Dr Joy McCann reveals some of the secrets of the Southern Ocean, drawing from sea captains’ journals, explorers’ letters and whalers’ logs as well as her own research into the Antarctic region’s natural and cultural histories.
Discover the Southern Ocean’s intriguing stories and what it can teach us about our past and our future.
Sailing & Navigation: The Southern Ocean
*Speakers: Susannah Helman (S), Joy McCann (J)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 19 January 2019
S: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Susannah Helman and it’s been my privilege to be the Co-Curator of our exhibition, Cook and the Pacific.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home.
Two hundred and 50 years ago The Endeavour under the command of Lieutenant James Cook was several months into its voyage. It was to be the first of three Pacific voyages under Cook’s command. Cook and the Pacific explores these voyages as meetings of peoples and their knowledge systems. These meetings changed people on both sides. The Library is privileged to hold a very rich collection of original material relating to Cook’s Pacific voyages and is in an ideal position to present an exhibition about these important voyages.
Today we are here to explore a different aspect of this story. Over the course of the day we will hear about voyages and seafaring in the Pacific and elsewhere and we are beginning in the Southern Ocean. This morning we’re delighted to be joined by Dr Joy McCann, an historian specialising in environmental and cultural history. She is based at the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University School of History and has also worked as a public historian, researcher and curator in the cultural heritage, museum and library sectors.
Dr McCann will speak about the intriguing stories of the Southern Ocean, demonstrating what it can teach us about our past and our future. She draws from sea captains’ journals, explorers’ letters and whalers’ logs as well as her own research into the Antarctic region’s natural and cultural histories. Please join me in welcoming Dr McCann.
J: Thank you for that introduction and welcome, everyone, I’m delighted to be here. I’m going to take you to a very cool place now after the week we’ve had, I think we can do with some ice and snow and wind. We’re of course a very long way from the Southern Ocean but I want you to imagine for a few minutes, for the next hour or so that we’re in one of the stormiest and tempestuous regions on earth.
I want to begin by introducing the physical nature of the Southern Ocean. Just to set the scene here – hope you don’t feel seasick on this one – and then to take a bit of a closer look at James Cook and his second voyage into the Antarctic region. It’s not a story that’s as well-known perhaps as The Endeavour and his voyages through the Pacific but I think it gives you a bit of an interesting slant both on his voyages and also on the early maritime exploration of the high southern latitudes. I’ll also look a little bit at the aftermath of his voyage, what happened over the next couple of centuries and also to give you a sense of what this region holds in terms of its importance for us today. So I’m very much about looking at history in the way in which it reveals insights into some of the issues and ideas that are still prevalent today.
So planet earth is often referred to as the blue planet. I’m sure most of you have heard or seen the BBC documentary, Blue Planet because the ocean in fact covers seven-tenths of the earth’s surface and contains about 97% of all its water. Much of it of course is in the southern hemisphere as you can see here. This hemisphere is often referred to as the ocean hemisphere and I really hadn’t thought about that much until I started working on the Southern Ocean. I guess a lot of our education and perhaps our thinking about oceans is really focused more on the Atlantic and the Indian and the Pacific Oceans but when you start to look further south you realise how vast this ocean space is on earth.
So the Southern Ocean is the southernmost part of the planetary ocean. It’s – this polar perspective here I think is a really interesting one because it gives you an idea of the geography of this particular ocean. It is a circumpolar ocean, it flows completely around Antarctica. You’ll see on this perspective there’s the Antarctic circumpolar current and I’ll talk about that in a moment and also the subantarctic front which is also known – yes?
[Discussion about slides]
So just going back to talking about the Antarctic convergence which is also known as the subantarctic front. It’s marked here and it’s a very important part of the Southern Ocean in that it’s where the cold polar waters mix and merge with the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
So the convergence is a very fertile region. Because of this mixing of waters, water masses, it is where whales and other marine creatures gather to feed on the nutrients that are upwelled from the deep. It’s often referred to now as a biological frontier because of this immense fertility of this region. Of course it’s where a lot of the early sealers and whalers tended to focus their attentions because of this concentration of marine life.
So talking about the Southern Ocean’s boundaries isn’t simple because of this meeting and merging of waters and it was an issue I had to deal with first off when I was starting to do this research, just where is the Southern Ocean? Over the years, and I’m not going to talk a lot about it now but over the years different nations and different organisations have actually decided – made their own boundaries so it is still debated today exactly how far north the Southern Ocean reaches. It also has different names so a lot of people I talk to in the northern hemisphere call it the Antarctic Ocean and they don’t register the word Southern Ocean but I chose Southern Ocean because it is the name I grew up with in South Australia, it certainly flowed all the way to Australia’s southern shores as I knew it and I thought well I’m writing this book, I’m going to call it what I think it is.
But I also chose to use the term that the early sailors in this region knew it as, the ocean south of the great capes and I just put this image up here to show you where those great capes lie. There’s Cape Horn of course off the coast of South America, the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa, Cape Leeuwin, southwestern WA, South East Cape off Tasmania and I was there last week, actually, at South East Cape, and South West Cape off New Zealand. They’re the great capes which if you're a sailor you may be familiar with, particularly if you’re a ‘round the world yachtie, they are the great capes that people tick off on their list as they sail around the world. It’s regarded very much as a rite of passage to have sailed past the great capes of the Southern Ocean.
