Field Note: Humpbacks pay a visit to the NG Explorer

National Geographic photographers and husband-and-wife team Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson captured a memorable encounter on an expedition to Antarctica.

It is sunny and clear this morning—no wind in the air. A perfect day for photography. Cotton climbs the crow’s nest to get a higher vantage point, and Sisse moves to the bow for a different angle. As the National Geographic Explorer enters Errera Channel—a beautiful, narrow passage on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula—two curious and friendly humpback whales approach. Captain Hartmann pulls back on the throttle, takes the ship out of gear, and lets the ship slowly drift through the calm, pale blue waters. It’s interesting to think that a hundred years ago, the sight of two huge humpbacks just feet from the vessel would have sent the crew rushing for their harpoons—these were prime whaling waters until the early 20th century, after all. Today, everyone on board falls silent, partly in awe, partly so as not to frighten them away.

The humpbacks are playful, swimming back and forth under the hull, rolling and breaching around us for at least a half hour. They surface alongside the ship, directly below us. From the crow’s nest, Cotton captures the moment: the travelers lined up along the rail with their cameras, the whales so close they seem within reach. They breathe out strongly through their blowholes, sending up clouds of mist. Then, with a deep inhalation, they dive into the blue, dark shadows, swimming slowly out of view.

Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson