Chapter 26: A land of storm and mist
Chapter 26: A land of storm and mist
By GF Ainsworth
A heavy northwest gale was experienced on April 12, the wind attaining a force of over fifty miles an hour.
As usual, a tremendous sea worked up very quickly, and sheets of spray shredded across the isthmus. About 2 pm the wind shifted to west and later to southwest; these changes being accompanied by fierce hail and squalls of snow. During the night the wind moderated, heavy snow fell and, when morning dawned, all the pools were frozen over and the island was draped in white. It was the heaviest fall we had so far experienced.
On the 15th Hamilton and I shot several gulls for specimens.
The Dominican or black–backed gulls are very numerous and remain on the island all the year round. They are rather pretty, being snow–white, except on the upper part of the wings and back. Ordinarily their food is obtained from the water, but at Macquarie Island they live almost entirely upon the carcases left by the sealers, and are usually seen defending their rights against skuas and giant petrels. They build nests of tussock on rocks close to the water or maybe on the ground. Three eggs, much like those of the skua in colour, but with a greener tint and smaller, are laid, but generally only two are hatched. The young leave the nest early and hide amongst the rocks, whither the old ones come to feed them.
We now considered it advisable to prepare for the winter, and with that end in view papered the inside of the Shack in various places. As the cold winds were particularly searching, all faulty joints in the lining were pasted over with any kind of paper we could find. A leak down the outside of the stove pipe was remedied, after a good deal of trouble, by soldering a collar round the pipe where it passed through the roof. Firing was an important consideration, so each man now brought home several loads of driftwood every day, until we had enough to keep us going for some months. There was a complete boot mending outfit which was put to a good deal of use, for the weathered rocks cut the soles of our boots and knocked out the hobnails. Our supply of the last–named did not last long, and several of the party used strips of hoop iron in their stead.
Blake found it necessary to make a kind of work desk in his section, and accordingly had a thorough rearrangement. He shifted his bunk up to a height of about five and a half feet, very close to the ceiling; a fact which necessitated some wriggling and squirming on his part to get into the sleeping bag. There was a fine open space left underneath, and he managed to fix up his table very neatly.
Although they had intended to leave the work on the southern half of the island until the spring, Hamilton and Blake set out for Lusitania Bay on April 23 to make a short reconnoitring trip. It was thought advisable to spend a few days down there, to improve the hut and generally speaking to have a look round. Both men had already visited the place and depoted some provisions there. At 8 am they started off, carrying their blankets, sleeping bags and a few other articles. Their proposal was to go along the coast as far as Sandy Bay and from thence along the hilltops for the remaining ten miles.
Hail and snow squalls succeeded each other at frequent intervals, and by the time they reached Sandy Bay, all hope of proceeding along the hilltops was dissipated. They therefore kept near the coast. The going was frightfully rough and the weather was very bad, so on making Green Valley they camped in a small cave for the night. The floor was covered with tussock, and, by searching amongst the rocks, enough pieces of wreckage were found to keep the fire going. On the whole they passed a fairly comfortable night. Mac proved a bit troublesome by persisting in her attempts to curl up on or between the sleeping bags, and by finally eating the jam which had been saved for breakfast. The weather was quite as bad next morning, but, after a meal of dry biscuit and cocoa, they pushed on, taking four and a half hours to do the six miles. The next day was spent making the hut weatherproof and fixing up a couple of bunks. The provisions which had been cached were in good order and abundance of firewood lay around, in the shape of old barrel staves. Just close to the living hut was a works hut containing boilers and digestors which years ago had been used for procuring penguin oil, while there was a rookery a few yards away from which the victims had come.
This rookery was the resort of King penguins, the largest of the four species which are to be found on the island. They are magnificently coloured birds, being bluish–grey on the back while the head is greenish–black and on each side of the neck there is a brilliant yellow band, shading to a greenish–yellow on the upper part of the breast, and gradually merging into the glossy white of the lower part of the body. They attain to a height of about three feet and weigh thirty pounds approximately. The site of their rookery is a stony flat about a hundred yards from the water, and here are collected between five and six thousand – all that remain on the island.
They make no nest, the single egg laid being supported on the feet, and kept in position and incubated in a kind of skin pouch which conceals it from view. One would never guess the egg was there, for, on being disturbed, the bird shuffles along, carrying it in the manner described. The egg is large, tapering very much at one end and resembling a pear in shape. They lay during December and January, and the young are hatched in about six weeks. A peculiar feature about the young birds is that the parents feed them for two seasons. They are covered with a coarse, greyish–brown furry growth, and a year–old chick looks bigger than the old bird. This furry growth is lost during the second year and the adult plumage replaces it. The young utter a peculiar sound, something between a squeak and a whistle. It is probable that the King penguins were never so numerous as the royal or Victoria penguins, but the fact remains that they have not yet recovered from the wholesale slaughter to which they must have been subjected over sixteen years ago.
Down on a strip of shingly beach the birds parade, when not in the rookery or at sea getting food. Their proceedings strike one as being extraordinarily human, while the dignity and gravity of the participants are beyond description. On one occasion, a large number marching along the beach were seen to halt suddenly and talk excitedly. Three birds then left the main body, consulted together for a short time, and then separated. The other birds immediately separated into three companies, and each company stood behind one of the three already mentioned, who were now some distance apart. The individuals of each party then talked among themselves for several minutes, after which two parties joined forces and marched off, leaving the third party staring after them.
I have lost myself for the time being amongst the penguins and shall now return to Blake and Hamilton, who climbed on to the hilltops the following morning to spy out the land. The island is generally speaking higher, and all the more elevated peaks are on the southern half.
They saw numerous rabbits, of which many were black, and Mac had the day of her life amongst them. These animals were introduced to the island about twenty–five years ago, and have gradually withdrawn to the lonelier southern part, though occasionally odd ones are seen about the northern end. They are very tame and live in holes amongst the rocks or make burrows in the gully banks and broken hill sides.
Many lakes, frozen over, were seen, several of which were fairly large. Altogether, the topography is similar to that of the northern end.
In an endeavour to improve the evening fare, a sweet broth consisting of biscuit, milk, jam and sugar was tried but it was not a success; Hamilton remarking that ‘even Blake had only one helping’. On the following morning they started for the Shack and chose the route on the hilltops, as the ground was frozen hard; and, though there were frequent snow drifts into which they floundered occasionally, the surface for travelling was much better than along the coast.
Hamilton slipped and hurt his ankle on the trip, and the boots of both were just about worn out. They apprehended no difficulty in completing their prospective work. Blake pointed out that the chart of the island shows Lusitania Bay as being rather a large indentation, whereas in reality it is almost a straight stretch of coast.
An earthquake shock was felt at 9.15 pm on the 27th. I was sitting in the Shack writing up records at the time, and it seemed as if somebody had struck the southwest end of the place a severe blow with a bag of sand. Immediately afterwards a crashing sound, apparently some distance away on the eastern side, indicated that some rocks on the cliff front had been dislodged.
Much rough weather was experienced during the month, and it rained, hailed and snowed on twenty–five days. The wind attained moderate to fresh gale–force on six days, and fog and mist were almost invariable. The lowest temperature recorded was 32.7°F.
The average relative humidity for the four months ending April 30 was 93 per cent., leading to copious condensation on the instruments exposed to the air. It was necessary, therefore, constantly to attend and frequently clean the thermographs, hygrometers and the wireless plant. In the case of the latter, loss of power occurred in the form of ‘brush discharge’, and Sawyer had to take great care in order to guard against this accident. He shellacked the condensers and other exposed parts and found the proceeding rather effective. I noticed that the drifting snow and misty rain managed to get down the opening leading to the liquid surface of the anemobiagraph, thus altering the zero of the recording apparatus. When this happened the instrument had to be dismantled and set right.
We found it necessary to use sea elephant blubber in the stove in order to warm the Shack, and a very small piece put on the fire at intervals always ensured a good heat. Sea elephants had become scarce, so, in order to lay in a supply of fuel for the next few weeks, we went round to Aerial Cove on the 3rd and killed the largest animal we could find, afterwards carrying the blubber round to the Shack. We came through Catch Me and had the same old experience. Hamilton examined the contents of the stomach of the sea elephant and found gravel, stones, cuttlefish, beaks and ‘worms’ in abundance.