These were of course crucial landmarks, not only for sailors today but for the early maritime explorers who were sailing – with sailing ships and dependent on the winds of this region for propelling their vessels. This particular slide is looking at the route of – typically of the clipper ships that used to sail south from Europe to the southern nations and countries and colonies, land masses in the 19th century propelled by some of the strongest winds on earth. I just love those evocative names, the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and it’s not marked here but I can tell you they’re called the Screaming Sixties in the latitude 60 degrees south right around Antarctica. They are the strongest winds in the world. Of course they were using them in pursuit of faster shipping times to reach the southern colonies but of course many also came to grief because of – those winds were incredibly powerful.
This is Cape Horn off South America and it’s the southernmost inhabited land mass around here, around Tierra del Fuego and it’s always been the most notorious of these capes for sailors. It’s where the Antarctic circumpolar current in fact which is the largest current on earth that flows completely around the globe from west to east, uninterrupted by any major land mass and carrying enough water – wait for this – to fill the world’s rivers at least 150 times over, it’s massive. It squeezes through about 800km gap between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula and that’s why – one of the reasons why this has become one of the most notorious stretches of water in the world.
Rounding the Horn was in a particular way a rite of passage for the sailing ships and so many succumbed to its treacherous conditions that it became known as the sailor’s graveyard. I have to say this photo I took a couple of years ago and it was behaving itself, it was a rather benign day so it’s a bit hard to get that sense of the reputation of this region but it gives you an idea at least of what this part of the world looks like in terms of the land mass. There is also a memorial right on the tip created by a Chilean sculptor and it’s dedicated to the sailors who perished off the Horn.
Beyond the great capes going south we find ourselves in the vastness of the Southern Ocean. The only land between us now and Antarctica are the 20 or so tiny subantarctic islands, most of them dark and forbidding mountains, volcanic rock protruding from the ocean. The Antarctic historian, Bernadette Hince, has described them as like black pearls in the crown of Antarctica which I think is a wonderful image, evocative image. But apart from this scattering of – and they are really very tiny islands – there’s virtually nothing but ocean and ice and some of the most powerful winds on earth as we’ve seen and the myriad of creatures that call this region home.
This is one of the island groups, it’s South Georgia and this is a photo I took off – on South Georgia in 2017 and it’s early summer and it’s breeding season and the creatures in this area, the marine creatures rely on the land to mate and breed and raise their young sufficient to face the oncoming winter. They have a very narrow window and it is absolutely a haven of wildlife on all of these subantarctic islands.
Further south lies the massive continent of Antarctica surrounded by great ice shelves that carve massive tabular icebergs and these set sail into the Southern Ocean gradually melting as they reach the warmer waters. Some of them actually do reach as far as Cape Horn before melting completely. It’s important I think to understand something of the geography and the physical nature of the region to understand James Cook’s remarkable excursion into the Southern Ocean as far as the Antarctic Circle between 1772 and 75.
Now you may have seen mention of it in the exhibition but I think it is a fairly little known story, certainly in relation to the – his exploration of the Pacific and I think it’s one that’s worth talking about a little bit and also to get an idea of just how incredibly amazing that voyage was in the very small sailing ships that he had with him or that he was sailing on.
So in December 1772 Cook rounded the Cape of Good Hope and was navigating southeast in search of Cape Circumcision, what we now know to be Bouvet Island, a tiny subantarctic island first sighted by the French naval explorer in 1739. This voyage was Cook’s second attempt to locate the great southern land, a mythical land mass that had long been thought to exist at the southern half of the planet in order to counterbalance the land masses of Europe and Asia in the north. The theory which had been developed in the second century by a Greek philosopher, Ptolemy had really been around for a long time, it was a very – remained a very popular sort of theory and this map is actually from 1570 and it’s by Abraham Ortelius. You might be familiar with this one, it’s one of the earliest modern maps and it shows Terra Australis nondum cognita at the bottom which translated roughly to unknown southern land anchoring earth at its southern extremity in the region now known as the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean.
Alexander Dalrymple was the British Admiralty’s first hydrographer and it was he that commissioned Cook’s voyages in the 18th century. He was himself a passionate advocate of Ptolemy’s theory and published his own thesis of it in 1767, drawing on reports from early European navigators who had found their way into the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Of course the promise of a new and unclaimed southern land was irresistible to the imperial powers of Europe. There were some who even promoted the idea of the unknown southern land as a kind of El Dorado and depicted it on maps – some of the early maps as a richly fertile region and there were all sorts of animals and jungles at the southernmost end of the earth just waiting to be discovered.
