Record numbers of humpback whales spotted near Antarctica

For many travelers, whale-spotting is a moving, and sometimes life altering, experience. Those massive, yet graceful, creatures are unlike anything else on Earth, and getting the opportunity to see one up close is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. One of the more common species, the humpback whale, have recently been spotted in record numbers off the coast of Antarctica, in a display that has even left scientists speechless.

Humpbacks, like most whales, are migratory in nature, traveling as much as 16,000 miles each year. During the summer months, they’ll typically move into the colder polar regions in search of krill, tiny shrimp like creatures that are their favorite meals. Researchers often travel to those regions as well in hopes of getting the opportunity to study the creatures in their natural habitat.

Over the course of the past two years, scientists have been visiting the Southern Ocean with the hope of spotting humpbacks and observing their behavior. In both May of 2009 and 2010, they recorded record numbers of whales there, at a time when the giant mammals should have been heading for warmer waters. In fact, in one instance, they counted, 306 humpback whales in the Wilhelmina Bay, a small body of water that falls on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

While seeing that many whales in one place is indeed a stunning sight, and a fantastic research opportunity, researchers warn that it could mean dire consequences for the ecosystem around Antarctica, which is one of the bellweather locations for climate change. As the region around the Antarctic continent warms up, the sea ice is retreating very quickly. The krill use that sea ice as a nursery for their young, and without it they aren’t shielded from the massive predators that eat them by the ton. That could mean that the whales could potentially decimate the krill population, leaving themselves little to eat in the future.

But for now, it seems that the humpback population is not only healthy, but thriving, and travelers to Antarctica may have unprecedented opportunities to see them up close.

[Photo courtesy Whit Welles via WikiMedia]