A violent northwest gale during the early morning hours of the 4th reached a maximum velocity of fifty–two miles an hour at 5.20 am, but at 8 am it began to weaken rapidly and an hour later had shifted to west–southwest, coming from that point as a moderate gale for the rest of the day. As was usual with winds having any southerly component, snow and squalls of soft hail were experienced. With the exception of the wind vane, which was blown a few yards into the tussock, nothing was damaged.
In the afternoon Blake and I had a trip down to the moraine which he had found a few days previously. After a heavy one and a half hours’ walk, the last half–mile of which was along a creek bed, with water ankle–deep all the way, we reached the spot: the site of one of the large penguin rookeries up on the hills at the back of ‘The Nuggets’. The sun showed between squalls, and Blake took some interesting photographs of rocks showing striae and other glacial characteristics. We battled with one enormous boulder for some time before getting it into a suitable position for the camera, and afterwards walked right through the glacial area. The U–shaped character of the valleys was very pronounced, while boulder clay obtruded itself everywhere on our notice.
Hobart wireless station was by this time in working order, a fact which greatly facilitated wireless business. Sandell took the engine to pieces early in the month and gave it, as well as the fittings, a thorough overhaul and cleaning. We received a message on the 7th, saying that the Aurora was leaving Hobart on the 13th for a subantarctic cruise and would call at the island. At the same time I was requested to send a list of articles required. I found, after going through the stock and consulting each member, that we needed nothing but strong boots, cartridges, dungaree trousers, coarse salt, cigarettes and fresh vegetables.
A persistent area of high pressure affected the weather conditions of the island to the extent of shrouding us in fog from the 6th to the 10th inclusive, and we did not catch a glimpse of the sun during that period. The average daily temperature range during this time was only 2.3°. Such conditions have a rather depressing effect on the spirits, but the cheering news we received on the 7th made some amends for the lack of sunshine.
The sun appeared at last on the 11th and shone strongly, so Blake and I went up to Wireless Hill to take some shots with the theodolite. I noticed four of our sheep on the front of the hill, and, as there should have been nine, Sandell and I, after finishing with Blake, walked out to North Head to see if the others were all right. We found them on the northeast side of the hill and drove them up to the rest of the flock.
From the hilltop we could see Hamilton engaged in skinning a large sea leopard on the coast, so we climbed down to render any necessary assistance. It was a beautifully marked animal, about eleven feet long, and made a fine specimen.
Sea leopards frequent Macquarie Island in great numbers from the late winter to the early summer, and may be seen lying about, sleeping close to the water and apparently always very tired. They do not give birth to the young there, and from observations I concluded that they were born at sea. We had taken female specimens on several occasions, apparently within a few hours of parturition, and as none had been seen with newly born young, and no islands lay within several hundred miles, it was presumed that the birth took place in the water. Until the young one is weaned, its habitat is evidently in the water as we never saw an adult suckling its offspring.
Sea leopards – long, lithe creatures with a reptilian cast of head – are remarkably quick in the water. If one is disturbed on shore it opens its mouth very wide, revealing a wicked–looking row of teeth in each jaw; the canine teeth or tusks being very long and slightly curved.
Unlike sea elephants and seals they are solitary animals, and should several of them be found on a small gravelly patch of beach they are seen to be as far as possible from one another. We have never seen them attempt to fight on the shore, but the gaping wounds and scars with which they are frequently covered indicate that they treat each other very severely in the water. They live on penguins, gulls, shags and fish.
I saw several shags on one occasion very busy fishing, and between diving intervals they would sit on the water. Suddenly one disappeared under the water and the rest flew off; but in a few seconds the one which had disappeared was thrown into the air and caught by a sea leopard, who played in this fashion with the maimed bird for several minutes before devouring it.
A few days previously we had received a request from Mr DC Bates, the New Zealand Meteorologist, for a daily weather report, and from the 12th onwards a message was sent nightly to Wellington, a distance of about eleven hundred miles. In acknowledging these reports, subsequently, the office referred to their immediate value in the issue of daily forecasts, and expressed indebtedness to the Expedition.
The two species of penguins which leave the island during the winter months had disappeared, and silence now reigned where formerly were busy, noisy colonies. The departure of the migrants made the place seem lonelier and, during the depths of winter when snow covers the ground and the birds and animals are few in number, a more dreary spot would be difficult to find.
The weather conditions were now rather severe, and as Sawyer and Sandell worked from 8 pm till 2 or 3 am every night and slept at the wireless station, they were exempted from the necessity of coming down to get breakfast during their cooking weeks. They now rested till about noon, and arrived at the Shack every day in time for lunch. Hamilton, Blake and I, each outside his own cooking week, took it in turns to prepare breakfast.
Blake’s fieldwork at the north end, more particularly in the vicinity of West Point and North Head, was just about finished. West Point proved to be an area of gabbro, a coarse grained eruptive rock representative of basic rocks, while North Head was composed of basic agglomerate, and volcanic bombs were numerous.
Hamilton had got together a good collection of bird specimens, and was now in quest of skeletons.
On the night of the 13th we witnessed a rather pretty auroral manifestation. It assumed the appearance of a Noah’s ark cloud, that is, stretching from opposite points on the horizon and appearing to converge at each one of these points. The light was a pale yellow, no other tint being visible. In addition, a nebulous glow appeared at intervals in the south.
We heard on the 16th that the Aurora had sailed on that day from Hobart and would arrive at Macquarie Island in about three weeks; oceanographical work being carried out on the trip down. This was indeed cheerful news, and we began to look forward to her arrival.
A fresh west–southwest gale during the early morning hours of the 17th was accompanied by soft hail and snow squalls, and the temperature at 9 am was 31.2°F. The ground was covered with snow and all the pools were frozen over, but at 9 pm there was a rapid shift of the wind to the northwest and the snow almost disappeared. Soft hail, generally a little larger than tapioca and of the same shape, frequently fell. These little pellets are formed of compressed snow and are commonly supposed to be frozen cloud particles mixed with raindrops compacted by a high wind.
On the following night, Blake and I went up to Wireless Hill to take star observations. It was very dark and the hill front was slippery, frequent falls being the rule. Just after setting up the instrument, the wind freshened to such an extent that it was impossible to do anything, so we descended very wet and muddy to the Shack, having had a rough passage. The reason for this was that I fell on the lantern and extinguished the light.
We were supplied with two hurricane lamps which do not by any means deserve their title as they blow out in even a moderately strong wind. Sandell made a lantern for his own use, declaring that it was impossible for any wind to blow it out. I firmly believed him, as it was a little binnacle lamp placed inside a small oatmeal tin into which a cleaned photographic plate had been fixed and with holes punched in the bottom and top of the tin for ventilation. It was thus a lamp with two covers, and frequent demonstrations of its ability to survive heavy blows were made by the inventor.
During the next three days a forty–mile wind accompanied by snow, hail and sleet was experienced and the maximum temperature on the 25th did not reach freezing point, the ground being firmly frozen and snow covered. During the evening of the last–named date the wind shifted to northwest, and by noon on the 26th no snow remained, except on the hills.
In anticipation of the Auroras arrival, Blake and Hamilton collected some stores together in the hope that Captain Davis would transport them down to Lusitania Bay, thus obviating the necessity of carrying them down on foot. As Blake reckoned that he would remain there fully three months and Hamilton about two months, it was thought that such another opportunity might not present itself.
Through the courtesy of the naval officials, HMS Drake sent us time signals twice a week, and though we had so far heard no sound from Adélie Land, there was a possibility that they could receive messages from us. Sawyer therefore sent out time signals as a matter of routine.
Hamilton made a trip to the west coast on the 28th and returned with thirteen wekas. Sawyer did not care for these birds, but each of the others could account for one at a meal. They seem to be better eating if plucked like a fowl and roasted, but the plucking takes too long and we generally skinned and boiled them. It is advisable to hang them for several days before cooking as it certainly makes them tender.
