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Monday, 7 October 2002

At long last… arrival

Almost two weeks since our scheduled arrival on the Snares, we managed to get here today. Finally. I thought we’d never make it. But according to Jason, the skipper of the Foveaux Express, there was a “window of opportunity” today, a break in the weather before the next front blows through.

It was an early morning start, of course. The sun was on its way (although not yet above the horizon) when we boarded the catamaran at the ferry wharf in Bluff.

Sunrise over Bluff wharf

I was quite impressed when Jason and his mate used the crane mounted to the catamarans rear to hoist our gear – all packed into big aluminium bins – on board. It literally gave our expedition a bit of weight to think that all this stuff – actually the whole bloody boat – was only here because of us. Cool.

The Foveaux Express

Round about 6am the ferry steamed out of Bluff harbour and towards Stewart Island where we would stop to pick up another guy who’d help Jason and his mate getting us to the Snares. After spending the first minutes or so on the aft deck, just to smell the sea and realising thatwe’Re on our way, Dave and I sat down at the group table at the rear end of the ferry’s passenger cabin. Anf again it struck me how weird it felt to be riding on such a big boat with no other passenger but Dave, Mel and I. What also struck me was that Dave’s eyes started to glaze over. He was drugged to the brim with sea sickness pills, the cheater.

Dave drugged to the brim with sea sickness pills

In less than an hour we made it to Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island. During usual ferry business the trip would be an hour or even an hour and a half. But since we did not have any time to waste (see “window of opportunity” above) Jason had steamed across Foveaux Strait at full throttle. And following the same idea we zoomed into Halfmoon Bay, hit the wharf, had the third guy jump onboard and zoomed out of Halfmoon Bay again.

In and out of Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island

There was not a cloud in the sky and the sun slowly and utterly majestically inched its way up rom the horizon. The sea was calm. Well, relatively calm. As a matter of fact, it was a bit rough and every now and then the ferry hit waves that were somewhat bigger and sent spray splashing all over the boat. So it really was bumpy. But given that there were 5m swells here just a few days ago it was calm.

A bumpy ride South

I guess Dave and Mel would not agree to my definition of calm. Mel had assumed a horizontal position as soo as we had left Halfmoon Bay. Whether she wastrying to catch up some sleep I cannot say. But it all looked a bit uncomfortable and it seemed more like she was trying to meditate away from unwellness. Dave’s sea sickness pills obviously were nothing but placebos. Because we hadn’t long passed Stewart Island’s South Cape when he started to look rather green around his nose. The two of us sat out on the aft deck watching sooty shearwaters and Buller’s albatross glide by… trying to focus on the horizon. For although I did not feel seasick, my body nevertheless realised that it wasn’t on terra firma anymore.

Buller’s albatross

At about 11am the Snares appeared as a faint silhouette on the horizon. I left my position inside the rubber dinghy that was resting tied up on the aft deck to get a better look round the side of the boat but quickly returned to the rubber dingh… looking ahead with those waves hitting us head on was simply no fun.

The faint silhouette of the Snares

After Dave had fed the fish for the third or fourth time, we got word from the skipper that our arrival at the Snares was imminent and that we should get ourselves ready for the landing procedure. I had the feeling that this would involve the rubber dinghy. Looking at the “calm” seas around us left me a bit concerned about the prospect of riding in that nutshell packed with field gear and food boxes. But, the closer we got the the island, the less bumpy the ride became. Actually, finally we could peek around the sides and marvel at the fleck of land in front of us. The Snares… we made it!

Approaching the Snares

When I saw the lush green of the forest I wondered why George Vancouver decribed the Snares as “barren and rugged” when he discovered the island in 1791. Then again, he passed it in the middle of a horrible storm with severel meters of water in his ship’s bilge… certainly not the time for detailed bonatical examinations. As far as I know he also sailed past the eastern side of the island, we were looking at it from the West. Another thing that amazed me was the number of seabirds that zoomed past the boat. Cape pigeons, sooty shearwaters, diving petrels, fairy prions, and albatross were all around us. Particularly the sooties seemed to get more by the minute, there were clouds of them.

