Of Sea Mounts and Sea Pandas

sea panda

The winds turned south by west a few days ago and the presence of our looming friend Antarctica and her constant consort the Circumpolar Current became instantly apparent. I come from my lookout post on the foredeck and nursing frozen hands take refuge in the wheelhouse; the winds are biting and I’m starting to wonder if my layering will suffice as we continue closer towards the frozen continent. With a hot mug of black tea in my clammy hands – more as a means of digital warming than for rehydration purposes – I’m watching Captain Klaas survey the latest chart in the dimly lit red glow of the instrument dash. The horizon is dark but I can make out the ever-tilting line as a duplex band of grey on grey.

Laid out atop the instrument console the large-scale marine navigation chart looks a bit different to those of previous weeks. It is a remarkable thing; there is no land on it! None whatsoever in all of its 850 by 1450 nautical miles, covering the area known as the Southwest Pacific Basin to the Pacific–Antarctic Rise. Captain Klaas has plotted our trajectory; it’s on the southwest corner of this chart. Sixty nautical miles ahead on our east-south-easterly course there is a small yet conspicuous seamount rising as a blue shaded circle amidst the sea of white chart. It rises up steeply in just a few nautical miles from the 3000 metre depths beneath us to just 168 metres below the surface. I wonder if we’ll see or feel any evidence of this submarine peak as we pass over it. Captain Klaas, a former submarine communications officer, says at that depth we’ll see no evidence no matter how big the swell. Comforting indeed.

The day progresses and the winds drop from previous days. The bi-tonal dolphin visits that we’ve enjoyed over the last few days leave us expecting more of the same. Today, neither the wonderful Hourglass dolphins (which scientists report as rare in these south-circumpolar longitudes that we’re currently traversing, namely between 150 and 80 degrees west of Greenwich) nor the sleek dorsal-fin-lacking Southern Right Whale dolphins are spotted frolicking in our bow wave. Yesterday, like little mini orcas, they hurtled and jumped through the four to six metre swell; their smooth curvaceous black and white forms athletic and sexy through the dark deep waters. I’m not sure which species is my favourite. Who was the marketing genius that called them ‘dolphins’, and for that matter ‘killer whales’, instead of ‘sea-pandas’?

Southern Right Whale Dolphins - dorsal-finless and torpedo-like

Back on the lonely foredeck lookout post in the frigid airs my mind turns to the tiny prions, flitting and flapping over the swell. So much smaller than the ever-present albatross, I wonder where they find respite in this huge expanse of ocean. The Captain tells us that he calls the little prions the ‘on-off’ birds as the difference in colour between their back and front means that it appears that they’re turning their colour on and off as they reel and bank over the waters. They’re also known as whalebirds for their tendency to indicate the presence or coming of whales. So our eyes are peeled the rest of the afternoon.

Yesterday the water and air temperatures were the same: seven degrees Celsius. Brrrrr! And with these frigid winds and waters I’ve donned the bright orange one-piece Mustang Survival suit. Deckhand Niels must have overheard my complaining the other night when the winds turned south; he dug one of these ancient immersion suits from below and threw it’s massive bulk at me the other morning. Suddenly I’m a happier man. The Australian-standard gear just didn’t cut it. Some of the crew are jealous. Some are mocking. Some call me Elvis, some Yeti-man and others Shackleton. I like the later. It’s Shack for short. But while one may dream of Shackleton’s Antarctic heroisms, the dream that’s occupying my mind tonight is the proximity of the Antarctic Convergence (just 120 nautical miles to the south) and that little sea mount rising up from the dark icy depths to peak at our passing hull; a bit like ships in the night.

NB: Some poetic licence has been applied to some of the space-time continuum in this piece.

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