The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Day 9 – Land of the Albatrosses

Posted by Chris - 5 December 2013

Campbell Island huts Google HOA team

A sadly neglected member of the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition team was Captain John K Davis, aka ‘Gloomy Davis’. While Mawson and his teams were operating out from the land and ice bases on Macquarie Island and the Antarctic continent, second-in-command Davis effectively led the fourth base: the expedition vessel, the Aurora. This role was so much more than just provisioning everyone else. Davis was charged with leading a full science program across the Southern Ocean: the so-called ‘subantarctic cruises’. Not a scientist himself, Davis somehow managed to maintain a full program of research, whilst also keeping order amongst a group of independent-thinking academics – described by someone on our current expedition like ‘herding cats’! – and navigating some of the most treacherous seas in the world. There is no doubt this work often frustrated Davis. On one of the cruises, Davis took a Tasmanian biology professor who was no less than Errol Flynn’s father. Flynn and his assistant did not impress the ship’s captain one little bit as they appeared ‘to have come on a cheap holiday, they both lay on the hatch while I and the mate have been working hard all day,’ and later on they ‘got the sulks and [do] nothing. I am very sorry that we have these people on board...they are no use here’. With Flynn it appears Davis was correct: the promised reports on the science never materialised. And yet the larger team still produced important results, mapping vast swathes of the sea bed while measuring the characteristics of the seawater as they went. Invaluable datasets we can compare against today on this expedition.

On Auckland Islands we spent the last two days in Carnley Harbour, inspiring Davis to write ‘as a magnificent sheet of water like a Norwegian fjord’ and ‘I do not think you could have a better haven in these latitudes; the only thing wanted is a decent chart.’ It is stunning. A deep flooded caldera, long since extinct, the steep slopes are densely covered in bush and extend into saturated peaty tussock on the high ground. In places, skyscrapers of sheer rock reach up to the heavens, with wonderful monikers such as the ‘Tower of Babel’ and ‘The Dome’. But the big difference to Port Ross is the striking evidence of former glaciation scattered as far as the eye can see. Nestled below most of the prominent peaks are the scars of glaciation: corries, hanging valleys and ridges of rubble – commonly described as moraines – drape down over the slopes, desperately inviting investigation. On the first day major efforts were made to bush bash the way up to the former sites of ice. The teams returned exhausted but successful. Led by Janet and Richard they returned with precious sediment cores taken from within the moraines, offering the potential to extract small fossils preserved to reconstruct environmental change. Radiocarbon dating of the material will give us a chronology, most probably spanning more than 12,000 years. I can’t wait to get the samples back to the lab.

Sadly, the wind picked up on our final day in Carnley Harbour and we woke to find 50 knot winds battering the Shokalskiy. It was too dangerous to get anyone off the vessel in the Zodiacs. That said, we had a Hangout on Air so couldn’t leave Carnley for the Southern Ocean where the winds promised wilder seas and an inability to link to the satellites. As a compromise we beat a path up to the northern end of the harbour to get some shelter. Things improved – a little – and we moored up in relatively shelter. Although the vessel kept turning, Anthony stalwartly kept the satellite system pointed at the correct spot in the sky and we managed to keep online for the full Hangout. It was a magnificent effort, especially as Anthony was effectively drenched as we hid under cover of the worst of the rain and wind! During the Hangout we were some times gasping for breath and had to shout to be heard but it was great fun. We had some fantastic questions from the schools. It seems incredible to think we’re beaming live around the world. It just goes to show what you can do today. The link is here; I hope you enjoy it.

But just as quickly as the winds rose they subsided again and the afternoon was far calmer. Carnley Harbour wasn’t a millpond but it was now safe to operate the Zodiacs. Instantly everyone moved up a gear as the teams tried to salvage something from the day. Emma and Graeme collected more underwater survey footage – including our first sighted whale, making it photo of the day! – while Greg worked hard supporting many of the teams as they went to shore to measure the different types of vegetation; Jonathan was brilliant and collected some 9 cores from trees on the lower slopes which should provide a great climate record. Chris F happily agreed to drive Kerry-Jayne and a team back from where we had been earlier in the morning and return to the northern end of Carnley Harbour to what is known as Figure of Eight island. This had been home to the third largest colony of sea lions on the whole of the Auckland Islands. Worryingly Kerry-Jayne returned with sad news. She found no evidence of a colony. Unlike Enderby Island, there were only a few males present and they were not making any attempt to defend their patch for future mates. It doesn’t look like the colony exists any more. We must return at the end of the second leg to double check this at the height of the mating season. If true, it is terrible news for the population on the Auckland Islands.