On his first voyage of maritime exploration Cook had reached latitude 40 degrees south but did not succeed in locating the unknown southern land, he felt that there was a lot more still to be discovered. He proposed this second voyage that would circumnavigate the globe, this time from west to east in search of it and at this time the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean beyond the great capes was largely uncharted. The concept of fixing a position on earth’s surface using imaginary lines parallel to the equator was well known. Latitude could be measured with a reasonable level of accuracy using a compass and cross-staff, a simple device used to measure the elevation angle of the noontime sun above the horizon.
Determining longitude however was far more difficult, particularly at sea in this sort of region where there was very little in the way of land. It required an accurate means of measuring time on a moving vessel. Maritime nations were keen to solve the problem since any miscalculation of a ship’s position at sea could and often did spell disaster.
European nations began offering financial incentives from the early 16th century. In 1761 an amateur British clockmaker, John Harrison, made a breakthrough with his portable marine chronometer, a spring-driven clock known as H4. It could measure the degrees of longitude traversed during a sea journey by comparing local time at high noon to the absolute time set on the chronometer at the start of the voyage, ie, in Greenwich.
Cook took an accurate copy of Harrison’s invention made by Larcum Kendall and this was called K1 together with three devices made by Arnold for testing during the second voyage. The British mathematician and astronomer, William Wales, who was sent on Cook’s voyage by the Board of Longitude to perform astronomical observations and report to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was also responsible for testing the accuracy of the experimental marine timekeepers under a variety of conditions on the open ocean.
Arnold’s timepieces eventually succumbed to the freezing conditions but K1 survived according to Cook and I quote, Mr Kendall’s watch exceeded the expectations of its most zealous advocate and by being now and then corrected by lunar observations has been our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climate. The problem of longitude may have been overcome but the Southern Ocean’s notorious weather still prevailed. By December 1772 The Resolution was floundering in tempestuous conditions and being driven far eastward off the intended course.
So Cook dismissed any hope of locating Cape Circumcision and found himself dealing instead with a dramatic drop in temperature at latitude 48 degrees south causing the death of most of the livestock that he’d brought on board at the Cape of Good Hope. We now recognise that in fact he was sailing in the region known as the Antarctic convergence that I mentioned earlier where there's a very distinct drop of temperature, air and sea temperature.
He recorded in his journal the prodigious and vast swells, as he called them, but the giant swells were also just the beginning of his challenges. At latitude 51 degrees south the vessels caught sight of their first icebergs and were soon surrounded by an immense field of ice, as Cook wrote in his journal. They turned north from 55 degrees south then circled south again, forever surrounded by floating ice which Cook surmised was what Bouvet had mistakenly thought was in fact an island.
At 61 degrees south Cook ordered three boats into the ice field to collect loose pieces that could be melted down for fresh water then at 66 degrees south the ships crossed the Antarctic Circle, the first European vessels to do so. This image here which is a classic image by William Hodges who accompanied Cook as the artist on the voyage shows actually they’re shooting some of the seabirds because of course they were supplementing their diet with meat. Also in this same time they were collecting pieces of ice and Cook writes quite a bit about that process of collecting ice which they found surprisingly fresh, some of the ice.
Enveloped in thick fog the captains of The Resolution and Adventure found it exceedingly difficult to avoid colliding with these ice islands. The Adventure under the command of Tobias Furneaux lost contact with The Resolution and was forced to sail on alone to Tasmania before heading to the prearranged meeting point of Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.
Cook meanwhile sailed south-east tracing along the edge of the icefield before also making for Queen Charlotte Sound where the two ships rendezvoused in early 1773. After several months exploring the South Pacific the two ships were again separated. This time Furneaux decided to head north returning to Britain a year before Cook who steered The Resolution southward to resume his search for the southern continent. He crossed the Antarctic Circle for the second time before turning north to avoid the freezing conditions but not one to be deterred he then made yet another great southerly loop crossing the Circle for the third time on the 26th January 1774.
On board The Resolution was a Prussian-born pastor turned naturalist, Johann Reinhold Forster. Most people are familiar of course with Joseph Banks who accompanied Cook on his voyage on The Endeavour with a staff of eight including two naturalists and two artists whose role was to record and observe and sample the plants and animals and also record the landscapes and peoples that they encountered during the journey.
Banks expected that he would accompany Cook on the second voyage but the British Admiralty refused to meet his demands for staff and accommodation. In fact the story about Banks having organised for the ship to be enlarged to accommodate his needs and that was too heavy, it was going to be unseaworthy so the Admiralty ordered that those fittings be taken out again and Banks withdrew from the voyage. But it was Forster who found himself aboard The Resolution as the expedition naturalist armed with a library of 18th century journals of voyages and natural history and assisted by his son, Georg, shown here and they’re obviously not in Antarctica here, in a much more tropical place and Georg was himself a talented artist too.
Now Forster proved to be a diligent observer of the natural environment of the Southern Ocean but he was a fractious passenger and I don’t blame him, actually. Beyond the Cape as The Resolution entered a region of treacherous gales, thick fog and floating ice he complained bitterly about his cramped accommodation which flooded in the mountainous sea and expressed his dismay that men of science such as himself from – and I quote – the most enlightened nation in the world should receive such treatment. He was miserable with rheumatic pain and blamed Cook for prolonging his suffering in these gruelling conditions.
