Pearls Around the White Continent Part III: Intruders in the Realm of the Sea Lions
In this installment, documentary filmmakers Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke continue their 22,500-nautical-mile circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean. Sailing the 40-foot steel ketch Northern Light in the Roaring 40s, Furious 50s, and Screaming 60s, Deborah and Rolf explore the beautiful and far-flung subantarctic islands strung like pearls around the bottom of our planet. Click here for previous installments.
At 50 degrees south, during the height of summer, nighttime is only five hours long. Even then, it's rarely dark. Last night, with rose-colored aurora australis undulating across the southern sky like curtains at an open window, I could work on deck without artificial light. Tonight, an extraordinary abundance of bioluminescence in the water lights the scene. Multitudes of wave crests glow greenish-white-like neon light, I think-as a sudden movement in my peripheral vision makes me look astern. Dozens of skinny green lines are closing in on Northern Light. As they near, I see the bodies of the fish. So can dolphins, who zoom in to feed. The school scatters, the fish flashing away, pursued by what looks like long-tailed comets.
During our 350-mile passage from Macquarie Island, the wind never goes above 35 knots. After two pleasant days at sea, we sight Adams Island, the southernmost island in the Auckland Island group. A nesting area for endangered albatross, Adams is off-limits to tourists, so we continue past it to the east side of Auckland Island-the coastline is deeply indented with fjords-and Waterfall Inlet, a keyhole-shaped bay with a narrow entrance. Wind diminishes to nothing as we enter. The perfect anchorage.
We're pleasantly stunned. The only picture we'd seen of rata trees led us to expect their flowers to be dull brown. But the clusters of trees rimming the inlet are decked out in bright crimson! The next shock isn't as positive. The bull Hooker's sea lion who's claimed Waterfall Inlet is so contrary that he must've been ousted from a breeding colony and come here to establish his own territory. He swims out, charging and growling at Northern Light. His cows and pups remain on the beach. Aloud, I wonder how he'll react when we go ashore. Rolf suggests we wait. "Maybe the harem will have moved on by tomorrow," he says.
It doesn't. As we pull the dinghy up the stony beach, the bull pops up in the shallows, snapping and snorting. Worried that he might attack and puncture the dinghy, we wait, on guard. Fifteen minutes pass before he retreats. Our focus shifts to the scenery. The mountains ringing the inlet meet a deep-blue and cloudless sky. In the pure, crisp air, the colors of the forest-clad hillsides remind me of maples in autumnal dress. We walk along the shore, exploring like kids. Searching for a rescue hut that's marked on the chart, we venture inland along a rivulet of a creek until we find it. Rotten and collapsing, its door is swollen shut. What a joke. Through the window we see wooden benches and a few old pots and pans. That's it. I guess it could provide a modicum of shelter if one broke in, but to survive, any stranded sailor better know what plants are edible.
Nearby lies an ancient rata forest. It's difficult to imagine a more entrancing place. Rata trees belong to the myrtle family. Here, in the cool and windy maritime forest, the trees grow slowly and often horizontally, twisting like strands of rope and getting gnarly, before forming a tight overhead canopy. Only a few shafts of sunshine break through the dense cover. Green lichens grow on the tree trunks, adding spots of intense color. The clear call of bell birds occasionally pierces the still air. The forest floor is cushiony, carpeted by eons of fallen leaves and flowers, muffling any noise we make. Our steps sound hollow, like knocking a knuckle on a loaf of bread that's ready to be taken out of the oven. Forget about the rotten rescue hut. Shipwrecked, I'd move into the rata forest. Build a shelter, weave a hammock from the flax plants ringing the bay, and stay there, a happy Robinson Crusoe.
The reverie is broken by a sudden, raspy snarl. Very close. Where'd he come from? The same feisty, 12-foot-long bull charges at us, and Rolf and I scramble up a tree. Luckily there was something to climb, because the bull moves around the forest floor faster than we can, slithering easily under the low, horizontal rata branches and trunks. Again, it takes a quarter of an hour until he loses interest and goes away. Then we go home.