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Minke condition

It was supposed to be an afternoon with penguins, but then the whales turned up. Our brief, from the expedition leader, had been to cruise in a convoy of Zodiacs from our ship to an icy shore on the north side of Neko Bay on the east coast of the Antarctic peninsular, spending the afternoon in the company of a colony of Gentoo penguins. Then the whales arrived.

As we approached we counted nine in the pod, their bellies bursting with krill and their huge heads overcome with curiosity. Our guides had been entertained by these pretty pelagics before but none was prepared for this gala performance. Engines idled then stalled as the Minkes encircled us in what could easily have been mistaken for a menacing pincer movement, and conversation aboard the bobbing Zodiacs fell to a few breathless whispers. We remained vaguely aware of our original directive but it was becoming increasingly irrelevant as it became clear we had been selected for a detailed examination. Regular encounters with Minkes last a few minutes at the most but these were in no hurry, and when one dutiful guide awoke from his reverie and threw his engine into gear, the action really started. These whales were not to be dismissed so soon and within moments they had surrounded the inflatable, demanding that he shut down his offensive motor.

This happened not once but three times, and it was only then that we realised this was no coincidence. Astonishingly, these sleek mammals were enjoying our company and, like dinner guests who’ve had too much fun, they just didn’t know when to leave. On the guano- fringed shoreline our increasingly frustrated expedition leader was unaware that he was facing a mutiny stirred up by a pod of ten-ton pelagics. A stream of increasingly feeble excuses cut through the Antarctic airwaves until at last he returned to see what was causing the delay. As his craft cut a lonely arc across the glassy surface he stood, Ahab-like in the front, struggling to determine the difference between the whales and their captive audience of swollen, grey Zodiacs.

Suddenly, right in front of me, a large old male raised his head beside the pontoon and cast a rheumy eye over his astonished audience. His glistening, dripping nose was but inches from me and had there not been a dozen things wrong about it, I could have reached out and touched him, thus betraying a trust not before imagined. The whale watched us for several seconds before diving and re-appearing the other side to repeat his trick.

By this time cameras had been forgotten, the desire wonder at the experience having overcome the desire to capture it, and people stood smiling, staggered by this maritime matinee. It should be impossible to tire of these encounters but when one easily-satisfied boatload voted to return to the ship for tea, they were headed off by the mammals and righteously returned to the fold.

As excuses for missing afternoon tea go, kidnap by whales is hard to beat, but the encounter was more than that: it showed a trust born again from the blood-soaked legacy of commercial whaling. Even their name – Minke - has a savage connotation, being the name of a particularly sharp-eyed but ill-educated whaler who spent his hours in the foc’sle mistaking these relatively small mammals for larger, more lucrative prey.

Thankfully the dark days when he and his ship-mates culled whales, leaving their bones to rot on Antarctica’s icy beaches are nearly history (Japan has a “quota” of 940 Minke whales in 2006), and so, after a three hour performance, were our Minkes. A final flick of the fin and they dived into the deep, leaving only their rapidly dispersing petroleum ‘footprints’ as evidence of their extraordinary presence and our gasps of awe and shrieks of delight were replaced by a long reflective silence.

Twenty years ago the mere approach of a boat would have been enough to scare these beautiful and intelligent creatures away, and yet this wonderful shared encounter, proves that man can be forgiven his trespasses. Years of sensitively-managed pilgrimages to this pristine land of towering icebergs and cobalt-blue glaciers have served as atonement for past crimes, but despite the trust regained we continue to threaten these innocents in more insidious ways. The icecaps are melting and where there’s less ice, there’s less algae growing on its underside. When there is less algae, there’s less food for the krill, and when there are no krill, there are no whales. Or penguins. Or Leopard seals. The more greenhouse gasses we allow to permeate the atmosphere, the less chance there is of our children meeting the whales’ offspring in that same bay, and the longer we ignore that simple truth, the more we become like old Minke, alone in his crow’s nest and failing to spot the true prize.