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Whales in the Antarctic



I’ve been coming down to the Antarctic Peninsula nine long summers now, and every year the humpbacks become more conspicuous, more numerous and more interactive.  It’s a wonderful thing.  Seven per cent population growth a year, researchers are estimating – as fast as they can possibly reproduce.  Seven per cent is a magic number – it means doubling in a decade.  By somewhere around the mid 2030s they should reach their pre-whaling levels.

We see minkes, mostly in amongst the loose brash, and we often see fin whales, generally out in the Drake or the open Scotia Sea.  Very, very rarely we’ll see one of the giant blues; the Antarctic blue, the biggest subspecies of the biggest animal that ever lived – also the subspecies hit hardest by the whalers.  But even with them there are positive signs; this year nine blues were seen together off South Georgia.

But the humpbacks – they move where we tourist ships move, outside the thickest ice but in amongst the islands.  They don’t slice past us at speed like the others, but linger, stick around, even show curiosity for our Zodiacs and their inhabitants.  They are the most playful, the most agile and athletic whale, the greatest migrator and the ones we know and love best.

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Cierva Cove is close to where the Antarctic continent was first landed, 195 years ago.  A stunning bay, boxed in somewhat by a couple of islands, with a magnificent glacier tumbling down into it from the spine of the Antarctic Peninsula beyond.  It catches quite a few of the icebergs passing north from the Gerlache strait, and the back of the bay is impenetrable to our zodiacs much of the time with thick brash and massive bergs.  It also catches nice pockets of krill, and this is why on this particular late February morning dozens of humpback whales were working the bay.

We started spotted them way out from our drifting position as soon as we had light – threes and fours, lunging at the surface.  Further in we passed several groups close to the ship, and as we slowed down to lower Zodiacs they even started to approach more closely.  They weren’t even slightly interested in the ship, I think, they were just working their way through the krill and it happened to bring them in our direction.

First whale up close and personal from the Zodiac was a youngster, perhaps eight or nine metres long and about ten tonnes.  It’s a young population and many of these animals are just a few years old.  He was energetic, multiple lunges near our little boat, and curious – he spy-hopped us.  But he was also somewhat inefficient in his foraging.  The faster, sleeker whales work alone and do fast lunges, but that’s not what works best for humpbacks.  He was doing short, fast gulps, not opening his throat widely, but more importantly he wasn’t doing anything to herd the krill.  Maybe a phone-booth’s volume of water each gulp, but probably only a kilo or so of krill with each mouthful.

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The Antarctic krill is earth’s greatest protein and oil source, attracting the largest gatherings of marine mammals and birds on earth.  But the average density even here is pretty low – to feed effectively you not only need to find the densest patches of krill but you need to gather them efficiently.  Before whaling, the great whales had become ecologically a force to be reckoned with – the greatest consumers of food of any mammal group on the planet (unprecedented for carnivores) until the rise of humans.  They were masters of the densest ocean food web of all, due to their stupendous foraging arsenal.

The next humpbacks were a bit more onto it.  Three whales working together, they were working spirals, and at least one of them was bubble-netting.  Humpback arms are the biggest limbs on earth – over five metres long in large animals.  They look odd and lumpy, but it turns out the knobbles and patches of barnacles break up water turbulence, and these long wing-like arms are superbly efficient hydrofoils.  Not only do they provide lift – these animals literally fly through the water on the longest migrations of any whale – but they can also bend and twist to give humpbacks incredible high-speed twists and turns that no other whale can perform.

Combined with their rather muscular build and a level of hunting coordination that has never been seen in other whales, this makes for an impressive krill-gathering ability.  The larger of these three whales was bubble-netting; swimming below and around the edge of the krill swarm letting out a curtain of bubbles, which herds the krill towards the middle in a tight cluster.  The other whales swam around the edge, waving their tails inwards.  Then one at a time they would lunge in towards the middle of the prey cluster, taking a large gulp.

Another group appeared, closing in and before long was working alongside this trio – the two groups even looked to be helping each other out – packing their two krill patches tight right up against each other.  The new trio included two larger animals – thirteen metres or more and perhaps thirty tonnes apiece, and both were bubble-netting.  I have seen dozens of bubble-nets and they always spiral inwards to the right.  Humpback whales, like Derek Zoolander, are not ambi-turners, apparently.

