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.
It's a decent day, and we're back in Waterfall Inlet. The Australian weatherfax analysis shows a dent in an approaching cold front. The Kiwi chart doesn't, and the Kiwi voice forecast contains no mention of gale-force wind. Luckily, the front is just to our west, so if the dent exists, and if it turns into a low and starts spinning and deepening, it'll be fast upon us and fast to move away. In the weather bomb that develops, our barometric pressure drops at an average of seven millibars per hour; the worst drop is four millibars in 25 minutes! At its lowest, the pressure is 30 millibars deeper than predicted. After the center passes, the fastest rise is three millibars in 10 minutes. Three millibars change per hour is normally enough to generate gale-force wind. It's a long, scary night.
Just after sunset, the wind passes through gale-force and increases rapidly. Howls turn to shrieks. Downdrafts roar out from either of two valleys, rip off the surface of the water, then waterblast our boat's acrylic cupola. Northern Light heels with every gust, the toerail often underwater. In this wind strength, you'd have to crawl on deck to get around safely. The boat begins dragging. All our gear is out-a 45-pound Delta anchor and 70 yards of half-inch chain-but we drag at a rate of two yards every four minutes through the sandy bottom. Only 225 yards separate us from the beach.
We have a manual anchor windlass. There's no way we can pump up anchor chain against 70 to 80 knots of wind, not even with the engine engaged. If we have to leave the anchorage, we'll leave the anchor and chain behind. The good news is that the bitter end of the chain is spliced to a rope that's shackled to an eye in the chain locker. The rope is long enough to become visible at the capstan when all the gear is out, so we can attach a buoy to the chain and then, if necessary, cut the rope. Fortunately, by daybreak, the wind starts diminishing. At 50 knots, the anchor holds. There we sit, just at the edge of the shoreline kelp, only 70 yards off the beach. Waterfall Inlet isn't as perfect as we first thought.
When expecting heavy wind, we usually use lines to secure Northern Light to shore. But the use of mooring lines isn't permitted in New Zealand's subantarctic islands because rats can walk on them to a vessel, then perhaps walk off at another location. In our required post-visit report, we'll suggest a shore-line system in which the middle part of the line is weighted down so it's under water. Minimizing the risk of rat transport while also minimizing the risk of the environmental disaster caused by a shipwreck must be seen as a win/win situation.
We're in for one more surprise. Each and every time we go ashore, we see a Hooker's sea lion in the forest or in the bush. It doesn't matter how far above sea level we climb; one eventually pokes its head up from behind a stump or mound of tussock grass. Most often, she just glances at us. Yes, we only see females at high altitude. A scientist tells us that there are no predators for them to fear at beach level, so it's thought that females go walkabout to hide from the testosterone-driven males. Reclusive females have been sighted 2,000 feet above sea level! So the trails and tunnels in the bush are actually shared thoroughfares, used by pigs and female Hooker's sea lions.