Northward Bound

Leaving Antarctica after such a short visit and having spent seven days being tossed around the Southern Ocean just to get there, let alone contemplating another seven to be spent before we saw land again, certainly left one feeling a little short changed. But that’s why the Ross Sea side of the continent has so few tourists – it’s bloody inconvenient to get to except by air. And by air you would miss the treasures of the greater Ross Island and outer McMurdo Sound.

Despite the disconsolation we felt as we said goodbye to the continent, as we sailed from the Ross Ice Shelf toward the ring of pack ice two days north, we hoped it wouldn’t prove as impenetrable as it had been just a few weeks earlier when other boats had been forced to turn back. Our regret to be leaving didn’t extend to thoughts of an involuntary wintering-over should a re-freeze compel us to stay. This summer has certainly been an odd-one as far as the sea ice is concerned.

The Southern Ocean is a big sea and big seas can throw you about as we once again were reminded heading for MacQuarie Island and into the teeth of a roaring nor’wester. And in spite of a few injuries en route – stitches in heads as bulkheads terminated the trajectory of human missiles launched by the swell, shiners from contretemps with cabin doors, and the inevitable stomach flutters that eight metre seas can encourage – our arrival at MacQuarie was looked forward to eagerly and turned out to be deserved of that expectation.

The island these days is a wildlife conservatory so the motorbikes remained in the hold as on foot we took in the wonders that this spec of a landform – just 34 kms long by 5km wide – presents to its few visitors. The island is a World Heritage site by virtue of the fact that it sits on the southern ridge extension of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and unusually has popped above the ocean surface only in the last 700,000 years, squeezed up by pressure from two approaching plates. This differentiates it from other sub-Antarctic islands which initially developed as underwater volcanoes and are above the ocean due to the piling up of successive layers of lava. So the island is a rare exposure of genuine earth’s crust – much the same as Iceland, the next destination for us after this leg of worldbybike traverse.

But it’s the wildlife that grabs you – and I don’t mean the rabbits that proliferate and have devastated the terrain that is the habitats of other species, and deservedly will soon be exterminated. But the albatross, penguin and elephant seals that gather here in such numbers that you can’t get a wide enough lens to take it all in, bewilder the visitor with sensory overload. MacQuarie is the home of the Royal penguin, but it’s the larger King penguin that dominates the beaches and stand flipper to flipper to greet you as you come ashore. Incredibly tame, these little critters have no hesitation in pecking away at you should you sit proximate and take time to communicate. Neither do they seem to be intimidated by the four ton elephant seals that they share the beach with. As you can imagine the digital cameras didn’t stop all day as thousands upon thousands of poses were captured – the animals would well benefit from a modelling fee, standing proudly as they do next to the digesters into which they were once rendered down to provide blubber and oil.

MacQuarie hosts a manned meteorological station that, being in one of the most pristine parts of the globe, is able to collect high quality data on atmospheric gasses, and temperature trends from its twice daily balloon releases that soar some 35 kms up into the atmosphere. But this isn’t its sole use in terms of matters global. Every month they do a rubbish cleanup on one of MacQuarie’s uninhabited western beaches. Last week in a 100 metre strip they picked up 400 items of manmade flotsam that had come ashore over that month. This despite, the fact MacQuarie is one of most isolated places on earth. This just confirms that oceans, as much as the atmosphere, are global pollution transitways. The small plastic bits that seem to frequent the monthly rubbish retrieval are indigestible to the albatrosses who cough them up, although their chicks can’t manage to do that and can be considered victims of global choking.

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