He recorded in his journal that – I should go back – our whole course from the Cape of Good Hope to New Zealand was a series of hardships which had never been experienced before. We had the perpetual severities of a rigorous climate to cope with, our seamen and officers were exposed to rain, sleet, hail and snow, our rigging was constantly encrusted with ice which cut the hands of those who were obliged to touch it. Our provision of fresh water was to be collected in lumps of ice floating on the sea where the cold and the sharp saline elements alternatively numbed and scarified the sailors’ limbs. We were perpetually exposed to the danger of running against huge masses of ice which filled the immense Southern Ocean.
Forster’s journal I think gives us – it’s quite entertaining and is certainly worth reading. It also gives us rare personal insights into the experience of long-distance voyaging in this period, the nature of the Southern Ocean’s physical environment and also interestingly the ideas that prevailed about the natural world at that time.
He theorised about whether the phenomena he observed might offer clues as to the existence of a southern continent. He noted changes in the depth, colour, saltiness and temperature of the ocean water and contemplated at length the character and significance of the large islands of ice they encountered even in midsummer. On Boxing Day 1773 he counted 186 masses of ice on the horizon.
Forster’s personal observations also served to validate another of his theories and one that was to resurface in subsequent scientific voyages in the high southern latitudes over the 19th century. Like many observers of the natural world in the enlightenment period he believed that earth’s physical variations represented a hierarchy whereby as one travelled south from the fertile tropics the world became progressively more debased and sterile. In Forster’s view nowhere was the debased nature of the earth’s extremities more manifest than in the torpid and slow-moving seals and penguins he observed languishing on the ice islands of the Southern Ocean.
Cook seemed inclined to agree. Certainly when he charted the coastline of South Georgia, that we saw earlier with all the penguins, and he took possession of it in the name of His Majesty, the King of Britain, he wrote that it was too savage and horrible to be worthy of further examination. He basically didn’t venture into the island at all. Quite a contrast with the luxurious natural world he’d encountered in the Pacific islands on this same voyage.
But for Cook the four months spent navigating around tabular icebergs and storms in the Southern Ocean the journey was a success. He was finally convinced that there was no habitable land mass in the high southern latitudes and no Terra Australis nondum cognita. He wrote in his journal, I had now made the circuit of the Southern Ocean in a high latitude and traversed it in such a manner as to leave not the least room for the possibility of there being a continent unless near the pole and out of reach of navigation. Thus I flatter myself that the intention of the voyage has in every respect been fully answered, the southern hemisphere sufficiently explored and a final end put to the searching after a southern continent which has at times engrossed the attention of some of the maritime powers for near two centuries past and the geographers of all ages.
The wonderful globe in the exhibition next door shows the tracks of Cook’s three voyages, it’s a wonderful sort of moving feast of – as the globe revolves and you can trace three voyages and just the incredible distances that were travelled on those three voyages. Here is Cook’s own chart of the southern hemisphere published in his journal in 1777. It’s a little hard to see of course but it just gives you an idea of the fact that he did plot all his courses on the map.
Now the publication of Cook’s journals created a dramatic shift in the way the Southern Ocean was perceived in Europe basically from an imagined El Dorado to a tempestuous reality. His experience of the rich marine life in the subantarctic islands sparked a frenzied rush of sealers to the remote beaches and uncharted waters of the Southern Ocean.
In 1776 for example when Cook dropped anchor in Christmas Harbour in Kerguelen Archipelago which is a – kind of halfway between South Africa and Australia but much further south - he described the plentiful penguins and fur seals that were so tame that his men were able to take as many as they pleased.
A sealing vessel would land, a sealing gang on a remote island beach where they would remain for months at a time until they had killed every animal in sight before being picked up by their ship or perhaps rescued by another passing vessel and in some cases never rescued at all. These were incredibly remote places and they were in a dot in the ocean.
They would camp in caves or construct crude beach shelters from stone and ships’ timbers or ribs from whale skeletons, covering them with tarpaulins or seal skins to keep out the worst of the weather. Archaeologists have identified the remains of about 50 such shelters in the South Shetlands off the Antarctic Peninsula offering clues as to how these sealers managed to survive and work in such extreme environments. But we’re also learning about just how devastating the sealing era was on the seals of the Southern Ocean. Within eight years of the discovery of the South Shetlands in 1819 by William Smith, Captain of the British merchant vessel, Williams, an estimated 144 sealing gangs had converged on those islands, sailing from New England, Britain and the Australian colonies.
Most were there for the first three summers taking at least 300,000 and perhaps as many as 900,000 fur seal skins. We never really know. It was a very secretive industry and records are relatively difficult to access, particularly for this region. The southern fur seal populations declined from an estimated one to two million - we never really know how many there were – to a few hundred individuals by the time the fur sealing industry collapsed in the 1830s.