Jamie 4

A couple of times the bubbles started to surface just ahead or just to the side of the Zodiac.  I wasn’t concerned – I have never known a whale to be anything other than superbly aware, sensitive to and more than able to avoid boats or swimmers.

It seems that the humpbacks improve the art and technique of bubble-netting as they mature.  It requires coordination and communication, as well as rather an impressive use of the ever-tightening turns afforded by those huge arms.  We have no idea how they coordinate, or indeed how they are aware of or find the krill in the water, but the concentrations of krill they absolutely depend on – kilogrammes per cubic metre – are rather high.  The two larger whales of the joining trio did a classic, elegant double spiral of bubble nets.  The first whale started a ring about fifteen metres across, then fifteen seconds later a second set began to appear across the other side, both spiralling in together in a beautiful fractal symmetry.  A pause and then a lunge – all three whales at 45 degrees upwards through the middle of the concentrated krill patch.

The sheer physics of the lunge itself is pretty impressive.  Off Alaska where the humpbacks hunt faster-moving prey the lunges are fast, vertical and vast.  Down here, the krill-eaters are somewhat more sedate, but still impressive.  The smaller, younger animals seem to have less distendable throats and do shorter, almost horizontal surface lunges, sometimes flopping over on one side.  I even saw a young whale last year porpoising over the top and opening its mouth as it came down on top of the krill patch.

The bigger, older whales seem to mature their abilities and perhaps become more physically flexible in the throat.  They lunge straight upwards after a tight turn at the end of the bubble-net.  They accelerate then snap their mouths open wide – up to about right angles – at the last couple of seconds just before they hit the surface.  The articulation of the jaw opens out on elastic tendons, and the front joint of the jaw is similarly flexible so that the arch of the jaw opens outwards to widen the scoop.  The forces are enormous.  The grooved throat balloons out to about the size of a small garage to take in up to twenty tonnes of water in a large adult, the sofa-sized tongue turned inside out by the force of the sudden opening of the parachute-like gape.  The mouth then snaps shut, sealing quickly at the front of the lips, squeezing out tonne after tonne of water through the filter of the baleen plates hanging from the sides of the top lip as it zips shut from the tip of the snout backwards on either side.  Then the throat squeezes, water gushing back through the baleen and out of the downturned corners of the mouth over the eyes. The sides of the jaw and the muscular throat, deformed by the pressure of the lunge, slowly pull back into place.

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An Antarctic humpback might gather tens of kilos with each gulp, and after a good morning of feeding have a tonne of krill in their stomach.  Only the fin and blue whales, with their even larger gapes and faster open-water lunges can gather more.  The humpbacks gorge themselves, defecating as they are feeding to make space to squeeze in more krill, the big ones gaining ten to fifteen tonnes in a season.  The largest get to fifty tonnes or more, as big as the largest dinosaurs.  The faeces seeds the ocean with iron – and until 75 years ago gave the Southern Ocean an iron boost that fertilized the seas and drove up plankton productivity as well as natural carbon sequestration.  And they’re coming back.

In every direction, groups of three to four whales moved around, sometimes coming together as clusters, sometimes spy-hopping close to our boats.  We left them for a while to play in the brash and look at some icebergs and a dozing leopard seal, but on the way back to the ship came across more groups.  We had to get back, the ship had to leave, to head north towards Elephant Island then South Georgia.

Oh all right, then, one more group of whales….

Visit Jamie’s website for all his latest news and blogs:

Jamie’s blog was provided by Oonasdivers.

Jamie Watts is a marine ecologist, expedition leader and naturalist guide working in earth’s most spectacular marine ecosystems. He writes and presents on marine and polar wildlife, global-scale ecology, human ecological footprint and climate change. Research has included everything from Omani coral reefs to Antarctic copepods, crabs, leopard seals, colossal squid and krill to offshore fisheries worldwide, including tuna. Jamie has been invited to give presentations on marine life and climate change to audiences and students from all over the world, including student groups at the Turks and Caicos Marine Biology Centre, Saba's annual ‘Sea and Learn’ marine biology event, the Big Scuba Show in London, the Scottish Geographical Society, the British Society of Underwater Photographers and several dive clubs. He has run successful and well-received marine biology courses and workshops in London, Egypt and Indonesia. To find out more about Jamie, visit

Marine Life & Conservation

Exhibition: Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research



From now until 30 October, the photo exhibition “Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research” features 21 photographs at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, as well as a digital edition.