Rough, stormy weather prevailed during the greater part of the month and the wind reached the force of a gale on nine days. Much snow, soft hail and sleet fell and some very cold days were experienced. The average temperature was 40°, the maximum being 44.7° and the minimum 27.8°F.
A heavy snowfall occurred during the early morning hours of June 3, and the temperature was below freezing point all day. In the afternoon we had rather an enjoyable time tobogganing down a steep talus slope on the east coast. A considerable struggle was necessary in order to get the sledge to the top, but the lightning slide to the bottom more than compensated for the labour.
We made wireless inquiries concerning the Aurora at night, and were informed by Hobart that a search for the Royal Company Islands was included in her programme. It was therefore presumed that she was engaged in prosecuting this search and would probably not reach us for some days.
Hamilton killed a very fine sea leopard on the 5th and the skin, apart from being unscarred, was handsomely marked. It should make a splendid specimen. The stomach contained more than the usual number of worms and one specimen of tapeworm, seven inches long and three–eighths of an inch wide, was preserved.
Everything was going along in the usual placid manner on the 7th, when, as we were just taking our seats for lunch, some one rushed in with the information that the Aurora was in sight. There was a scramble to various points of vantage and she was soon observed coming up the east coast very slowly. At 2.30 pm she dropped anchor in Northeast Bay, but, as it was blowing strongly and a nasty sea was running, no boat was launched, though one may imagine how anxiously we watched for some movement in that direction. As soon as it became dark a message was ‘Morsed’ to us to the effect that a boat would bring mails and goods ashore in the morning if the weather moderated, and with that we had to be content. Needless to say, business ashore was for the time being paralysed, but a message was sent to the Secretary in Hobart advising him of the Ship’s arrival.
True to his intimation of the previous night, Captain Davis brought a boat ashore at 9.30 am and with him came several visitors who were to be our guests for some days. They were Mr ER Waite, Curator of the Canterbury Museum and his taxidermist, and Mr Primmer, a cinematographer. Conspicuous in the boat was a well–laden mail bag and no time was lost in distributing the contents. Letters, papers, and magazines were received by every member of the party, and all the news was ‘good’. Some stores were brought along and, after getting these ashore, we took the visitors across to the Shack and invited them to make themselves at home.
Captain Davis also came along to the Shack and afterwards looked over the wireless station. He returned to the ship just after lunch, and Sandell, Sawyer and Blake took the opportunity of going on board. Hamilton, in the meantime, piloted the visitors on a short trip round to Aerial Cove, introducing them to Catch Me, where they were duly baptised. They afterwards climbed up Wireless Hill and had a look at the station, returning to the Shack much impressed with the rough nature of the country.
Blake went off to the ship again, taking the stores which had been got ready for transport to Lusitania Bay, as the captain had agreed to land them when he visited there in a few days’ time.
Amongst the cases which were landed was one containing the recording apparatus for the tide gauge. The other parts of this instrument had been left on the island in December, but for some reason the clock and charts had gone astray and were not found till the vessel was being unloaded in Adélie Land. Some thermometers and a Robinson anemometer had also been over–carried and, when they came to light, the latter was immediately placed in commission.
Captain Davis sent a boat ashore on the morning of the 12th with an invitation to come on board and lunch. I accordingly went out to the vessel and, after lunching, had a thorough look over her, mentally contrasting her spick and span appearance at the time with what it had been when I left her in December. I went ashore again in the afternoon and assisted the visitors to get their loads down to the boat, as they were returning to the ship, which was leaving next morning on a sounding trip down the island.
On the 14th we started to carry the stores across to the Shack on our backs. We soon realized that seventy or eighty pounds was not a light load over a half–mile stretch of rough, shingly beach, but succeeded in transporting the onions, apples and potatoes before finishing for the night. The other articles were brought over during the next two afternoons.
The tide gauge pipe, weighing about six hundredweights, and the box for the housing of the recording gear had been landed in December round in Aerial Cove, where a site had been chosen for the erection of the gauge. Experience showed me that the place was unsuitable, so I took Hamilton, Sandell and Sawyer round to the cove on the 15th and we decided, as we had no boat, that it was impossible to carry the pipe round to the east coast.
I had been making some tidal observations on an upright, fixed in a comparatively quiet spot on the east coast, and it was here that I contemplated erecting the gauge. Two snow gauges, eight inches each in diameter, were amongst the meteorological equipment and it appeared that if these two were soldered together a suitable pipe could be made. Further, the pipe was to be protected from the violence of the seas by planks fixed round it. Sandell agreed with the idea and forthwith set about soldering the two together and making a suitable float, the one supplied being too wide. All that now remained was to erect the gauge.
The two following afternoons were devoted to stowing the new stores. We carried everything across and stacked them at the southwest end of the Shack. Unfortunately, the boots which we had ordered did not come, but Captain Davis let us have five pairs of light bluchers out of the ship’s stores, and we reckoned that these with extra soles and a few hobnails would hold out till August or September, when a sealing vessel was expected.
The Aurora returned from the south of the island on the 19th and reported having had a rough experience in the northeast to south gale which blew on the two previous days. The wind came out of the northeast very suddenly on the 17th, and some very strong squalls were experienced. A calm prevailed for several hours in the evening, but a southeast gale then sprang up and blew all day on the 18th, gradually working into the south and dying away during the night.
Early on the 20th the Aurora steamed out of the bay, bound north as we thought, but she returned again in the evening, and we signalled to know if anything were wrong. They replied, ‘All well, but weather very bad outside’. She lay at anchor in the bay all next day as it was snowing and blowing very hard from the southwest, but at 8.45 am on the 22nd she disappeared in the north and we did not see her again for some months. A few hours after her departure the wind increased in force, and a continuous gale raged for the next five days.
Sandell and I now made a start at erecting the tide gauge, and after the lapse of five days got the instrument into position. We could work on it only at low tide, for much rock had to be chipped away and numerous wire stays fixed. The work was therefore of a disagreeable character. Its appearance when finished did not by any means suggest the amount of trouble we experienced in setting it up, but the fact that it stood the heavy seas for the following eighteen months without suffering material damage was a sufficient guarantee that the work had been well done.
A tremendous sea was running on the 25th as a result of the previous two days’ blow and a heavy gale still persisting. Spray was scudding across the isthmus, and the sea for a mile from the shore was just a seething cauldron. The wind moderated somewhat on the 26th, but strong squalls were experienced at intervals throughout the day, and on the 27th a strong wind from the southwest brought rather heavy snow.
On the following day a westerly gale sprang up which shifted suddenly to south–southwest and southwest in the evening and was accompanied by fierce hail and snow squalls throughout the night. Without moderating to any extent the gale continued to blow on the 29th and passed through west to west–northwest, finally lasting till the end of the month.
Something in the nature of a tidal wave occurred during the night of the 28th, for, on rising the following morning, I was considerably astonished to see that the seawater had been almost across the isthmus. To effect this, a rise of twenty or twenty–five feet above mean sea level must have taken place and such a rise appeared abnormally high. Our coal heap, which we had hitherto regarded as perfectly safe from the sea, was submerged, as shown by the kelp and sand lying on top of it, and the fact that seven or eight briquettes were found fifteen feet away from the heap.
Nothing at the wireless station was damaged and work went on as usual. The wind used to make a terrific noise in the aerial wires, but this did not affect the transmission of messages. The howling of the wind round the operating hut interfered with the receiving, at times making it extremely difficult to hear signals; particularly on nights not favourable for wireless work.
Hamilton was at this time concentrating his attention on shags or cormorants. This species of cormorant is peculiar to the island, being found nowhere else. They are blue–black, with a white breast, and on the head they have a small black crest. At the top of the beak are golden lobes, while the skin immediately round the eye is pale blue. They remain on the shores of the island all the year and nest on the rocks in or very close to the water. They form rookeries and build nests of grass, laying three eggs about the end of November. The period of incubation is six weeks. They live entirely on fish, and, on that account, neither the birds nor the eggs are palatable. They are very stupid, staring curiously till one gets almost within reach of them, when they flap heavily into the water. They are easily caught when sitting on the nest, but a shag rookery, like most other rookeries, is by no means a pleasant place in which to linger.