Sealers began turning their attentions to the blubber-rich southern elephant seals to meet the growing demand for the lighting oil, machine lubrication, paint and soap and so on that was - basically the Southern Ocean creatures were fuelling the industrial revolution in the northern hemisphere. Also the elephant seals as it was – called elephanting, was the term used. It went hand-in-hand with the growth of the southern whaling industry from sort of – about the mid-19th century or so and that was to have the dramatic impact of all in the Southern Ocean.
Large numbers of whales migrate into these waters along ancestral pathways to feed on the smorgasbord of Antarctic crill in the nutrient-rich waters and I’m talking here about Baleen whales in particular. By the first world war South Georgia had become the centre of the southern whaling industry with no less than six whaling stations operating from this tiny island alone. The impact of whaling in the Southern Ocean was truly devastating.
A scientific review of whale sightings around South Georgia undertaken between 1979 and 1998 noted that the Humpback whales became commercially extinct by 1915, Antarctic Blue whales by 1935 and Fin and Sei whales by 1960. It concluded in the report that all of the southern whale species that once frequented the waters had become rare as a result of this industry. The giant blue whale, the largest creature to have ever lived, was reduced from around 300,000 individuals across the Southern Ocean to just 6,000 - that’s an estimate, of course – and even today their numbers remain very low. I know there is a terrific research going on off the south coast of Victoria, a blue whale study run by a scientist called Pete Gill which – I love that name – he’s doing a tremendous amount of work every season and they are surveying the blue whales as they migrate around this region.
Scientific expeditions from different nations also followed in Cook’s wake in the 19th century combining as Cook did both maritime exploration and ocean science. The ice cap of the Antarctic continent is perpetually dry and frozen and is in fact a virtual desert where only a few species of lichen and mosses and so on and insects can survive. In contrast the Southern Ocean that surrounds it is teeming with life above and below the surface as the scientists aboard the Challenger expedition found. This Challenger expedition was undertaken in the 1870s, it was a British expedition and it was one of the largest and most important scientific voyages of this era. Over four years they circumnavigated the earth and measured water temperature, salinity and depth and collected marine samples from all the world’s oceans including the Southern Ocean and a lot of the specimens that they collected are now held by the Natural History Museum in London.
But by the end of the 19th century the international focus had shifted to exploring the Antarctic continent. Most people know about polar explorers like Scott, Robert Falcon Scott and Amundsen and - both of whom trekked across the Antarctic ice sheets striving to be the first to reach the south pole. Or Ernest Shackleton whose ship was crushed by the heaving masses of floating sea ice which is a wonderful story in its own right. But it was the ocean that was of the greatest interest to these explorers and the naturalists and scientists that accompanied them and it was – you can see here one of the laboratories that was set up and they were exploring of course the continent but also more particularly the ocean around the continent.
Just as an aside I was thrilled to discover when I was doing my research for this book on the Southern Ocean, a slim blue book in the National Library’s Special Collections and it was the Antarctic Manual for the Use of The Expedition of 1901. It was published by the Royal Geographical Society for the British National Antarctic Expedition between 1901 and 1904 which of course was led by Scott. This particular copy sailed aboard The Discovery, Scott’s vessel, and was later donated to the Library. It’s just a wonderful gem that the Library holds in its collection and one of many.
The Challenger findings had not yet become known at this point. There were 50 volumes of research that they published over many years from The Challenger in the 1870s but this book then when it was published represented the sum scientific knowledge of the time of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic region so Scott sailed with this and the people aboard like Edward Wilson, the doctor who was also informally the naturalist or the scientist aboard as well, would have read this and it covered everything from climate to terrestrial magnetism all written by quote as it says here in the book itself, leading men of science.
It also had incidentally a frontispiece of ice nomenclature so it was about 70 terms for ice mostly from the Arctic which actually didn’t really translate quite so well in the Southern Ocean because the ice in the Antarctic region is often quite different but it’s worth reading if you get a chance to look at it.
By the mid-20th century the Southern Ocean increasingly became the focus of international scientific research. We now understand much more about the importance of its ecosystem and the movement of its great water masses in driving the world’s ocean circulation and its role as a barometer of climate change. I talk a lot about that in the book but for today I’ve sort of just summarised it briefly but it is a big story, the history of scientific research in the Southern Ocean. Of course it continues to this day and has huge implications for the future understanding of climate change and what’s happening in our marine environments.
Culturally though the Southern Ocean’s remoteness I think has tended to render it invisible for most of us, beyond the reach of human affairs somehow, it’s just so remote and so wild whoever goes there except perhaps for the scientists, the odd ‘round the world yachtsperson or tourists to Antarctica. So that was really one of the reasons why I wrote the book, Wild Sea because I really wanted to capture some of the stories, what I think we need the stories that reconnect us with this little known part of the planet, not just as an ecosystem but because we humans rely on it for its invisible but powerful currents and winds and the great seasonal heartbeat of its ice and the role it plays in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact it’s been described as the lungs of the planet because of its vast surface and prolific plant and animal life.