Exceptional photographs highlight how innovative marine experts and scientists take the pulse of the ocean by exploring ecosystems, studying the movement of species, or revealing the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs. Scientific discoveries are more important than ever for the protection and sustainable conservation of our Marine World Heritage. This memorable exhibition comes ahead of the launch, in 2021, of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“Ocean Decade”). The exhibition was jointly developed by UNESCO and the Principality of Monaco.

The 50 marine sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, distributed across 37 countries, include a wide variety of habitats as well as rare marine life still largely unknown. Renowned for their unmatched beauty and emblematic biodiversity, these exceptional ecosystems play a leading role in the field of marine conservation. Through scientific field research and innovation, concrete actions to foster global preservation of the ocean are being implemented locally in these unique natural sites all over the world. They are true symbols of hope in a changing ocean.

Since 2017, the Principality of Monaco supports UNESCO to strengthen conservation and scientific understanding of the marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. This strategic partnership allows local management teams to benefit from the results obtained during the scientific missions of Monaco Explorations. The partnership also draws international attention to the conservation challenges facing the world’s most iconic ocean sites.

The exhibition invites viewers to take a passionate dive into the heart of the scientific missions led by Monaco Explorations in four marine World Heritage sites: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), and the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France). It is also an opportunity to discover the work of a megafauna census; the study of the resilience of coral reefs and their adaptation in a changing climate; the exploration of the deep sea; and the monitoring of large marine predators through satellite data.

To visit the Digital Exhibition click here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 7



Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for the final part of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

Deptherapy expeditions do not just magically happen, they need planning and they need funding.  This expedition was funded by our long-term partners the Veterans’ Foundation.  The funding is part of a grant they awarded us for programmes this year, which were then put on hold because of COVID.

All charities in the Armed Forces’ Sector are struggling for funds. Deptherapy desperately needs support going forward and every penny counts.

We know what we do works and at the end of this blog you will find details of the research studies into Deptherapy’s programmes and how they impact on the lives of our beneficiaries.  This includes details that are hot off the press about the latest study that reports that what we offer through scuba diving and 24/7 support has benefits beyond those found in other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

Well tomorrow we fly home, late in the evening with the journey home for some of the guys who live up North taking around 15 hours after leaving Roots.

We want to make the most of today but with the tide running we are not going to be able to dive until later this morning which means only two dives today.

Oatsie and Swars about to start their sidemount dives

Things, however are really busy over at the dive centre with Swars and Oatsie putting their sidemount kit together for their training dives with Steve Rattle leading to their RAID sidemount qualification.  It has been nice to be able to offer the guys this extra training, given the amount of work they have put in this week.  They have needed to get through their theory quickly but given the RADI online learning system this has not been too arduous.

Steve came diving with us yesterday to get some more photos and was really amazed at the progress that Corey had made. He was quite open in his praise, as in his view Corey has gone from a non-diver to being a very competent OW diver capable of diving, unsupervised, with a buddy.  Praise indeed.

Other than the sidemount course we are diving as a group today: Corey, Keiron, Michael, Moudi and me. Corey has been given some tasks – SMB deployment on both dives and the afternoon dive will be a ‘naturalist dive’.  Guy Henderson has set Corey a task: ‘to identify three species of fish and record the time into the dive and the depth at which each one was spotted’.  Guy runs Marine Biology courses on the reef and knows where the fish are to be found, how long into the dive, and at what time.

The two Toms are getting put through their paces. They have walked their cylinders down to the entry point, but Steve sends them back to the dive centre to collect other kit they should have brought with them.

Our general dive goes well and the sidemount guys appear from their sidemount dive some 90 minutes after dipping their heads under the water.

Corey enjoying being a RAID OW20 Diver

Lots of bubbly chat at lunchtime, a group of really happy divers. Corey really has benefited from the week and over lunch thanked the team for making him a diver. He has very quickly become part of the family and after returning home he published an amazing post on Facebook about his experience.  Corey really gets Deptherapy and had soon realised that we see past mental and physical injuries and see the person inside and work with that person.  He also realised that we want beneficiaries to see their fellow beneficiaries in the same light.  He knows he now has another ‘family’ – a family of brothers in arms who have two things in common, they served their country and they have suffered life changing injuries or illnesses.

