National Geographic : 2009 Mar
to starboard. As the animal surfaced to blow, it angled up from turquoise abstraction into photo-realism. Irvine gunned the engine. Up in the pulpit I clicked o my crossbow s safety. Mate tucked the ri e stock of the tag applicator into his shoulder, leaned outward over the pul- pit rail, and aimed the long, red barrel almost straight downward at the rising whale, now just ten feet underwater. e whale blew, and the glistening wall of its ank erupted in a steep curve above the sea. My instructions as biopsy guy were to wait for the bang of the tag applicator before ring my crossbow. e smooth ank of the whale lled my whole eld of view; there was no way I could miss. At the bang of the applicator, I pulled my trigger. e bolt le the crossbow, and a black hole, small but inky, appeared where I had been aiming. It took a millisecond for me to under- stand that I was responsible for it, and I felt a pang of regret and guilt. I did that? I thought, like a boy whose pop fly has gone through a stained-glass window. Then my sense of proportion returned. In relation to the vastness of this whale, my hole was just a mosquito bite. is was not a crime; it was a blow for science. On the pulpit, Mate and I unclipped our harnesses and shook hands. writes a kind of longhand on the surface of the sea. ere is the ovoid slick that forms above the head the moment before emer- gence, the long, narrow slick le by the arching back, and the circular slick of the ukeprint. ere are the sputtering white fountains that a blue whale raises by blowing early, still gliding under the surface---a sequence of premature spouts. ere are bubble blasts. I saw my rst of these just ahead of the bowsprit, about 12 feet deep, as the blowhole of a whale erupted a big bolus of bubbles. It expanded toward the surface, vitreous and glittery, like a crystal chandelier falling upward. "Bubble blast," observed Mate. This particular bubble blast seemed to be commentary directed at our persistent and irri- tating little boat---some kind of whale expletive, probably. It rose above the whale s head like a speech balloon in a Gary Larson cartoon. Its message was something like "@*#&%√!?!" Of all the marks of blue whale cursive, the most colorful was the defecation trail. e rst defecation we saw was in a yearling, a little 50-footer. is whale blew 40 yards away, and behind it the ocean brightened in a long, red- orange contrail. "We have a defecation," Irvine announced. is contrail, a brick red streak of processed krill, more watery than particulate, was our rst direct evidence that blue whales were feeding in winter at the Costa Rica Dome. As this was one of the hypotheses this expedi- tion had been launched to test, Mate scrambled to nd a Ziploc bag to collect a sample. e evidence for feeding that we observed rsthand in the defecation trails was corrobo- rated in the ship s laboratory. On her computer screen, Robyn Matteson, Mate s graduate stu- dent, monitored the echo sounder and the concentrations of krill it detected at the dome. Krill distribution was patchier than anyone had imagined, but dense schools of the small crus- taceans were plainly here. Across the lab table, at their own computers, Calambokidis and Erin Oleson of Scripps Institution of Ocean- ography studied the dive pro les recorded by acoustic tags they had succeeded in applying to several whales. e acoustic tags, deployed by pole and attached by suction cups, stay on the whale for hours, not months, like the more invasive satellite tags. Here at the dome, the depth recorders on the tags showed dives to 800 feet and deeper. e vertical line marking each dive, on reaching its greatest depth, began to zigzag in the sawtooth pattern characteris- tic of blue whales when lunge feeding on krill. THE SONG OF THE BULL, THE STENTORIAN PULSE OF THE A CALL, FOLLOWED BY THE CONTINUOUS TONE OF THE B CALL, IS THE MIGHTIEST SONG IN THE SEA.