire Channel. For full details of this Zodiac cruise refer to the details under Pléneau Island.

Stonington Island

For such a tiny, rock island (it’s less than half a mile by a quarter of a mile), Stonington holds a lot of the human history of Antarctica. It’s found in Marguerite Bay off the west of Graham Land, and it is one of the most southerly historic sites on the peninsula.

It was home to not one, but two winter expeditions. In 1939, the US Antarctic Service chose it as the location to build what became known as East Base. The buildings and artifacts here are now protected as a monument. Visitors can enter the main hut to experience something of what it would have been like to spend the dark and frozen winters on Stonington.

Later in the 1940s, the British chose the same small island for the location of their “Base E”. Again, visitors can enter the main hut and also the generator shed. Like the American base, there are other ancillary buildings that can’t be entered due to their status as protected monuments. There are permanent shutters on the windows of Base E, so your guide should provide you with torches if you venture inside.

In a solemn reminder of the harshness of the continent, there is also a gravesite where two expedition members are buried in coffins covered by simple stone cairns.

Stonington Island supports a colony of over 130 pairs of Antarctic Shags, as well as nesting sites for skuas and terns. As well as the landing there is a good Zodiac cruise around the island with the head of the nearby glaciers coming down from the polar plateau and to look out for seals and Adelie Penguins on the ice floes.

Later in the season fur seals and Humpback Whales can turn up at this southerly destination.

The Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas) is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most people may be familiar with them because of the conflict that was fought here by armed forces from Argentina and the UK in 1982, but there is so much more to the Falklands.

Inhabited since 1764, these remote islands have been colonized and claimed by many countries - France and Spain have claimed them (and Argentina since its formation and former Spanish colony) although it’s the British descendants who make up the majority of the islands’ 4,000 population. As a British Overseas Territory, the Falklands are self-governing, but the UK is responsible for defense and foreign affairs. Argentina still disputes the sovereignty of the islands they call the Malvinas.

Made up of two large islands (East and West Falkland) and over 700 smaller islands and islets, the Falklands are as beautiful as they are rugged and remote. Despite its history as a base for South Atlantic whalers and sealers, and more recently extensive sheep farming, the Falkland Islands have retained great biodiversity, and modern conservation has ensured many previously struggling wild species are now returning.

The Falklands is home to important populations of albatross, having some of the largest breeding sites in the world. They are also home to the rare striated caracara, 63 species of nesting land bird, and 5 penguin species. Seals, whales, dolphins, and other marine life are also abundant. Finally, the rugged landscape itself has a stark beauty, and the islanders, although hardy, offer everyone the warmest of welcomes, usually accompanied by a hearty Falklands Tea.

Fishing and farming account for the vast majority of the Falklands Islands income, although tourism is increasingly important. Many of the farms on the islands are now managed with wildlife conservation in mind, and the Falklands is a wildlife management success story.

Although most ships visit Stanley (usually for a day), the main focus on 'expedition' cruises are the outer islands with all the wildlife, and some of the special breeding birds like Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins and some Patagonia specialists like the Striated Caracara. Also bear in mind, with cruises that also go to South Georgia and the peninsula, only 2 or 3 days are normally spent in the Falklands, although some cruises spend longer here.

Torgersen Island

Torgersen Island is a very small, circular island only 450yds across. It’s part of the Palmer Archipelago and is at the entrance to Arthur Harbour on the southwest coast of Anvers Island.

It’s a popular site for breeding seabirds and Adelie penguins, but this small rock has a much larger, and more depressing, importance.

Although the current colony size of 3,000 breeding pairs seems large, since 1974 the Adelie population has reduced by over 60% due to the impact of climate change on the sea ice and snowfall patterns. An Adelie colony that was based on the neighboring Litchfield Island has disappeared completely in this time. Archeological surveys showed that penguins had been nesting there for over 600 years continuously, with up to 15,000 pairs in residence at a time. By 2007 they had all gone.

The island is very close to the American Palmer Station and it is divided into a Visitor Zone and a Restricted Zone. The Visitor Zone is for general access, whilst the Restricted Zone serves as a control site for scientific research related to human impacts. The Restricted Zone should not be entered, except in an emergency to access the emergency cache located on slopes opposite the landing site. Use the cache only in a genuine emergency and notify Palmer Station if anything is used.

Your expert Antarctic guides will show you the walking routes to take that will minimize any impact to the Adelie colony on Torgersen Island, as well as outlining the concerns that Antarctic scientists have about the continuing impact of climate change on the region’s wildlife.

This is a timely reminder of the necessity for change in the way humans live and use fossil fuels if we are to preserve the unique species and landscapes of the Antarctic. At Polartours we are playing our part in this story by carbon offsetting every polar cruise package we sell.

Wordie House, Winter Island

Nestled onto the only flat part of Winter Island, Wordie House is a hut built in 1947. It was named by a British Antarctic expedition of the time after James Wordie, who was the chief scientist on Shackleton’s famous 1914 Antarctic exploration. Winter Island is less than 1,000 yards long and is one of the Argentine Islands off the coast of Graham Land.

Before it closed in 1954, the hut was used to take meteorological readings using instruments stored inside special screens, one of which still stands today. These readings were among the most important and longest set of weather data ever recorded about the Antarctic and helped scientists gain a greater understanding of the meteorology of the continent.

Wordie House was made a “Historic Site and Monument” in 1995 and has been looked after by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust since 2009. There are almost 500 original artifacts still on the site, including original cans of coffee, records, pots and pans, plates, and many more £everyday” items. This makes Wordie House a true time capsule from the golden age of Antarctic exploration and scientific research. The hut is now fully weathertight, and work continues on preserving this unique station.

Close to Wordie House there used to be the British Faraday base, the place where researcher's discovered the expanding Ozone hole. When the base was going to close, rather than dismantling this important and historic base (and one of the best bars in Antarctica!), it was given to the Ukraine for one pound!

Visits to Winter Island and Wordie House are managed by the nearby Ukrainian station Vernadsky, and you may well be briefed by the Base Commander or other official before you board your boats for the landing. The visit to Wordie House is often in conjunction with a visit to the base, and the chance to have a vodka and the impressive wooden bar.

The short Zodiac cruise between the two locations passes through some interesting gullies and the chance to check out seals and penguins on small ice floes.

Uniquely for such a historic site, visitors are allowed to roam freely under the supervision of their expert Antarctic guides. They will answer all your questions about the history of the hut, as well as the artifacts that you can find here.

Visitors to Winter Island can also expect to see seabirds such as skuas and kelp gulls, as well as seals and penguins. Humpback Whales are often seen in the more open waters close to the anchorage.

Our trips to spot the Humpback Whale

Price
Min Price

USD 3800

Max Price

USD 31000

Duration (days)
Min Days

5

Max Days

26