One of the ideas that struck me when I was researching the book was the way in which everything about the Southern Ocean is in fact interconnected. During the 1980s for example – and you might be aware of this – the scientists and policymakers agreed to create an international convention to protect the Southern Ocean as a giant ecosystem. It came after the formation of the Antarctic Treaty in the 1950s and this convention was called the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic and Marine Living Resources. This is in the period when whales were – had declined – whale numbers had declined to such an extent there was a great concern. There was also a lot of particular conventions and regulations around whaling but there was also concern about the future of Antarctic crill which is at the base of the ecosystem because it was being harvested, still is harvested but now under stricter regulations as a source of protein.
There was a concern that if these tiny shrimplike creatures, the size of a human thumb, disappeared because of uncontrolled harvesting as the seals and whales had been so would every other living creature that depended on the ocean for its survival. I think this made me realise even more so that far from being remote and a world apart the Southern Ocean’s a real part and powerful part of our world. So I wanted to tell its stories as a way of helping us to see its natural history as an integral part of our human history. I wanted to show that science and maritime exploration went hand-in-hand, it’s a long part of this history, that the ocean has been and continues to be vulnerable to our activities. I also wanted to celebrate the creatures that live there, to recognise their interconnectedness with us and to tell the stories of the people who have lived with the Southern Ocean or ventured into it and who have been changed forever by that experience.
I just want to finish now with a short extract that I wrote in my own journal when I went on a voyage to the Southern Ocean as far as Antarctica in 2017. Apart from grey swells and windswept clouds there is little to catch the eye on the surface of this most notorious ocean passage. The light of the Southern Ocean plays tricks with the eyes, obscuring the horizon so that sea and sky meld. Sometimes it seems that we’re no longer voyaging between sea and sky but have become enshrouded by both. The pictures I have held in my mind come to the surface now, inhabiting the great expanses of the high southern latitudes. In the not quite darkness of these latitudes in summer I wonder if this is what the early sailors meant by looming. I don’t know if you’ve heard that term but it comes up a lot in early sailing literature, seeing things beyond the limits of normal vision.
I consider the crills forming around us as they come to the surface to feed, facing westward I sense the powerful currents pummelling around the hull. I reflect on the stillness in the ice, the lulling rock of the ship, my admiration for the migration of birds and whales, the clarity of thought in the polar air.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the Southern Ocean is a sense of connection. Catching a leopard seal’s eye, marvelling at a swarm of crill, hearing the triumphant cacophony of King penguins in breeding season, absorbing the unearthly blue of an iceberg, admiring the majesty of the blue whale, not that I actually saw one, I have to say, sadly. Being left speechless by the extraordinary power and pureness of purpose in the flight of the wandering albatross and I did see one of these and that was – I’ll never forget it, touched me deeply.
It may not be possible to feel a sense of belonging in this vast, complex fluid environment but it seems that we can have a sense of connection with ocean and wind and ice and the myriad of living things and ultimately I think we’re all caught within the Southern Ocean’s embrace. Thank you.
S: Please join me in thanking Dr McCann for that fascinating presentation. We do have time for a few questions from the audience. Please raise your hands and a microhome will be brought to you. If you could please wait for the microphone before asking your question for the benefit of all our guests. Thank you.
A: That was a wonderful talk, that you could convey so much from your wonderful book but one of the questions which remains unanswered for me is about the icebergs being used by Cook’s crew to supply their water supply. What I want to know, and I can’t find out, is are there varieties of icebergs in which some are land-constructed? Are they all pure water? Thank you.
J: So there are different ice formations, there’s the ice that comes down from glaciers into the ocean and that ice shelf I mentioned and the icebergs that break off those ice shelves surrounding Antarctica are of course fresh. There's also the sea ice that freezes on the water itself and there’s this wonderful process that goes on and I witnessed it off the side of the ship where the sea starts to freeze and it forms pancake ice which actually to me looked just like lotus blossoms floating in the water and then gradually they bumped together. You must remember the ocean is moving all the time and the currents are pushing the ice together and they push up to each other and the pancake ice pieces end up forming one larger piece and then you get whole areas of sea ice and it gradually freezes across much of the ocean surface in winter and it melts to about a sixth of its size in summer. The scientists that work in this area have done beautiful videos showing the pulsation of the ice which is why I referred to it as a heartbeat of Antarctica, the ice freezing and melting.
But to answer your question about the fact that they were using ice for drinking water there’s - obviously there is some ice that’s salty but with the formation of ice in the sea, as the sea freezes it expels the salt and in fact that’s an incredibly important part. I’m not an oceanographer and it took me some time to get my head around this but as I understand it the salt is heavy, it falls into the deeper water so some of that ice that’s expelled the water - sorry, the salt has become fresher. They had to look for it, it’s not always readily available. Some ice is salty still but the process of freezing and releasing the salt creates currents under the sea in the deep ocean and in fact off the coast of Antarctica as I understand it the – it forms great waterfalls as this powerful current forms with that constant movement of melting ice. The melting ice is crucial to ocean circulation is what I’m trying to say, it actually is part of that process so it has that sort of other dimension to that whole story of how sea ice and the ice generally in Antarctica forms and the roles it plays in the ecosystem of the region.
