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.
When the bad weather holds, the park ranger kindly phones his boss and secures permission for us to stay an extra day. On that third day, a new low is forecast to pass through. Though not terribly deep, its center should cross right over us. The center's position relative to ours is important. If it goes south of us, the wind stays westerly, that is, favorable. But should the low's center pass north of us, we'll get easterly wind and have to leave. Quickly.
We wait on tenterhooks, knocking on the barometer so often our knuckles hurt. Discussions of What If? are ongoing. On day three, just as we've decided that it's not worth staying, the ranger radios to tell us that the Bureau of Meteorology has predicted that the wind will stay out of the north-between northwest to north-northeast. And he's just been to the landing area. It's doable. He's lined up a crew of four, ready to change into drysuits and be in the water to assist with our landing.
I look at Rolf. He nods. I tell the ranger that we'll inflate the dinghy and come in.
Rolf drives, zooming toward the shore while skirting patches of bull kelp, which unfortunately get larger and more tightly spaced the closer we get to shore. In the final approach, he lines up the dinghy with the cluster of people awaiting us, then judges when to speed up so we'll ride in just behind the crest of a wave and when to put the outboard into neutral and lift it so the propeller won't dig into the sand.
We jump out of the dinghy, and our four helpers assist us to pull the craft up the steep beach and out of the way of the next breaker. Whew.
We're surrounded by smiling faces. Always a bit tongue-tied when we go from being alone to being with new people, we let them do the talking. The scientists and support crew say they've been feeling badly for us, "sitting out there like prisoners, rolling and rolling." The ranger briefs us on the rules, then hands us over to his colleague who's to accompany us ashore. Our guide, a biologist who's been working on Macca for several seasons, is a wealth of knowledge.
Nearby we see molting elephant seals clustered together in piles. The guide says there are 10,000 southern elephant seals lying in similar piles around the island. Why piles? Well, he says, although an elephant seal's blood usually doesn't penetrate the outermost layer of blubber, it must do so to facilitate molting. That chills the seal; the group pile is a way for them to remain warm. He adds that Macquarie's elephant-seal population has been decreasing over the last 40 years.