Our helicopter flight back to McMurdo was quite eventful! We were scheduled to fly with one of our favorite pilots, and on the way across the sound he took us to the edge of the ice shelf where it meets the sea. This environment is usually very rich with life, so we all kept our eyes peeled for seals and whales. Not long after we reached the edge, we spotted a pod of Orca whales. We descended to about 10 feet above the ice to observe them diving and playing. I have been on “whale-watching” cruises before and never seen as much as the tip of a fin, but here we were able to get so close to so many of them! We spotted a few more pods on our way and hovered for a while when a group of large males were “spy hopping” in front of the helicopter. Spy hopping is when the whales surface nose-first and come all the way up vertically to their midsection before descending the way they came. I’m not exactly sure what this is for (perhaps it is a way to survey their above-water surroundings) but it was incredible to watch. Sometimes 6 or 8 of them would surface at the same time. We saw a few other penguins from higher up (they get scared into the water if the helicopter gets to close) as well as some Weddell seals and one Leopard seal. It was definitely the most wildlife I’ve seen on this entire trip.
A pod of orcas spy-hopping
Weddell seals lounging on the edge of an icebreaker ship channel