I had the satisfaction of getting the first record from the tide gauge on the first day of July, but the clock worked erratically, requiring some attention.
Hamilton had a lobster pot set some distance from the shore and anchored to a float, but unfortunately the pot was lost in the rough seas at the end of June. He had a couple of fish traps also, but, in view of this disaster, he decided to set these in Aerial Cove, where the water was quieter. Having a couple of sea leopard heads which required macerating, he baited the trap with them and lowered it into the water, securing it to the rock with a steel wire.
Taking advantage of a bright sun on the following day, Blake and Hamilton went to ‘The Nuggets’ and took some geological and biological photographs, which on being developed turned out well. They had occasion to enter one of the unoccupied huts down there and found a wild cat a little more than half grown, which they caught and carried home with them. He was of the usual tabby colour and by no means fierce, quickly yielding to the coaxing treatment of his captors. He made himself quite at home in the Shack, and we looked forward to a display of his prowess as a rat catcher.
A bright display of the aurora occurred on the night of July 4, the ribbons and streamers of light being well defined and occasionally slightly coloured. We could establish no connection between this extraordinary outburst and the fact that it occurred on American Independence night, but it was certainly the most energetic manifestation of the phenomenon we had so far witnessed. Many ‘glows’ had been seen, and also a few displays of the arch–shaped form, but none had shown much activity or rapid movement.
The operator was requested by the Pennant Hills high power wireless station at Sydney to listen for signals tapped out during the daytime, and Sawyer spent a couple of hours on certain mornings assisting in these tests, which were attended with some success. We occasionally received press news from land stations or from ships passing across the Tasman Sea, but it was only a brief summary of the cable news: enough to whet one’s curiosity, rarely ever satisfying it.
Very cold, rough weather was experienced on the 6th and 7th and a temperature of 26°F occurred on the latter date, while the maximum did not reach freezing point. Much snow and soft hail fell, and the ground set hard. The weather interfered to some extent with the tide gauge clock, and it became so unsatisfactory that I took it to pieces on the 9th and gave it a thorough cleaning, after which it had a new lease of life.
We received a message on the 11th saying that the Aurora had arrived in Dunedin, ‘all well’, but had experienced a very rough voyage which greatly interfered with the dredging and sounding programme.
Our tank water gave out for the first time on the 12th. The precipitation for a fortnight had been in the form of dry powdery snow and soft hail, the wind blowing it off the roof before it had a chance to thaw, thus robbing us of our usual water supply. For a while we had to use swamp water, which contained a good many insects of various kinds and had a distinctly peaty flavour. Finding good water running from the hilltops down a deep gully on the east coast, three–quarters of a mile away, we carried drinking water from there, using the other for washing up.
The 13th was a most delightful day – bright sun, very little wind and fresh exhilarating air. Blake and Hamilton went out early on a photographing excursion, and, later on, the latter shot and skinned a white giant petrel.
During the third week of July a very low tide exposed rocks, ordinarily submerged, and Hamilton was occupied all the week in collecting marine organisms, worms and plants and then preserving, bottling and labelling them.
A most peculiar sight was witnessed on the 17th. Aerial Cove is a favourite nesting place for shags, and they may be seen in twos and threes flying round in that direction almost any time during the day; but on this particular day a kind of wholesale exodus from the cove took place, and large flocks of them followed each other for a couple of hours. They congregated on the rocks along the east coast, or settled in the water in scores; the latter fact suggesting that the probable reason for this extraordinary behaviour was the presence of unusual shoals of fish.
We used to relax and have a game of cards occasionally, while our small organ became a medium of much enjoyment. All the members except one played well enough to enjoy themselves and to give pleasure to the others. There was a distinct predilection in favour of ragtime and I must say I liked to hear that music at frequent intervals. Any one who plays a musical instrument knows that the mood of the player is generally reflected in the character of the music, particularly when he sits down and plays in a casual way.
The pursuit and killing of a sheep had now become something in the nature of an experience, and when Sandell and I went hunting for one on the 20th, we realized it before we reached home. The flock was very timid, and when disturbed on North Head invariably came past the wireless station close to the engine hut. Sandell concealed himself there with a gun, while I went out to startle the animals. They did not fail to do their part, but Sandell missed and the shot frightened them. He then rushed out and fired another shot as they were running, managing to hit one, which immediately dropped behind and ran to the edge of the cliff. We did not want to shoot the sheep at this moment, as it would have fallen about two hundred feet, so we cautiously approached to drive it away. The poor creature simply took a leap out into space and landed on the talus below, down which it rolled to the water’s edge. We scrambled down and skinned it, having to carry the carcase along the rocks at the base of the cliffs, and getting many duckings on the way.
On July 26 I went round to Aerial Cove with Hamilton to have a look at the fish trap, but it had disappeared, the wire having broken, apparently through the continual friction against rock. He had previously caught some fish in it, and it was rather a misfortune to lose it so soon.
During the last week of the month we all had our hair cut. On arrival at the island, several of us had it shorn very closely with the clippers and had not trimmed it since then, growth being very slow. We had a proper hair cutting outfit and either Blake, Hamilton or Sandell acted as barber.
Blake was an expert with the needle and did some really neat mending, while with the aid of some woollen thread and a mug he darned holes in his socks most artistically. He was the authority on how, when and where to place a patch or on the only method of washing clothes. The appearance of his articles when washed, compared with mine, made me wonder.
Hamilton was busy, about this time, dredging in swamp pools and securing specimens of the rockhopper or gentoo penguin.
The small gentoo penguins, like the King penguins, do not migrate and are few in numbers. They form diminutive colonies, which are always established on mounds amongst the tussock, or on the hill sides not far from the water. Their eggs, which are globular in shape, are about the best of the penguin eggs for eating, and if their nests are robbed the birds will generally lay again, although I think they could not lay more than four eggs. They build their nests of grass and plant leaves, and occasionally have been known to establish a fresh rookery after their first one has been robbed. They are more timid than any other species of penguin, and leave the nests in a body when one ventures into the rookery. The skuas take advantage of this peculiarity to the length of waiting about till a chance presents itself, when they swoop down, pick up an egg with their beak and fly off. The penguin makes a great fuss on returning to find that the eggs are gone, but generally finishes up by sitting on the empty nest. We have frequently put ten or a dozen eggs into one nest and watched the proprietress on her return look about very doubtfully and then squat down and try to tuck the whole lot under herself with her beak.
Weather conditions were rough enough during July, but occasionally a fairly quiet day would occur. High winds were experienced on ten days, the greatest hourly average for any twenty–four hours being thirty–two miles, but no day averaged less than ten miles. Precipitation occurred on twenty–one days, mostly in the form of snow and soft hail. The mean temperature was 37.7°, with extremes of 43.3° and 26°F. The average percentage of cloud was 78; somewhat less than usual and due to the greater frequency of southwest winds, which almost always bring a broken sky.
Now that our life was one of smooth routine I devoted a good deal of time to reducing the meteorological observations. Hourly pressure and temperature readings as well as descriptive remarks, averages and other details required to be summarised, and this occupied a considerable amount of time, so I made a practice of spending a couple of hours each day on the work, whenever possible, hoping thereby to pick up the ‘leeway’. I did not take too kindly to inactive writing in the Shack, but the weather conditions were such that I was glad to stay indoors, though that meant enduring the inevitable cold feet. The floor of the Shack was never warm, and of course there were no carpets.
Mac developed a great animosity against the rats and thoroughly enjoyed rooting them out on all occasions. The only explanation of their presence on the island is that they had arrived in the ships which were wrecked along the coasts. They got into the Shack several times, and we simply brought in Mac and shifted things about till she caught them.
Rough weather occurred during the first week of August, and with occasional temporary weakenings a gale blew throughout, reaching fifty miles an hour at different times. Snow, hail and sleet fell every day, and on the 3rd the temperature was below freezing point all day. The Shack, which always shook a little in exceptionally heavy gales, now vibrated a good deal in a forty–mile wind, no doubt feeling the effects of the beating it had undergone.
