Friday 13 January 2023
We have stayed anchored in the shelter of Sandy Bay overnight but in the morning make our way slightly north to Buckles Bay on the eastern side of the peninsular at the top of Macquarie Island where there is a research station. Macquarie Island has World Heritage status for its physical features without even considering the remarkable endemic wild life there. It was forced up from the ocean floor by the collision of the Australian and Pacific plates – the only place on earth where mid-ocean crustal rocks are exposed at the surface – squeezing out an elongated island 34km long by 5km wide.
After breakfast, the Penguins head out in the zodiacs to the shore. We are divided into groups to explore the area. Here we are fortunate to see a few Gentoo penguins in amongst the king penguins scattered along the beach. There are a lot of elephant seals and our guide Kate explains that these are predominantly young males. You can tell the difference between males and females by looking at their undersides: males have a belly button and penile opening whilst females have only a belly button and sometimes teats. We later learn that mature male elephant seals can reach up to 5000kg whilst these are likely only about half that size. They also don’t have the pronounced proboscis (nose) that gives them their name. They had their breeding season a couple of months ago and are now just starting their moulting season. Once this is over they will go out to the depths of the ocean for several months feeding. Elephant seals are known to reach 100-150 years old – they have found harpoon heads that have not existed since that time embedded in their flesh.
We first head up the steps to the lookout point where we get magnificent views, particularly over the isthmus area where you can see the wild west coast and the calmer eastern side. There is a swampy area where there are masses of elephant seals wallowing in the mud (presumably to assist with moulting). As we head back along the beach we see many seal carcasses including ones with skulls and teeth intact. We head towards the research base (including seeing the oil tanks with letters spelling out Macquarie Island – that will apparently be removed for good in a month’s time as it undergoes refurbishment).
We are not allowed to visit the research station because they have a strict covid policy which means that the rangers are wearing masks – we are not allow to go within 5m of them let alone visit. Instead we are pointed across to the western side of the isthmus; we are supposed to stick to the track but are allowed to go off it if elephant seals are blocking our way and we need to walk around them. We pass 2 large digesters and assorted other equipment from the whaling, sealing and penguin oil days.
On the western coast we spend most of our time watching the gentoo penguins. There are king penguins as well but we have seen a lot of them already. The gentoo penguins are smaller and here are only in small groups. There are juvenile penguins here which are almost full size but we are fortunate to see a mother feeding her (large) chick and then to see the chick chasing after her when she has decided that enough is enough.
Next we have another zodiac cruise exploring the rocky northern end of the island with lots of craggy volcanic rock islands fringed with kelp. Here we are particularly keen to see the fourth species of penguins – rock hopper penguins – which as their name suggests, can be found hopping around the rocks. There are masses of different sea birds swooping around as well including cape petrels and giant petrels.
We then head back to the ship for lunch. Once everyone is back on board we head south to almost the southern end of the island to Lusitania Bay. On the way we have our first call of ‘large male orca on the starboard side’ – but by the time we have donned jackets and gone up to a vantage point there is no sign of it and it is far too cold and windy for us to stay outside long waiting in hope of seeing it again.
At Lusitania Bay we head out again in the zodiacs to observe a very large king penguin colony. There are hundreds of penguins out in the water and they love the bubbles created by the zodiac motor – following in the wake and porpoising about. We are not able to go onshore as the colony covers every possible land surface. It is almost unbelievable how many penguins are packed in there – there are estimates of 200,000 pairs and counts of 55,000 chicks this last season. There is quite a swell and lots of kelp and rocks so we can’t go very close into shore but close enough to be able to make out some of the chicks. Every now and then we see a ‘Mexican wave’ of penguin movement on the beach usually where there is an elephant seal coming up on the beach. It is a bit ironic and sad to see the remnants of penguin digesters right in the middle of such a mass of penguins. (One penguin is said to have yielded 2 litres of oil). With many of the species that were hunted it has taken many many years (sometimes more than a century) for the animals to come back to these areas and increase in numbers.
Even though we don’t come back to the ship until 6.30 it is still sunny (the Parakeets who went earlier unfortunately had rain and came back quite cold). And it was even more of a surprise to me when we had finished dinner and were heading to bed just before 10.00 to see the sun still quite high in the sky. It will be very strange when we reach Antarctica where it will always be daylight.
At our briefing this evening as we set sail again, Aaron tells us that it is 1000 nautical miles due south to Cape Adair on Antarctica but that there is ice/ice bergs in the way so we can’t simply go south. We will be heading south east and then adjusting depending on what we find along the way. Thankfully there are currently only light winds and a following sea that means it is not too rough sailing. This is the point when any scheduling goes out the window and we will get there when we get there – Mother Nature is in control now. Nominally it will take approximately 3 or more days for us to reach the Ross Sea. On our journey south we will cross the Antarctic Convergence and at some point start to see ice bergs. There is a sweepstake started to name the date and time that we will see our first iceberg.
Day 1-2: Meeting and Departure
Day 3: The Snares
Day 4: Auckland Islands – Enderby Island
Day 5: At Sea
Day 6: Macquarie Island
Day 7: Macquarie Island
Day 8: At Sea
Day 9: At Sea
Day 10: At Sea
Day 11: At Sea
Day 12: Cape Adare, Antarctica
Day 13: Possession Islands
Day 14: At Sea, Coulman Island
Day 15: At Sea
Day 16: At Sea
Day 17: At Sea, Ross Ice Shelf
Day 18: Cape Bird/McMurdo Sound
Day 19: Cape Bird/McMurdo Sound
Day 20: Cape Evans/Cape Royds
Day 21: At Sea
Day 22: At Sea
Day 23: At Sea
Day 24: At Sea
Day 25: At Sea
Day 26: At Sea/Campbell Island
Day 27: Final Day at Sea