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.
We walk along the beach, then cut over to the west side of the isthmus. Our guide explains everything that's happening around us. The sky is heavily overcast-that's the norm for a high-latitude maritime climate. The island's upper plateau is shrouded in cloud and mist, as it often is for days on end. It's drizzling-normal conditions for 300 days of the year-and only a few degrees above freezing. The norm for January is in the 40s F, but the temperature can drop below freezing, and it can snow on any day of the year. Wind gusts over 70 knots have been recorded in every month. Today's relative humidity is 95 percent. It's like this only a third of the days of the year; 85 percent is more common. He continues with more facts, but my attention's diverted.
There they are. What I've longed to see for so many years: king penguins! Shivers of excitement run along my spine. About 20 silent kings stand in a huddle on the black stone beach at the water's edge. The guide leads us toward them slowly. In the gray light, their orange neck feathers seem to glow. We sit, becoming the height of a king penguin. Rolf and I want just to stay near the group and observe while smelling the beached kelp and the salty tide pools. But the pleasure isn't to be ours.
Always remaining on alert for any change in the weather is a matter of survival in these waters. Rolf and I have both been keeping a weather eye-the Bureau of Meteorology's prediction is a forecast, not a promise. The wind shifts a bit to the east of north. Time to go?
My adrenalin starts flowing. We watch the station's flag. The wind lightens. Then shifts back. But despite the favorable change, Northern Light bucks and rolls even more than before. The swell has increased. The process of getting the dinghy and 15-horse outboard on deck and stowed below for the passage is difficult when the motion is this violent. We can't risk it getting worse. We thank our guide, ask him to relay our greetings to the rest of the gang, and jog to the dinghy. Back aboard Northern Light, we get everything stowed and eat lunch.