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.
Among the subantarctic islands, Campbell is unique-it was the first to be cleared of introduced species. First to go were sheep, cattle, and cats. And then the Norway rat-no small feat, as Campbell was assumed to be the rat-densest island in the world, with 200,000 rats living on an area measuring a mere five by eight miles. Two years later, the NZ$2.6 million eradication project was declared a success. At least 33 animal species, many of them endangered, as well as untold plant communities are benefiting from the program.
We Get the Message
At the head of Perseverance Harbour, the larger of the two inlets, is a station. It's empty when we arrive; both groups of ornithologists are out in the field. Over the radio, they tell us not to miss walking the wood boardwalk to the high plateau and the edge of the southern royal albatross nesting area, where we can watch the birds socialize. Two paths lead away from the dock. We take the wider, only to end up turning a blind corner smack-dab into the middle of a sea lion breeding colony. The bulls, used to guarding their harems and territories and full of fighting spirit, come charging out from the tussock grass. Scientists on Enderby told us how to defend ourselves. We each carry an oar and, when meeting a sea lion, simply hold it out. It feels like waving a match to ward off a dinosaur, but it works. The sea lions appreciate the end of our lengthened arm as being the border of our territory.
But today, our team of two meets a pack of five ornery bulls. It's downright frightening, as the 650-pound roaring sea lions charge us from too many directions at once. There are no trees to climb. Our only chance to escape is to retrace our steps, walking back-to-back. I hope that two oars will be enough to fend off all five. Getting bitten would be bad, as the sea lions' saliva has bacteria that leads to serious infection. But worse would be getting bowled over and crushed to death by one of these behemoths. The return trip to the dock takes forever. When it's over, I'm shaking and dripping in sweat. That's now three points for the sea lions.
We arrive back at the dinghy just in time. A large female sea lion is trying to bite our inflatable. Luckily, despite her efforts, she can't open her jaws far enough to puncture even the aftmost part of the conical tubes. Big Mama ignores my raised voice urging her to go away, and we have to resort to jabbing at her with an oar to get her to leave. Point four. It's pretty obvious we're not wanted here.
Under windy conditions, we hang on at anchor for a few more days. The bottom is soft mud, the holding poor. We spend our days aboard filming and doing boat projects, our nights on anchor watch. All the while Northern Light drags slowly. Whenever the depth becomes 40 feet deep, we reanchor in 25 feet and start over. We try a few different places but never find good holding. When nice weather returns, Rolf suggests that we motor to the northernmost part of the island to have a look at the mollymawks nesting there on the cliffs. It's illegal to land, so we just drift around and watch the chicks through binoculars. Their parents check us out while passing on their way to feed at sea. There's only one other anchorage on Campbell-Northeast Harbour-and we putter there at the end of the day. The spot was used in the past by whalers, and at the head of the bay we find mooring pins in the rocks, concrete remnants of a small boat jetty, and huge iron tripods used for rendering blubber to oil.