Blake found a cave running through North Head and went round, on the 5th, to examine it. He proved it to be about sixty yards from opening to opening, and to widen out very much inside; the roof being about fifteen feet above the floor.
Hamilton and Sandell went along the coast on the 6th and brought home a dozen Maori hens for the pot. Hamilton secured some spiders, parasites on birds and many beetles under the moss and stones on the site of a penguin rookery, besides shooting a few terns.
The tern is a very pretty bird with light grey plumage, a black head and red beak and feet. We found no nests on the island, though the fact that the birds remain throughout the year implies that they breed there. They fly very fast while not appearing to do so, but their movements are by no means graceful. They flit about over the water close to the shore, every now and then dipping down picking up morsels and keeping up a constant, shrill squeaking.
The sea was so high on the 7th that it reached the weight of the tide gauge and, lifting it up, unshipped the recording gear, as the steel wire flew off the wheel before the latter could take up the slack. I deemed it advisable to use stout cord instead of wire in the future and made a protective slot for the weight. I had blocked up the seaward side of the pipe with rocks, but found that these caused a deposit of silt so I had to get into the water at low tide and shift them all out again to clean away the accumulation of sand.
Very heavy snow fell during the afternoon, the flakes being the size of half a crown. A fresh north–northwest wind dropped to a calm at 4 pm and almost immediately it began to snow, the island being quite white by 5.30 pm.
Bright sunny intervals alternated with light snow squalls on the 10th, and the temperature was below freezing point all day. It was pleasant to be out of doors, and I walked along to the west coast to see if there were any signs of activity amongst the sea elephants.
An unmistakable sign of the near approach of the breeding season was the presence of an enormous old bull, almost too fat to move, lying on the beach. Very few small ones were seen, as, on the arrival of the adult males and females for the breeding season, the young ones leave for a while, presumably in order to get fat for the moulting period, or because they are afraid of the bulls, who are particularly savage at this time. The full grown bulls attain to a length of twenty feet, and have a fleshy proboscis about eight or ten inches in length hanging over the mouth, suggesting the trunk of an elephant. It is from this fact that they derive the name of sea elephant.
There is a considerable disparity in size between the adult male and female, the latter very rarely exceeding eleven feet, though we have seen a few twelve and thirteen feet long. The females have no snout development and some of them facially very much resemble a bull terrier. The adults are called bulls and cows, while, curiously enough, in the sealers’ phrase, the offspring are referred to as pups. The places where large numbers of them gather together during the breeding season are known as rookeries! ‘Rookery’ appears to me to be inapplicable to a herd of sea elephants, though ‘pup’ supplies a more apt description of the young.
The pups, born during September or early October, are covered with a long, black, wavy fur, which they lose when about two months old, and in its place comes a growth of silver–grey hair, which changes later into the ordinary brown colour of the full grown animal.
The old males and females leave the island about the end of January, and are not seen again (except a few stray ones) till August in the case of the males, and until September in the case of the females.
The fact that the bulls arrive first leads one to the conclusion that their feeding grounds must lie at a considerable distance and, in the journey therefrom, the males, being the stronger, should arrive before the females, who are heavy with young and probably make a somewhat leisurely progress, feeding by the way.
The rookeries vary in size, containing from half a dozen to four or five hundred cows; in the last case, of course, being an aggregation of smaller rookeries, each with its proprietor, in the shape of an old bull, lying in or somewhere near the centre. The normal rookery, as far as I could judge, seemed to be one that contained about forty cows, but once the nucleus was formed, it was hard to say how many cows would be there before the season ended, as females keep arriving for a period of about three weeks.
The young vary in length from three and a half to four and a half feet, are born within a few days of arrival and suckled for about a month, becoming enormously fat. The cow, who has not eaten during the whole of this time and has become very thin, then leaves the pup, but remains in the rookery for about two days, after which she escapes to sea, remaining there till the beginning of January, when she returns to the island to moult. The pups when weaned get such rough usage in the rookery that they soon make off into the tussock and sleep for about a month, living on their fat and acquiring a new coat. The noise in one of the large rookeries is something to remember – the barking of the pups, the whimpering and yelping of the mothers and the roaring of the bulls.
Another feature in connection with the rookery is the presence of what may be called unattached bulls, which lie around at a little distance from the cows, and well apart, forming a regular ring through which any cow wishing to desert her pup or leave the rookery before the proper time has very little chance of passing, as one of these grips her firmly with his powerful flipper and stays her progress. The lord of the harem, in the meantime, hastens to the scene of the disturbance, whereupon the other bull decamps.
The sea immediately in the vicinity of a large rookery is generally swarming with unattached bulls, who may be seen with their heads out of the water eyeing each other and keeping a bright look out for escaping cows. Now and again one may see a bull in the water gripping a cow with his flipper, despite her struggles, and roaring at a couple of others who show up menacingly quite close to him.
It may be remarked that towards the end of the season changes in the proprietorship of a rookery are rather rapid, as continuous raids are made by individuals from the outside. The need of continuous vigilance and the results of many encounters eventually lead to the defeat and discomfiture of the once proud proprietor.
I have never seen two bulls fight without first indulging in the usual preliminaries, that is, roaring and advancing a few yards and repeating the performance till within striking distance. Then both animals rear high up, supporting themselves on the lower part of the body, and lunge savagely with their whole weight each at his opponent’s head or neck, tearing the thick skin with their teeth and causing the blood to flow copiously. Several lunges of this kind generally finish the battle, whereupon the beaten one drops to his flippers and makes all haste towards the water, glancing fearfully behind him on the way. We have seen bulls with their snouts partly torn off and otherwise injured, but worse injuries must occur in the rare, desperate battles which sometimes take place between two very much enraged animals.
When a bull in the centre of a rookery has occasion to rush at an interloper, he does so without regard to anything in his way, going over cows and pups alike and very often crushing some of the latter to death. Again, it seems as if all the outlying bulls recognize the noise of the rookery bull, because each time he roars they all lift up their heads and take notice, whereas others who have just been roaring have not the slightest regard paid to them, except perhaps by one immediately concerned.
The bull, during the breeding season, will on provocation attack a man, and it is surprising how quickly the former covers the ground. But on the whole he is an inoffensive animal. It is, of course, impossible to venture into a rookery, as the cows are very savage when they have the pups with them, but one can approach within a few yards of its outskirts without danger. Their food consists of cuttlefish, crabs and fish, and it is probable that they frequent the ocean where this food is plentiful, when they are absent from the island.
It has been stated that these animals are nearly extinct, but a visit to Macquarie Island during the breeding season would be enough to convince anybody to the contrary. There are thousands of them, and though about seven hundred are killed during a season, the increase in numbers each year, on Macquarie Island alone, must be very great.
The skuas were now returning to the island and their numbers and corresponding clamour were daily increasing. They were the noisiest and most quarrelsome birds we had, but their advent, we hoped, marked the return of less rigorous weather.
Blake left for Lusitania Bay on the 17th, intending to spend several months there in order to survey and geologically examine the southern end, so we gave him a send–off dinner. He had a very rough trip to the place, having to spend two nights in a cave about six miles from his destination, as a result of getting lost in a dense fog.
Hamilton made a wire fish trap to replace the one which he had lost, and succeeded in getting a few fish on lowering it for the first time. He discovered parasitical mites all over them on the outside, and the flesh contained many worms.
A heavy north–northwest gale was experienced on the 26th, but the weather during the last three days of August was very quiet, either calms or light winds prevailing, and we took the opportunity to do some work on Wireless Hill. All the wire stays were tightened, and various ropes which appeared to require attention were renewed, while, as a final improvement, the aerial was hauled as tight as we could make it.
We heard on July 31 that the Rachel Cohen, a sealing vessel, had sailed for Macquarie Island and was bringing a few articles for us, so there was something to which we could look forward in the immediate future.
The most remarkable feature of the month’s weather was the wind, as gales blew on eleven days, and on seven other days the velocity reached twenty–five miles per hour. Precipitation occurred on twenty–seven days, and the average percentage of cloud was eighty–four. The mean temperature was 38.1° with extremes of 45.3° and 26°F. A prolonged display of auroral light occurred on the night of the 17th, though no colours other than the light lemon–yellow of the arch and streamers could be seen.