A: I just want to ask you a question. I was down there in 2017 as well but is the ice in Antarctica increasing compared to the one – the Arctic? I understood that the Antarctic is actually increasing. I mean we couldn’t get into the Weddell Sea ‘cause of the amount of ice and yet in the northern hemisphere it’s diminishing.
J: Yes, in fact I believe – ‘cause Antarctica is actually – has two parts to it. Part of it is – deep down is rock and part of it is very, very deep ice, it’s two sections. In fact when you look at a – perhaps a geological map of Antarctica you’ll see that line running right through. One part of Antarctica is freezing as I understand it and the other part is actually losing ice, it’s my – I'm looking at a marine biologist sitting in front of me but – so in fact there’s still a lot not known about what’s happening with the ice. There’s – that’s one of the areas of research that’s going on right now. We know so little about some aspects of the region and that’s what I think is so interesting about the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, is that in effect even though it’s been sort of out of sight, out of mind for such a long time people who go down there now, the research they’re doing is of vital importance and there’s huge international collaborations of scientists working to discover just this.
But my understanding is it’s not a clear picture, some is melting, some is freezing more so it’s a very – and I guess it’s to do with the changing temperatures of the ocean itself so obviously where there’s impacting – particularly the Antarctic Peninsula, I believe, is at great risk because it’s surrounded – it’s much further north – surrounded by more ocean than the rest of Antarctica. But I know that one of the problems when I was there, I saw the Weddell Sea too, frozen and couldn’t get into Deception Island - into the whaling station in Deception Island because it was all frozen. But one of the big problems is it’s raining more, particularly on the Antarctica Peninsula and that’s affecting the penguins’ ability to find rock to lay their eggs because it’s creating more ice on the rock so it’s much further down and the penguins are finding it difficult to actually fulfil their normal cycle of breeding and laying eggs. So I’m sorry, I’m not a great expert on the ice and where it – exactly how it works in terms of the current scientific theories but it’s certainly an area I think is worth keeping an eye on and looking at how much more we can learn from the science that’s going on right now. I know there’s a couple of big projects looking at just that.
A: Thank you, Joy, for a wonderful talk, it was really interesting. I can give a little bit more information about the state of the Antarctic ice. The sea ice extent last year, last summer was an all time minimum and this year it looks like it’s heading in the same direction. Recent research has found that the - with the warming ocean the ice cap is being melted from underneath and expeditions to the world’s largest glacier, the [Taku] 50:46 Glacier, has found accelerating loss from underneath so that paints a very dangerous picture.
A: Thank you very much, Joy, wonderful talk. I’d like to take it back to literature. Now was there an impact from the journals of Cook into the consciousness? Like I'm thinking of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
J: Yes, in fact I have to try and reach back into my memory but I did research this early on. There is a direct link between Cook’s voyage and the writing of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner which I found intriguing. There’s no definitive conclusion about it, it’s still a case of speculation by literary scholars about the origins of the ideas of Coleridge’s poem which I’m presuming most people would be familiar with but William Wales was Coleridge’s maths tutor so there was a link there. But the other story I read which I did write a little bit about in the book was Coleridge and Wordsworth were looking at ways to make money and coming up with ideas for writing that would capture the public imagination and Wordsworth was familiar with a story of one of the shipwrecked – one of the – sorry, one of the earlier voyages in the – around the coast of South America.
A person by the name of George [Shellbock] 52:38 who was the captain of a vessel whose second – whose mate, I think, second mate or something had – Simon Hatley, I do remember the name – had shot an albatross and shortly after that the ship was wrecked so I suspect as with all literature it was a kind of a fertile kind of range of ideas that formed for Coleridge to write the poem. But certainly I found it absolutely intriguing that so much literature has been written about the Southern Ocean and the region because this was an era when it was all just being discovered so - in the European mind at last – would have been ripe for that kind of imaginative storytelling.
A: Thank you, Joy, that was lovely. I think I was saying to you before I loved reading your book. I’m not a scientist at all. It was a combination I think of science and lyricism which you write and that word, looming, and I think that that’s what happened to me. Like you said sort of seeing beyond what you can see, the sailors who ventured, and I think as a result of your book and the way you write it does loom within the reader for me.
The other thing I’ll just comment on is that it was the Victoria era where everybody collected stuff and had it in their – I don’t know what they called it, their parlour or their dining room and when they entertained they’d sort of show people ‘round their cabinets. So it was this sort of mindset of talking amongst well educated people and I think that’s possibly a reason why you had people like the poets and all that kind of thing talking. But thank you so much, I enjoyed your book so much, thank you.
J: Thank you very much. I might just say they were the cabinet of – cabinets of curiosity in the Victoria era that certain – particularly middleclass homes would have and it was a way of showing off collections from all over the world, particularly in the British empire, this idea of – and other empires, northern empires ‘cause the word itself comes from Germany. But what I found intriguing was that there was a specialist presenter of slides, a slide-maker in England who produced slides, microscopic slides of diatoms from the Southern Ocean. I just found that story absolutely amazing. So people were able to see microscopic – with the use of - obviously of a microscope in the loungeroom – able to see these slides and see what inhabit the oceans. There’s of course the depths of the ocean and I haven’t even begun to talk about ocean depths but that was obviously a complete unknown.
