They stood on the top bridge of the cruise ship National Geographic Explorer, peering through binoculars at the vast icy Weddell Sea. It was a summer afternoon in February in Antarctica, the air a balmy 32-or-so degrees Fahrenheit, and John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, biologists with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, had spotted killer whales in the distance.
The only question was, were these the Type B2’s, with their gorgeous gray-and-white coloring and their culinary fondness for Gentoo penguins—one of only three kinds of killer whales found in the Antarctic Peninsula? Or another type of killer whale unique to these cold deep waters? From miles away it was hard to tell. The rest of us spectators on the ship, far from our native habitats of Texas, England, and Kenya, gazed out at the ice floes and the foggy horizon splashed with blue, wondering too.
The scientists were on board thanks to a grant from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund. The fund aspires to protect the ocean’s last pristine areas through research, conservation, education, and community-development projects in the company’s far-flung destinations.
For Durban and Fearnbach, who are based in sunny La Jolla, California, the fund has buoyed their research in Antarctica. While they also study orca and humpback whale populations in the Pacific Northwest, the North Atlantic and Alaska, on these trips they’ve been able to observe killer whales in perhaps the most inaccessible place on the planet. Since 2011, the scientists have made several voyages a year to the frozen continent on the Explorer, using the ice-cutting, refurbished Norwegian ferry to follow the whales.