Bull elephants were now arriving in great numbers, and these monsters could be seen lying everywhere on the isthmus, both up in the tussock, on the beaches, and among the heaps of kelp. Now and again one would lazily lift a flipper to scratch itself or heave its great bulk into a more comfortable position.
The island is the habitat of two kinds of night birds, one kind – a species of petrel (Lesson’s) – being much larger than the other, both living in holes in the ground. They fly about in the darkness, their cries resembling those made by a beaten puppy. The smaller bird (apparently indigenous and a new species) was occasionally seen flying over the water during the day, but the larger ones come out almost exclusively at night. A light attracts them and Hamilton, with the aid of a lantern and a butterfly net, tried to catch some. Others swooped about, well out of range, shrieking the while in an uncanny way. Numbers of them were secured afterwards by being dug out of their holes, Mac being just as keen to locate them as Hamilton was to secure them. They cannot see well during the day, and seem to have almost lost the use of their feet. They lay two small, white, thin–shelled eggs at the end of their burrow; and in certain parts of the island, where the burrows are numerous, the sound made by hundreds of them at once, during the nesting season, somewhat resembles that made by a high power Marconi wireless set at close range.
Before Blake left Lusitania Bay, I promised to see that the hut on Sandy Bay was re–stocked with provisions by the middle of the month, so, on the 8th, Hamilton, Sandell and I carried a supply of stores down there, leaving a note which informed him that we expected the Rachel Cohen to arrive any day, and asking him to return to the Shack. On the way down we came upon a vast quantity of wreckage piled up on the beach, midway between ‘The Nuggets’ and Sandy Bay. This was all that remained of the sealing schooner, Jessie Nichol, which had been wrecked on December 21, 1910. Three men were drowned, their bodies being interred among the tussock, each marked by a life belt and a small board on which the name was roughly carved.
On our homeward trip we caught some wekas for the pot and duly arrived at the Shack, tired, wet and hungry.
Next day, while sitting in the Shack reducing records, I heard a yell from Hamilton to the effect that the Rachel Cohen was in sight, and about an hour later she dropped anchor in Northeast Bay.
The sea was fairly smooth and no time was lost in bringing a boat ashore with the mails, of which each man received a share. A gang of sealers was landed with a view to obtaining sea elephant and penguin oil. I had wirelessed asking for a dinghy to be sent down, which would enable Hamilton to do more marine work; and it now came to hand. Further, we received an additional supply of photographic material and some rubber tubing for the anemometer, but the much needed boots did not arrive.
On the 18th a strong southerly gale sprang up and compelled the Rachel Cohen to seek safety in flight; so she slipped her cable and put to sea. She had not yet landed all the sealers’ stores and was forced to hang about the island till the weather moderated sufficiently for her to return to an anchorage.
The gentoo penguins, which had been observed at the beginning of the month building their nests, commenced to lay, and the first ten eggs were collected by us on September 18. Many sea elephant rookeries were now well–formed as the cows began to arrive about the 11th and were soon landing in large numbers. The first pups were heard on the 20th, and Bauer and I walked along to the rookery from which the barking came and had a look at the newcomers. There were only four, none of which was more than a few hours old, but they yapped their displeasure, and the mothers made frantic lunges at us when we approached to get a close view of them.
The sealers always gave the animals time to form their rookeries and then killed the bulls for oil. A well–conditioned full grown animal yields about half a tun of oil, and as the commodity when refined has a market value of from £20 to £25 per tun, it will be seen that the industry is a profitable one. The cows being small never have a very thick coating of blubber, but I have seen bulls with blubber to a depth of eight inches, and some of them yield nearly two thousand pounds, though I should estimate the average yield at about one thousand one hundred pounds. The sealers in the early days used to obtain the oil by cutting the blubber up into very small pieces and melting it down in ‘try’ pots. These pots, many of which may be still seen about the island, were made of very thick iron and the fuel used was the refuse taken from the pot itself. In the present method steam digestors are used, and the oil from the melted blubber is drawn off, after steam has been passing for twelve hours. Coal is brought down by the sealing vessel to be used as fuel. The ‘elephant season’ lasts only about three months, and within about four weeks of its conclusion, the ‘penguin season’ begins; the same gang of men being employed as a rule. The most difficult operation in connection with both of these industries is undoubtedly the loading and unloading of the vessel. If auxiliary power were used, the ship could then steam to within half a mile of the shore, but as it is, a sailing vessel has to anchor about two miles off and the oil is towed in rafts over that distance.
We heard sounds from Adélie Land wireless station for the first time on September 25, 1912, but the signals were very faint and all that we could receive was: ‘Please inform Pennant Hills’. Sawyer called them repeatedly for several hours, but heard no acknowledgment. Every effort was made to get in touch with them from this time forward, Sawyer remaining at the instrument until daylight every morning.
The royal penguins returned to the island on the 27th and immediately commenced to make their way to the rookeries. They had been absent since April and were very fat after their long migration.
On the 28th Blake and Hamilton started out in the dinghy for Lusitania Bay. They had already made a step and sprit, and, with a calico sail hoisted, the frail craft ran before a light breeze. Having a fair wind they made good headway along the coast, dropping in at a gentoo penguin rookery en route, and collecting about two hundred and twenty eggs. Mac was a passenger and was a very sick dog all the trip.
Shortly after their departure, the Rachel Cohen, which had been blown away on the 18th, reappeared and again anchored. The captain reported having seen numerous icebergs, some of which were very large, about thirty miles to the eastward of the island. The sealers immediately commenced to get away the rest of their stores and coal and also to put some oil aboard the vessel, but on the following day the wind increased to such an extent that, in attempting to reach the ship with a raft of oil, they were blown down the coast and had to beach the boat several miles away.
On the night of the 29th Adélie Land wireless station was again heard tapping out a message apparently with the hope that some station would receive it. All we got was: ‘Having a hell of a time waiting for calm weather to put up more masts’. Sawyer again repeatedly called, but they evidently could not hear him as no reply was received, and the above message was repeated time after time.
The weather during September was not quite so rough as that of the previous two or three months, but misty days were very frequent. Gales were experienced on six days and strong winds on nine days, but several quiet periods occurred. The average temperature was 38.6°, with extremes of 44.7° and 26°F.
October was ushered in by a strong gale and rather heavy rain squalls. The Rachel Cohen had a severe buffeting, though she was lying on the lee side of the island.
Just about three–quarters of a mile to the west of the Shack were two large sea elephant rookeries, very close to each other, and on the 3rd Sandell and I went along to see what was happening there. We found about two hundred and fifty cows in the nearer one, and, as closely as we could count, about five hundred in the adjacent colony. The babel of sounds made one feel thankful that these noisy creatures were some distance from the Shack. Nearly all the cows had pups, some of which had reached a fair size, while others were only a few hours old. We saw several dead ones, crushed out almost flat, and some skuas were busily engaged gorging themselves on the carcases. These birds are indeed professional plunderers, and will venture almost anywhere in pursuit of food.
During the evening we again heard Adélie Land station working, and the burden of their message to an apparently chance audience was: ‘We do not seem able to get Macquarie Island, all is well, though bad weather has so far prevented any attempt at sledging’.
Sawyer again called them at regular intervals for the rest of the night, but, as before, got no response.
Hamilton and Blake were busy at Lusitania Bay during the first two weeks of October securing sea elephant specimens and collecting eggs. They visited Caroline Cove where is established a giant petrel rookery containing about four hundred birds, and gathered a large number of eggs – purely specimens, as they are no use otherwise.
The Rachel Cohen finally left us on the 8th, expecting to pay another visit in December for the purpose of taking off the sea elephant oil procured by the sealers. Sandell and I visited the gentoo penguin colony in Aerial Cove during the afternoon, for the purpose of getting a few eggs. We found plenty there and collected as many as we required. On returning to the empty nests, the birds would first of all peer round to assure themselves that the eggs were really missing, and then throw their heads back, swaying them from side to side to the accompaniment of loud, discordant cries.
