On the 2 December 1911, the residents of the island state of Tasmania turned out in droves to farewell the heavily laden Aurora when it headed south from Hobart. Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition was off. It had been an extraordinary year. Mawson had somehow managed to raise the necessary funds; appoint a team of scientists, engineers and ship’s crew; buy and provision a vessel; and obtain enough equipment and supplies to sustain a scientific expedition in the field for fourteen months. But it was not all plain sailing. A week after departure, Mawson wrote to his fiancé Paquita:
‘Our journey has been lengthened by a gale and encumbered decks – we scarcely thought to get through Tuesday last, but providence has asserted itself right from the beginning. The Starboard bulwarks, motorboat and part of the bridge have been broken up – repairs are however well underway...The Aurora rolls day and night without ceasing – I have been trying to sleep on a couch and almost nightly find myself on the floor a few times during my watch below. The seas breaking over the ship have deluged everything – it is a horribly repulsive feeling to be dropped from the couch into 2” or 3” of water flowing backwards and forwards on the floor. Have not yet had my clothes off and only one rinse of my face – no hair brushing. You can imagine I am looking rather shaggy.’
Weathering this violent storm, the Aurora sighted Macquarie Island in nine days.
Although we only took three days to cover the distance and have not suffered any damage, the Southern Ocean has done its best to give us a traditional welcome and recreate the conditions that so vexed Mawson. Macquarie Island lies within vast belt of waves and wind that encircle the mid-latitudes and are known as the ‘roaring forties’, ‘furious fifties’ and ‘screaming sixties’. The combination of a large temperature difference over a relatively narrow band of latitude, the spin of the Earth and the vast expanse of ocean means the wind almost always blows from the west, and with prodigious force. TheShokalskiy deals with these conditions incredibly well but isn’t completely immune to the conditions, regularly rolling some 25˚. One of the fun things I am starting to learn is how to walk at ever changing angles – and anticipate them. One moment you’re walking down a corridor, the next you are dragging your shoulders along the walls, looking like you’re worse for wear after a heavy night. Corridors are the least of our problems though. Many of the team have struggled with their stomachs. Our expedition doctor Andrew has got to know many on board, introducing himself by their bedsides and dispensing drugs for sea sickness. It is one way to meet people but a terrible shame because the food made by our cooks Nikki and Brad is wonderful.
Regardless of the conditions, the team struggled out of bed today to learn about the history and protection of Macquarie Island. It’s an incredibly special place. The wildlife is stunning and much of it is endemic – there are 41 species unique to the island – making it highly vulnerable to invaders; you have to be so careful not to accidentally introduce pests. ‘Biosecurity’ is the key term here. The island authorities have just finished getting rid of rabbits and rodents – at great expense – and the vegetation is apparently already showing signs of recovery. So cleaning gear is a must so we spent the afternoon, checking over equipment and vacuuming clothing. You can clean almost anything with a vacuum cleaner!
Hopefully we’ll make the island tomorrow.