That evening we left the safety of Carnley Harbour and ventured out into the rolling seas of the Southern Ocean, heading for Campbell Island at 52˚S. As soon as we left the eastern harbour exit, we were suddenly thrust into wild seas, with the Shokaliskiy rolling 20˚ one way and then the other. Most of the team seemed to enjoy the motion on deck, watching the Auckland Island disappear of the starboard deck before beating a retreat to the bar to celebrate the day’s turns of events (and preserve the contents of their stomachs). We had left Auckland several hours later than planned but at least something had been salvaged from the day.

The night was a bad one for sleep. Many of us slept badly, tossing and turning in our beds as we rolled our way south. Most made it to breakfast but few looked fresh and alert. The morning and early afternoon was spent with team members giving talks on their findings and experiences on the subantarctics, including science volunteer Rodney who had spent 15 months as a meteorologist at our next destination: Campbell Island. Can’t wait!


We entered Campbell Island’s Perseverance Harbour yesterday around 1530. The approach was so different to the Auckland Islands. As we worked our way through the fog, it was hard to believe there was any land within hundreds of kilometres of the ship rather than the few we knew it to be. All you could see was sea and fog. And then all of a sudden, land reared out of the mist and we faced a cliff face hundreds of metres high, surrounded by crashing waves. Davis didn’t visit Campbell Island on the AAE but we are here to extend the work on Auckland. We are incredibly fortunate to have Matt McGlone and Janet Wilmshurst on board. Matt and Janet have been working on the subantarctics for last two decades and their research has provided all sorts of new insights into the ecology and environmental change of the region. Indeed, because the islands have a relatively simple flora, all sorts of ecological questions can be tested; many of which would be far more difficult to investigate with the complex vegetation found on the mainland of New Zealand and elsewhere.

In flight

Albatross in flight

To be honest though, there is a whole other reason for visiting Campbell Island: the wildlife is stunning. Sea lions and elephant seals litter the shore and can be found on the surrounding hills – often scaring the daylights out of anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby. In the hills though are what Brent describes as the great ‘Southern Hemisphere citizen’: the albatrosses. These majestic creatures are enormous, with wingspans 3 metres across, they seem to effortlessly glide across the ocean for weeks – and sometimes years – they can live to more than 50 years and only return to land to mate for life. They honestly take your breath away. Photos do not do them justice – though I couldn’t resist posting some here anyway! The whole hill side was covered in nests, with pairs courting one another and teenagers doing their best to impersonate the adults. I had seen movies of albatrosses in flight but nothing prepared me for the sight of them sweeping through the sky. It was breathtaking to watch.


Albatross, ultimately not to star in a Google Hangout

Today was a manic one. With one day left on Campbell we had our third Hangout on Air. Chased by sea lions up and down the mountain we reached what is known as Col Lyall but were completely shrouded in fog. Somewhere below us was the sea but beyond hearing the crashing waves you would never have known. The satellite system just wouldn’t work and after lining up a fantastic shoot with an albatross in the background regretfully decided we should delay and try at lower ground. The low cloud seemed to play a major factor in linking to the satellite but just one hour later we were online and talking to the schools. The threat of sea lion attack was ever present but never materialised on air – thought the footage would probably have gone viral! The students had done their homework and asked some fantastic questions about the wildlife, particularly the albatrosses, and plant life on Campbell Island. Brent and Matt gave some great answers to the questions. A real advantage of having all sorts of experts on the team!

Tonight we’re off for the Snares so are pushing pack north. Should be some 30 hours at sea. I’ll let you know how much weight I lose!