Several of us started out on the 10th to visit the west coast for the purpose of getting some wekas and, incidentally, to make any observations possible. We saw thousands of sea elephants along the coast and passed many rookeries of various sizes. There were a large number of wekas about, but after shooting fourteen we were satisfied with our bag.
A westerly gale during the night proved too much for the aerial, and down it came. Blake and Hamilton were away, so Sawyer, Sandell and I went up, and after much battling and frequent use of the ‘handy billy’ succeeded in fixing things. We also re–tightened the wire stays and thoroughly overhauled the ropes. Snow and sleet fell all the time, making the task most disagreeable.
About the middle of the month the royal penguins commenced to lay, and on the 17th Sandell and I went to their rookeries at ‘The Nuggets’ and collected about fifteen dozen eggs, which we buried in a hole in the bank of the creek for preservation. This species of penguin is the one which is killed for oil, not because it is any fatter than the others, but because it lives in such large colonies. There is one rookery of these birds on the south end of the island which covers an area of sixteen and a half acres, whilst at ‘The Nuggets’ there are numbers of them scattered along the banks of a creek which reaches the sea, aggregating ten acres. At the latter place are situated the oil works belonging to the sealers.
From careful observation I should say that the number of birds killed during the season would not total one hundred and fifty thousand. The method of killing – by blows from a heavy club – is about as humane as any that could be adopted, and the yearly increase in numbers in the only rookeries that are being worked is certainly greater than the decrease due to the depredations of the sealers. Apart from this, there are acres of rookeries on the island from which not a single bird is taken, and they go on year after year adding thousands upon thousands to their already vast numbers.
This species resembles the others in habits, and I shall not describe them at any length. They are of the same colour as the Victoria penguins, but have a more orderly crest. Their rookeries are always on or very close to a running stream which forms the highway along which they travel to and fro. There is no policeman on duty, but a well–ordered procession is somehow arranged whereby those going up keep to one side and those coming down keep to the other. Once they are in the rookery, however, different conditions obtain. Here are fights, squabbles and riots, arising from various causes, the chief of which appears to be a disposition on the part of some birds to loiter about. During the nesting time much disorder prevails, and fights, in which beaks and flippers are energetically used, may be seen in progress at various places throughout the rookery. The nests are made of small stones, and occasionally, a bone or two from the skeleton of some long dead relative forms part of the bulwarks. The attempt on the part of some birds to steal stones from surrounding nests is about the most fruitful cause of a riot, and the thief generally gets soundly thrashed, besides which all have a peck at him as he makes his way with as much haste as possible from the danger zone. As the season advances, these rookeries become covered with filthy slush, but it seems to make no difference to the eggs, as the chicks appear in due course. When the moulting process is in full swing the rookeries are very crowded, and feathers and slush then become mixed together, making the place anything but fragrant.
A fifty–four mile gale from the west–northwest blew down on us on the 20th, but shortly after noon it weakened, and, towards evening, with the shifting of the wind to southwest, came squalls of sleet and snow and a drop in temperature. Hamilton returned from Lusitania Bay in the dinghy on the 21st, but Blake stopped there as he had not yet finished his work in that locality. The dinghy was well laden with specimens of various kinds and, on the way up, some wood and pickets were left at Green Valley for future requirements.
On the 25th Sandell and I visited the west coast, but, instead of going the usual way, we walked down the east coast and went up the creek at ‘The Nuggets’ with a view to having a look at the penguin colonies along its course, finally crossing over the hills and getting into another creek, which we followed all the way down to the west coast. Along this creek were numerous waterfalls, one of which was quite sixty feet in height with wind–blown spray frozen white on the rocks on either side. We came across several giant petrel rookeries, and were treated to a display of the ‘stinker’s’ ability to make himself objectionable. A pair of sooty albatrosses were seen nesting on the front of a rocky steep, but on climbing up we found that they had not yet laid. After catching some wekas and taking a few photographs we returned to the Shack.
On the last day of the month several of us crossed the hills to the west coast in search of plants and birds’ eggs. We secured a number of plant specimens – a further sign of the arrival of spring – including two which bore a very small flower, and were most successful in obtaining skuas’, giant petrels’ and sooty albatrosses’ eggs.
During the evening I received a message from Captain Davis stating that the Aurora would visit us in about three weeks’ time and inquiring if we needed any supplies. This was entirely unexpected, as we thought that no more would be seen of the Ship until she came to take us home at the end of March 1913.
Earthquake shocks were felt at 1.55 am and 9.35 am on October 28, but did no damage other than to bring down some loose rock. Auroral displays were rather frequent but not very pronounced, and in most cases could only be classed as ‘glows’.
A bright sunny morning on the 3rd induced Hamilton and me to make a photographic excursion along the coast. Hitherto only still life photos had been taken, but with the sunlight we were then having, any work was possible, so we determined to have some shots at the sea elephants. They were rather difficult subjects, strange to say, but we spent some time amongst them and did famously, till a snow squall made us suspend operations.
We heard the discordant but mournful cry of a sooty albatross coming from the cliff front, so Hamilton climbed up and, after scrambling about for a while, succeeded in finding a nest, which contained one egg. This led him to look along the cliffs fronting the east coast, and on the following morning he found several nests and caught two birds, both of which were taken by hand while on the nest. They had beautiful plumage and made very fine specimens.
Blake returned from Lusitania Bay during the afternoon of the 4th and reported that he required only four or five days to complete the survey. The configuration of the island at the southern end is vastly different to that shown in the published charts, and this became more apparent as Blake’s figures were plotted.
The news that Piastre had won the Melbourne Cup was flashed about all over the southern ocean during the evening, and we picked it up; but as this was the first we had heard of the animal, nobody seemed much interested. It certainly gave a turn to the conversation, and quite a sporting tone permeated the discussions of the ensuing two or three days.
The subjects of discussion were usually those of environment, and most of our talk centred round sea elephants, sea leopards, penguins, temperatures, wind, wireless telegraphy, fish, aurorae, exploration, ships, Queensland and New Zealand. Sea elephants and penguins do offer scope for a considerable amount of conversation, as one observes them under such different circumstances, and they are so odd that something remarkable is always associated with the sight of them. The weather, being practically the bête noire of our existence, came in for a good deal of abuse. Wireless telegraphy is a mighty interesting subject at all times, and we passed many hours of our stay in discussing its future. All the members were, allegedly, fishermen of some calibre, and when I have said that, anybody with a knowledge of the man who claims ability as an angler will know what all the others, in turn, had to receive with restrained and respectful admiration. The advantages of settlement in Queensland were so apparent to at least one member of the party that he simply could not understand why thousands were not annually killed in the rush to get to this, ‘the greatest of all the Australian States’. Good old silky oak!
The scenery of New Zealand was almost as well known to us as to anybody who has lived in the country all his life, and three of us had never been there. We have sat round the Shack sometimes and only the roar of a sea elephant outside reminded us that we were not, as we imagined, at a Maori ‘tangi’. The wages to be earned there, the delights of travelling, the legislators, Rotorua, kauri pine, and the moon they’ve got in Auckland – we’ve heard of all these and marvelled at them. ‘Kapai te Maori!’
Blake and Hamilton went to Sandy Bay in the dinghy on the 6th in order to complete some work. They improved the hut there, to the extent of making a fireplace and laying barrel staves on the floor, afterwards bringing a boat load of timber from the Jessie Nichol wreck and rigging up a board bunk sufficiently large to accommodate both of them.
While walking down to the Clyde wreck for some wood on the 7th I saw a strange bird on the beach, and, returning to the Shack for the gun, I got him at the second shot. He was a land bird and had evidently been blown out of his course, as none of his kind had been seen before on the island.
On getting up on the following morning I found poor old Ma lying dead, and the feathers which lay about indicated that she had been the victim of a savage assault, but whether at the teeth of a dog or the beak of a skua I was unable to determine. This was most unfortunate, as the hens had all started to lay again two days previously; but apart from this she was a funny old creature and one could almost hold a conversation with her, so we regretted her loss. However, to make amends for this disaster the Victoria penguins started to lay on the same day, and as several of their rookeries were only a few minutes’ walk from the Shack, the position was much the same as if we owned a poultry farm.
