Pearls Around the White Continent Part II: Great Expectations Meet Southern Ocean Realities
In Part II of this five-part series, the sailors on Northern Light, circumnavigating the Southern Ocean, make landfall first at remote Macquarie Island, with its king penguins, molting elephant seals, and a handful of scientists happy for the human company. Click here for Part I.
Sea time to Macquarie is only four and a half days, and we average 7.8 knots. As the island rises up from a misty horizon, feelings in me rise from a deep, misty place, too. The idea for this voyage first appeared in the mid 1980s. So long ago. To flip the switch, from all the dreaming/planning/preparing to finally sighting our first southern island destination, makes us both giddy. By the time we round a shallow area that's 150 feet deep but breaking dangerously and sheet in for the final 10 miles of our approach, we're surrounded by thousands of petrels out from their nesting areas on Macquarie for an early morning feed. By the time we drop the hook outside the scientific station at the north end of the island, it's 8 a.m. Our VHF radio squawks to life, and the station manager welcomes us to "Macca." Aussies, it seems, have nicknames for everything.
Coming In for a Landing
We tuck in behind the hook called North Head, which forms the northeast corner of the island. Macquarie, only about 18 nautical miles long, has no true harbors. In terms of shelter, it's an open roadstead. In the Southern Ocean's belt of westerlies, so dominating that meteorologists refer to it as "the flywheel of the atmosphere," this little land mass is pounded 99.9 percent of the time by a southwesterly swell that often curves around the head and turns into surf along the eastern coastline. Any thought of landing in a dinghy is impossible for us for the time being. The station manager commiserates. "Sorry," he says. "We'll keep an eye on the surf, and we'll call you when it's doable."
This bay and its ugly station aren't what we've come to see. A few miles south lies Sandy Bay and its king penguin colony; that's the draw. But Macquarie is a managed reserve. And according to our permit, we're required to land here first to be briefed on the rules. All day, gale-force winds blow. The holding seems good, but we continue our four-hour watch rotation. Rolf alternates his lookout with stitching a leather patch onto the new staysail. I bake bread and chocolate-chip cookies; the boat's never allowed to be without either. Time passes slowly. The next morning, the weather is the same. Big waves pound the windward side of the narrow isthmus, creating a haze that wafts through our anchorage.
From 500 yards, in poor visibility, Macquarie may not look like much. But it's a geological rarity.
A brochure from the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service describes Macquarie as "the only place on Earth where midoceanic crustal rocks, all formed on or below the sea bed, are exposed at the surface."
Macquarie has been awarded World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in part for being a geological wonderland. It's also a nature reserve. Tourists on private yachts can get permission from the Parks & Wildlife Service to visit for two days. The permit allows us to anchor at three bays but go ashore, in the company of a ranger, at just two.