Breaching whale, Antarctica cruise, GIF sequence

On our last Antarctica cruise, I was fortunate to capture this rare humpback whale breach sequence on camera! © Nate Small

It usually starts with a small plume of water out in the open ocean, typically quite an underwhelming sight. You can only see something more significant with a good pair of binoculars, and that’s only if the weather conditions cooperate and you happen to be looking at the right bit of the ocean at the right time.  If all goes well…you might see the tip of a fin or a small section of the monstrosities back.  The other 50ft + of the sea creature is concealed by the wind-swept waves.

Humpback whale fluke, Antarctica cruise, zodiac ride

Humpback whale shows passengers his fluke. © Nate Small

No, I’m not talking about krill, though they are equally as important.  I’m talking about the majestic beasts of the underworld….whales.

I will admit that I have a special spot in my heart for whales…they are, in my opinion, one of the most intelligent and amazing animals to roam the oceans.  Even out in the open ocean, with just a small plume of water to mark their position, they can capture the hearts of sailors.

As you get closer to Antarctica, usually your whale experiences come a little closer.  The water is calmer and the whales in Antarctica are easier to see.  Instead of just a plume of water, you might now see the back of the whale with your naked eye, or if it’s a Humpback whale, you may see its fluke (tail) as it prepares for a deep dive.

Depending on what time of the year you are sailing to Antarctica, the whales may have different behaviors.  In the early season, the whales are just showing up, however as the season progresses, the food becomes more and more plentiful, and instead of seeing just the back of the whale you might see them feeding.  As the season continues and the penguins all start leaving, the whales are still going strong, and typically becoming a bit more curious now that they have a belly full of krill.  By this time of the year (usually around March) the whales will be in full swing: fluking and feeding, flipper slapping and sleeping.  You may even be fortunate enough to be in a zodiac that the whales take an interest in.

Humpback whale jaws, Antarctica cruise

The massive yet beautiful jaws of a humpback whale. © Nate Small

Having a curious whale play with your zodiac is a rare, but incredible experience.  It doesn’t happen often, and it may not happen at all in a season.  If it does happen, and you are lucky enough to be there, it could be one of those moments that can change your life.   Whales seem to penetrate the soul as they stare up at you with their grapefruit sized eyeball from the water below.  When you see an animal so large gracefully swim underneath a zodiac with such ease and care not to touch the boat or make a ripple, you know that this creature is intelligent enough to understand where every part of its body is in relation to the zodiac.  I’ve seen them float just underneath a zodiac, mere inches away from the pontoon, and not once accidentally touch the boat.


A curious whale approaches one of the group’s zodiacs. © Nate Small

On occasion they may decide to put on a show by putting their pectoral fins (which on a humpback can be up to 12-15 ft long!) up in the air and slap the water, or maybe they will stick their heads out of the water to get a different view of you.  If you are very lucky you may even see a whale breaching!  Why they do this is up for speculation, but I like to think they do it for the same reason we jump into the water…it’s refreshing and fun.  Or maybe they just have an itch on their back…who knows.

upside down whale with its pectoral fin in the air. humpback whale.

Upside down whale waves its pectoral fin in the air. © Nate Small

Depending on what kind of whale experience you want, you’ll have to choose wisely what time of the year you come down and you’ll have to pick up every four leaf clover you can before coming down because luck is definitely a key part of the equation.  Regardless of the experience you have, whales can be one of the most sensational and surprising animals you meet on your Antarctic adventure.

Here’s to hoping a monolithic monstrosity of the deep changes your life,


P.S. Scroll down to see some more of my whale photos from this season, and see the rest of my nature photography at

Antarctica cruise whale watching

Whale's tale, fluke, Antarctica

A whale’s tail is also called a fluke. © Nate Small

2 humpback whales, Antarctica

It’s rare to get 2 whales in the frame like this. © Nate Small

humpback whale, Antarctica

Humpback whale. © Nate Small

Humpback whale, iceberg, Antarctica

Notice the beautiful background. © Nate Small

humpback whale breaching, Antarctica cruise

A rare sighting of a whale breaching. © Nate Small