Back into the water for the afternoon dive and Corey identifies the fish and records the details on a slate.  The two Tom’s complete their second dive and qualify as RAID Sidemount Divers. Great!

Kit packed away and it is time to return to the camp for a few well-earned last night drinks.

I am often asked why we use Roots as our exclusive base for diving. I have mentioned before that it offers us an ideal retreat, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We are secluded and there are no distractions such as late-night bars etc.

Roots Accessible Room

The second reason is the amazing welcome we receive from Steve, Clare, Moudi and the team.  We have been going to Roots since 2014 and many of the staff have become good friends, they understand our needs and are the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

The third reason is the huge investment Steve and Clare have made in making the resort and dive centre accessible for those with physical injuries including those who need to use wheelchairs.  All our beneficiaries can enjoy Roots and, in fact, love it here.  The reef is perfect for us and in non-COVID times we can travel to the Salem Express and other dive sites to enjoy more of the Red Sea experience.

Accessible toilet on the Roots beach

After discussions with the team I was very proud to be able to tell Corey that his progress had been such that we were inviting him on the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust sponsored two-week Marine Biology Course at Roots in June 2021. There is lots of homework to undertake under the guidance of Dr Debbie McNeill of Open Oceans and Corey will be sent the Red Sea Guide which is the basis for study.

While on that programme, Corey with fellow beneficiary Dale Mallin, will complete his RAID Advanced 35 course.  This all builds to a 10-day Red Sea liveaboard in 2022, onboard Roots’ new boat Big Blue where 18 beneficiaries will compare the coral and aquatic life on the wrecks of the SS Thistlegorm and the less known SS Turkia that is to be found in the Gulf of Suez and is rarely dived.

Paul Rose, our Vice President, is supporting the programme and is seeking the support of the UN and the Royal Geographical Society. A comprehensive report will be submitted to our partners in the project and to the Egyptian Authorities.

Last night and chill

What we do works:

In recent years there have been three academic studies into our work:

2018 – A study by a team from the University of Sheffield Medical School.

2019 – A study by The Centre of Trauma at Nottingham University.

Both these studies reported very positively on Deptherapy’s work both underwater but also in terms of the provision of 24/7 support.

The following is from our press release which was issued on 26th October:

‘A new study into Scuba Diving Rehabilitation Charity Deptherapy’s approach to supporting Armed Forces veterans with psychological injuries such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the medium of scuba diving has been carried out by Petra Walker in conjunction with Hanna Kampman of the Posttraumatic Growth Research Unit at the University of East London.

This study, which used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), demonstrates that scuba diving has rehabilitation benefits beyond those found in other forms of sporting rehabilitation exercise. IPA is a qualitative methodology that examines the experiences of participants and has been used in previous studies of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) in para-athletes.

Petra is an experienced diver herself and was exploring the wellbeing aspects of scuba diving as part of her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology when she came across a previous study on Deptherapy. Past studies have mainly focused on the medical aspects of diving, so the opportunity to examine the mental health side of rehabilitative scuba diving was impossible to ignore. The full study is currently embargoed until it is published at a future date in an academic journal, but it follows similar academic research into the work of Deptherapy by the University of Sheffield Medical School (2018) and the University of Nottingham (2019).’

This is amazing news and sets us apart from other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

We are currently working with our VP Richard Castle who is a Consultant Psychologist and our Dive Medicine Advisor Mark Downs to identify further areas of psychological and physical dive related research.

We end the week on a happy note.  A young man who has learned to dive properly with a RAID OW 20 certification, a new RAID Master Rescue Diver, two new RAID Sidemount Divers, 5 new RAID O2 Providers, many assessments for our DMs but most of all a week of learning, of making new friendships, renewing old friendships, and building on our family ethos.

Until we meet again…

For us, Deptherapy is a journey, a journey that continues to push boundaries in the use of scuba diving in the rehabilitation of those suffering life changing mental and/or physical challenges.  On our journey we want to change the way the scuba diving industry views diving for those with disabilities.

In the new year, we will be launching, with our diver training agency partners RAID, a new and exciting adaptive teaching programme that will offer diving to the disabled community. We can’t wait to share it with you!

Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at

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