The Challenger expedition started to find – the big challenge for the Challenger in the 1870s was to determine whether life forms – how far down in the ocean life forms existed ‘cause there was a prevailing theory that after a certain point in the deep dark beyond light that nothing existed but in fact as we now know it’s a very rich environment and thanks to Blue Planet for pointing that out to the world, you know, it’s a really interesting area of research. But I think we need to come back to the cabinet of curiosities, that’s my lesson out of this book, we need to come back to this idea of a fascination with what’s in our natural world. Thank you very much for your comments.
A: Thank you, Joy. I just wanted to check with you, are there absolutely no indigenous sources or references in relation to the Southern Ocean?
J: I’m glad you asked that, thank you. I talk a little bit about that in my book and perhaps the story that profoundly affected me was the story of the Mirning people from the Great Australian Bight and I received permission from the elder, [Bunalori] 56:59, to tell the story. It is an intriguing story and I’m sure it’s replicated across the southern hemisphere but it really is about the Mirning – indigenous Mirning people’s central relationships with the Southern Right Whale. They migrate as you know around the coast of Australia and they – someti – the Great Australian Bight is one of their nurseries so the mothers and calves come there to rest and feed during their migration. For the Mirning people that – the whale is their ancestor, [Gidara] 57:40, and so there’s a wonderful story and I love the fact that [Bunalori] has been very active in telling that story worldwide including in a film that he made in conjunction with a whole lot of other people including elders from around the world, indigenous elders about the importance of relationships between indigenous people and the marine creatures, particularly whales and dolphins.
It’s called Whale Dreaming if you ever get to see that, it’s a wonderful film and so I thought very strongly that I wanted to include that in my book in a respectful way and to show that these relationships are currently existing today and continue on. In fact the Mirning people are very active in the fight against oil installation in the Great Australian Bight because if there’s an oil leak from installations that are proposed it will destroy that whale nursery. So there’s a strong conservation message coming through that as well and a strong sense of custodianship of that part of what I call the Southern Ocean.
There is also other stories from South America and from the Tierra del Fuego region and New Zealand. I wasn’t able to do much research on South Africa but for me that’s just part of an going process and I hope other people will continue that work. Thank you.
A: Thank you. I know there is some tourism in Antarctica itself and also in South Georgia but am I right in thinking that broadly speaking the islands you mentioned like Bouvet, Kerguelen, they’re pretty much off-limits apart from specialist scientific or meteorological visits?
J: Yes, that’s quite right. The Kerguelen and Bouvet and there’s a few other islands – those two in particular are part of the French Antarctic territory and they’re very much scientific research bases. Most of those islands do have a base on them for that reason but they’re very seasonal obviously because of the conditions. Australia’s Antarctic territory encompasses Macquarie and Heard and McDonald Islands. I believe – my understanding is there are tours to Macquarie Island and obviously the Antarctic Peninsular is one of the main sort of areas that tourist ships sail to. There are different national scientific bases around the whole region and on the tour for anyone who’s been down to that area, you will see some of the bases. I think ‘round the Antarctic Peninsula a lot of Argentinean or Chilean and other South American countries have got bases around there.
But having said that – so yes, there are limited opportunities to get onto some of these islands. I think the South African islands, Marion Island, Prince Edward Island, similarly only for scientists or people doing feral animal eradication. A lot of these early sailors and – sealers and sailors and whalers deposited rats unintentionally probably and other animals and they’ve been going through a lot of the eradication processes because they destroy the ecosystem on those islands. But yes, that’s quite right, it’s actually hard for most people to actually get to them but there are some wonderful websites now that show a lot about what these islands are about, what the science has been – what science is being conducted on them and around them so yeah, it’s – if you do ever get an opportunity to go on any of those voyages they are very – it is a very moving experience, I think, to be in that region and it’s very special.
S: Unfortunately we’ve run out of time however copies of Wild Sea are available from the Library’s bookshop this morning with a 10% discount and Dr McCann has kindly agreed to sign copies of her books. I also invite you to take another look at Cook and the Pacific in our exhibition gallery, visit Beauty Rich and Rare upstairs on level 4 or have a look at our tapa exhibition in our Treasures Gallery.
I’d like to acknowledge the support of the first nations peoples who shared their knowledge and culture with us as we developed Cook and the Pacific, I thank the international and Australian lenders who permitted their extraordinary collections to be displayed here in Canberra. I thank our partners, the Australian Government for providing significant funding including through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australian Government International Exhibitions’ insurance program, ActewAGL, the Pratt Foundation, the Kenyon Foundation and Foxtel’s History Channel.
Dr McCann’s lecture was the first in a series of three lectures, all of which will be presented here at the Library today. At 12pm Victor Briggs will deliver a talk on the role of indigenous seafarers and at 2pm Dr James Hunter and Kieran Hosty will discuss the search for The Endeavour. Please feel free to join us back here in the theatre for the remaining presentations.
Please join me in thanking Dr McCann for this morning’s fabulous presentation. Thank you.
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