Hamilton returned from Sandy Bay on the 17th and immediately set about collecting shags’ eggs. He visited Aerial Cove for the purpose but did not get enough, and was compelled to go to West Point, where he gathered twenty–four dozen for specimens. He now had a collection of eggs of all birds which nest on the island, with the exception of the weka and the tern.
At 6.30 pm on November 22 the Aurora steamed into Northeast Bay and dropped anchor. Hamilton, Blake and Sawyer launched the dinghy and pulled out to receive the mails, which they brought ashore for distribution. All on board were well and Captain Davis sent word to say he would land in the morning, bringing our goods and some visitors – Professor Flynn of Hobart and Mr Denny.
The Aurora next day steamed round North Head and took a series of soundings between the main island and the Judge and Clerk. These latter islets lie about eight miles to the north of North Head, and are merely rocks about eighty feet high upon which thousands of shags and other birds have established rookeries. On the following morning we said goodbye to the Ship, which weighed anchor and steamed away, leaving us once more to our own devices.
All the flowering plants were now showing their extremely modest blooms, and the tussock looked like a field of wheat, each stem having a decided ear. The gentoo penguins, as well as the giant petrels, had hatched their eggs, and the parent birds were shouldering full responsibilities.
Blake and Hamilton were now prepared for another visit to the southern end. Blake had almost completed the chart of the island, and the difference between it and the published chart was very striking. In the latter case the south end was shown as being six miles wide, whereas it is in reality only a little more than two miles across, and the width of the island is nowhere more than three and a half miles. About twenty miles from the southern end lie two islets known as the Bishop and Clerk. The former, which is the larger, is covered with a growth of tussock, while the latter is mainly bare rock.
A distinct rise in temperature was noticeable during November and the mean worked out at 41.6°, while the extremes were 49° and 32°F. Strong winds were recorded on thirteen days and six short–lived gales occurred. We had less precipitation than during any previous month, as thirteen dry days were experienced. The average cloudiness was 93 per cent.; largely due to the frequent foggy or misty weather.
On December 2, at 10 am, Blake and I packed our sleeping bags and blankets and started for Sandy Bay. The swags weighed only thirty–five pounds each and we made a rather quick trip.
After repairing the dilapidated shack, we sallied out for the purpose of catching our evening meal, and with the aid of Mac soon succeeded in getting eight wekas. A sea elephant was then killed, and the blubber, heart and tongue taken; the first–named for use as fuel and the others for food. We cleaned the wekas and put them in the pot, cooking the whole lot together, a proceeding which enabled us to forgo cooking a breakfast in the morning. The beach was swarming with young sea elephants and many could be seen playing about in a small, shallow lagoon.
Just south of the hut there is a sandy spit and one of the only stretches of beach on the island, where thousands of penguins from the adjacent rookeries were congregated, amongst them being three King penguins, which were easily distinguishable on account of their great size.
Feeling a little weary, I sought the hut about 9 pm and turned into the sleeping bag, which was placed on a board bottom covered with tussock, which was by no means uncomfortable. The old place smoked so much that we decided to let the fire die down, and as soon as the smoke had cleared away, the imperfections of the hut became apparent; rays of moonlight streaming through countless openings in the walls and roof.
We rose at 6.30 am. While Blake lit the fire, I went out to fill the billy at a small stream running out of the hills about sixty yards away. After breakfast we set out for Green Valley, but had not gone very far when it began to blow very hard from the south, straight in our faces, and we scrambled on towards our destination amidst squalls of snow, hail and sleet. Eventually we reached the valley and had a somewhat meagre lunch in a small cave. The title ‘cave’ rather dignifies this hole in the rock, but it was the only friendly spot in a most inhospitable locality, and we were inclined to be generous,
On the whole, the length of coast we had traversed was found to be as rough as any on the island. There is not a stretch of one hundred yards anywhere that can be termed ‘good going’. In many places we found that the steep cliffs approached very close to the water, and the mournful cry of the sooty albatross could be heard coming from points high on the face of the cliffs, while the wekas were so tame that one could almost walk up and catch them.
A large creek whose banks are overhung with a coarse growth of fern makes its way out of the hills and runs into Sandy Bay. Just a little to the south of this creek Blake discovered a terminal moraine about two hundred yards in length and fifty feet wide. It rests on sandstone about fifteen feet above the present sea level and the boulders consist of polished and sub–angular blocks of sandstone and porphyry of various sizes. It evidently belongs to the valley or to a later stage of glaciation. The rocks along the coast are all a volcanic series, and basic dykes are visible in many places.
We arose at 7 am next day and breakfasted on porridge, weka, fried heart, ‘hard–tack’ and cocoa. Leaving the hut shortly afterwards we climbed on to the hills and travelled south for several miles in order to fix the position of some lakes and creeks. There was one lake in the vicinity about half a mile long and to all appearances very deep. It lay between two steep hills, and the grassy bank at one end and the small sloping approach at the other gave it an artificial appearance, while the water was beautifully clear and perfectly fresh. At the sloping end, dozens of skuas were busily engaged washing themselves and the flapping of their wings in the water made a remarkable noise, audible at a considerable distance on the hilltops. On returning to the hut at Sandy Bay several rabbits secured by Mac were cleaned and put on to boil.
Next morning a dense mist shrouded the island till about 11 am, but the weather becoming fine and bright, we started for the west coast about noon. During our progress along the bed of a creek, Blake discovered what was believed to be a glacial deposit containing fossil bones, and considerable time was spent in examining this and attempting to extract whole specimens, thereby making it too late to proceed to the west. On returning to the hut we decided to pack the swags. We reached home just in time for tea, finding that nothing unusual had occurred during our four days’ absence.
Hamilton and Blake went out fishing in the dinghy on the 9th and made a remarkable haul of fish, sixty in number, ranging in size from a few ounces to twelve and a half pounds. They were all of the same species, somewhat resembling rock cod, but as usual they were covered with external parasites, and their flesh was full of worm cysts. Hamilton preserved a number of them and the rest were cooked, but we did not relish them very much and the one meal was enough.
On December 11 we had a hard gale all day, the anemometer recording bursts of over fifty miles an hour frequently, while the average exceeded forty miles an hour throughout. Twelve months ago on that day we had made our first landing on the island from the Aurora, but vastly different weather conditions prevailed at the time.
Christmas Day was now very close at hand, and as Blake and Hamilton were going to celebrate at the other end of the island, whence they had gone on the 10th, Sawyer, Sandell and I arranged a little ‘spread’ for ourselves. Sawyer produced a cake which he had received in the recent mail, and some friend had forwarded a plum pudding to Sandell, so on Christmas Day these, with a boiled ham, some walnuts, mince rolls and a bottle of stout were spread on the table, which had been decorated with tussock stuck in sea elephants’ tusks. The highest temperature registered on the island during our stay – 51.8°F – was recorded on Christmas Day, and the sun seemed so warm that Sandell and I ventured into the sea for a dip, but the temperature of the water was not high enough to make it an agreeable experience.
During the evening of the 26th we received a message saying that the Aurora had left Hobart on her trip south to bring back the two parties from Antarctica, but no mention of picking us up on the return journey was made.
The King penguins and ‘night birds’ had laid by this time, and Hamilton added more eggs to his collection. He found for the first time a colony of mutton birds near the south end. He also came upon a mollymawk rookery on the southwestern point of the island, and managed to take one of the birds by hand.
Blake and he had an accident in the dinghy on the 29th, fortunately attended by no serious results. They had gone from Lusitania Bay to the south end, and, while attempting to land through the surf, the boat struck a rock and capsized, throwing them into the water. They had many things in the boat but lost only two billies, two pannikins, a sounding line and Hamilton’s hat, knife and pipe. Their blankets floated ashore in a few minutes, and the oars came floating in later in the day. After the capsize Hamilton managed to reach the boat and turn her over, and Blake made for a kelp–hung rock, but, after pulling himself up on to it, was immediately washed off and had to swim ashore. The boat was afterwards found to be stove–in in two places, though the breaks were easily patched up subsequently.
New Year’s Eve came and with keen anticipations we welcomed the advent of 1913.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.