When the catamaran reached Station Cove I could see and hear them. Snares penguins, it seemed as if thousands of them were sitting on the rocks. This certainly was a sight different from what I had seen in the past few years on mainland New Zealand, where the penguins tend to keep to themselves. Here it was like a huge species outing. The entire coast seemed to be dotted with penguins. I saw single birds trumpeting loud with bills pointing high into the sky and flippers spread out – an impressive display. Other birds were squabbling over roosts. Penguins were walking from the forest to the water, others were heading the opposite way. There was a group of birds in the water, croaking as if they had sore throats (at least that what it sounded to me… I could only compare it to the calls of the Little and Yellow-eyed penguins I knew). Another group was actually well behind our boat, the birds porpoising artistcally towards the coast. Their yellow crests glowing in the sun. The water itself was darl blue but crystal clear. I thought I could even see the penguins glide under out boat and -

“Thomas, stop dreaming and start packing!”

Dave got me out of my entrancement. From here on bird watching and amazement was history. We had to land. Our gear was packed into the rubber dinghy that already floated next to the boat (when did that go in the water?). We heaved the fish bins with food, aluminum boxes with gear, backpacks, solar panels, generator and what-have-you into the dinghy where the mate was operating the small outboarder. I was the first to go over. I sat straddles on the boxes, clinging for dear life to sides of the dinghy. And we were off. The five minute ride towards the tiny opening of the boat harbour was much calmer than I thought it would be. When we chugged into the boat harbour I could not help but think that “boat harbour” was a somewhat exaggerated title for this… crevasse?… I could hardly imaging that a boat would be able to get in here. And even though the sea was calm, it rolled in impressive waves into the opening. Boat harbour is short – less than 100m long I would say. But it is pretty well sheltered as it arches northwards around Station Point so that the boat landing area is out of the direct line of the waves rolling into the harbour.

I hopped ashore and almost kneeled down. Not because I felt in awe for the place (although it was magical to be finally here), but because my legs were all wobbly from the six and a half hours boat ride. Around me I saw sea lions. Bloody big sea lions. However, before I could wonder whether they might dislike my presence the mate had started to toss me our gear.

The dinghy shuttled between ferry and the landing five or six times, and the mountain of gear that piled up on the rocks kept growing and growing. With the second load, Melanie had joined me and, finally, Dave jumped ashore with the last load. After a brief good bye and good luck, the rubber dinghy whizzed ot of boat harbour. We were on our own.

I have the feeling that the rest of the day was entirely devoted to carrying all our stuff up to the huts. This certainly had a bit of running-the-gauntlet as we had to perform a slalom around the sleeping mountains of fur aka sea lion bulls, that were lying everywhere, including the track up to the huts. The Snares Station consists of two huts, the lower labortatory hut which had large work benches and storage shelves plus a tiny two bunk bedroom. Dave claimed the latter to himself… he wants to have some privacy. Which means that I will be sharing the main hut (three bunks) where we will be living. Anyway, all our gear had to go into the laboratory hut first. We had to adhere to strict quarantine procedures which meant that we had to lock the door and unpack all our gear in there. If we had a critter such as a mouse, rat, or whatever as a stowaway on one of our bixes it would not have anywhere to go and we could take care of it. However, how we would catch a mouse in the sheer chaos that reigned inside the lab hut after we had crammed all our stuff in there was beyond me.

We found nothing. Which wasn’t really surprising considering that we had already gone through an intensive quarantine check in Invercargill. After a quick lunch of sandwiches we started to put everything in its place. Food tins etc. were to be sorted and put on the storage shelves, the gas bottles and fuel containers had to be hauled up to the fuel shed that lies just past the longdrop. The gas cooker had to be installed, same applied to the generator the VHF radio and the satellite phone (the latter of which wasn’t a safety requirement but sheer luxury). We were busy for the rest of the day.

However, before the day was over the Snares had another welcome spectacle for us in stock. The clouds of sooty shearwaters that we had observed while approaching the island shifted from their orbit out at sea to circle in thousands over the island. At first it looked like a giant cloud of mosquitoes that hovered over our heads. But the closer nightfall drew the lower the birds were flying. We saw some of the crashland through the canopy of the forest – not by accident, there’s simply no elegant way to land on this island.

          posted by Tom on 07.10.2002 at 20:15

Posted in Fieldwork 2002, Sooty shearwaters (titi)

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