Escaping ‘The Beast’ (Written on Jan 23, 2014)


In the windy and rough weather, a Wandering albatross glides. Photo credit M. Jenner

In the windy and rough weather, a Wandering albatross glides.
Photo credit M. Jenner

The moon tried to shine through the heavy cloud cover, but sadly failed in its’ mission…  Reducing swell to 1.5 m and the wind dropping to 12-15 knots made for our most comfortable night in the last week of travel since leaving the ice edge and running the gauntlet of the westerly flowing low pressure systems.

Now at 480 South we are getting into a safer bracket of weather, but the only celebrations that will be held will be once Whale Song is securely tied fast to the jetty in Freo!  Our tentative ETA is 6 days from hence, perhaps next Friday!

Sailing yachts have been travelling south into Antarctic waters since 1966.  Modern day voyaging to the Antarctic now encompasses a variety of vessels and continues to include smaller yachts making the adventure.  Usually these travels, whether charter, private or scientific, tend to be focused around leaving Ushuaia in Argentina.  In fact, 90% of tourists and journeys depart from this most southern city in the world, bound for visiting the Antarctic Peninsula or the Banana Belt of Antarctica.

Striking out from Hobart to survey East Antarctica, our journey on Whale Song was always going to be ambitious, but with several different weather programs monitored and expert weather analysis of two weather models provided by the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology), we felt we could be well-informed.  After meeting with Scott from the BOM in Hobart, it was agreed that we would provide our predicted noon positions for each three day period to the BOM forecasters based at Davis Station. Tina and Bill, have given Curt the confidence to make well-informed decisions as to the timing of our departure from the ice edge and the course and speed required to outrun particular systems.  The consistency of the low-pressure systems barrelling on, one after another from the west, sometimes combining to form “complex” lows, has been most interesting.

A week out from our potential departure from the ice-edge one of the approaching systems looked like a bit of a beast.  Strong gale force winds with swells from 8 to 11 m!  We began to call this system “The Beast” and made decisions regarding our movements around its progress towards us.

The position of the centre of “The Beast” as it approaches Whale Songs’ position from the west at a closing speed of 40 knots – note that ‘Whale Song’ could only steam north at 7 knots to get out of its way! (Images courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology)

The position of the centre of “The Beast” as it approaches Whale Songs’ position from the west at a closing speed of 40 knots – note that ‘Whale Song’ could only steam north at 7 knots to get out of its way! (Images courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology)

After one of the smaller complex lows went past (that one had us hiding from 40 knots behind an iceberg for 12 hours!) Curt spied a narrow time window that would allow us to squeak north, first to the east and then to the north of “The Beast”.  Bill and Tina kept us informed of the fronts’ advance in relation to our position and everything went to plan – we escaped!

That was only the beginning, as a second huge low swept towards us from below Africa – this one was even larger than ”The Beast”…so we called it (what else?)  the “Mother of the Beast”!  We escaped the Mother yesterday I’m pleased to say, again with the help and assistance of our team at the BOM. Thanks heaps guys from us and our families!

We are grateful for the assistance of this data collection and feel that this expert information has certainly saved us from a beating, low pressure-style.  The ice information was also integral to us not getting stuck, as has been de rigeur this summer season.  An interesting bay that tantalised us whale-wise, looked very dicey ice-wise and we are grateful for useful and likely life-saving information from Neal at the AAD who sends us daily ice maps.

Davis Station, where Tina and Bill are based is the oldest established research station in the Antarctic.  Built in 1957, it was closed down briefly in ‘65 while renovations were made to the Casey Station, but reopened in 1969.  This station which is home to 80 personnel in summer and around 20 in winter, has a relatively mild climate compared with the two other Australian sister stations.  The moderating effect of the Vestfold Hills, which separates the facility from the Antarctic ice sheet gives rise to the Davis’ nickname ‘the Rivera of the South’.

Some of our morning visual observations were on the fly-bridge until the breeze picked up and the swell increased… and the rain fell… For a moment we were getting used calm weather but, soft we shall not be… back to our core-strengthening exercises done while sitting at the computer desk as my seat desires to swirl halfway across the main saloon!  Four to six and sometimes 8 m swells, just a hair abaft the beam threaten to turn us towards Adelaide… now that would be different!  We are back, but not back!

Noon Observations Jan 23, 2014


Lat/Long: 470 26.2 S 120033.0 E

Dry Bulb Temp: 11.30C

Wet Bulb Temp: 10.00C

SST (Sea Surface Temp): 10.10C

COG (Course Over the Ground): 0000

SOG (Speed Over the Ground): 7.8 knots

Barometer: 1007 Hp

Beaufort SS (Sea State): 5-6

WS (Wind Speed): 18-21 knots

WD (Wind Direction): W

Swell: W 4 m, occ to 8 m

Wildlife: Broad-billed Prions, Black-bellied Storm Petrels, Wandering Albatross, Shy Albatross, White-headed Petrels


Antarctic Fact: The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the world’s largest current, flowing eastward at the rate of 153 million cu m/sec – more than 100 times the combined flow of all the world’s rivers.

Antarctic Slang: blizz static – electric charge that builds up because of the dry atmosphere, high winds and blowing snow in a blizzard.

The day-time temperature is increasing, now above 10 degrees and we have even had to engage the air-conditioning system in the main saloon due to all the equipment whirring, but it is still nice to have warm soup for lunch.  Skua (I mean chicken!), chillie and cabbage soup served with rice and cheese paprika toasties (c/ Tas) was welcomed, as we continued to make our way towards WA.

The position of “The Beast” as it slips south of ‘Whale Song’ and we escape!

The position of “The Beast” as it slips south of ‘Whale Song’ and we escape!

The wind kept picking up to a constant 30 knots from the west and more albatross came by.  Soaring up and over the waves and down the swell faces, adult and juvenile Wandering as well as a Shy Albatross got my trigger finger going.  Even in the late evening/early sunset light, I was on deck trying to get just that perfect shot – here’s to hoping one of the thou’ will work out!  You will see a common theme – just keep hoping!

By mid-afternoon Tas began making us another treat…  After the delicious raspberry granita made yesterday that spilled a little in the freezer with the 8 m swell, leaving bread loaves and pork roasts drizzled in pink granita and resembling a blood-bath… Tas chose something a little more practical to prepare today!  Chocolate and walnut brownies fit the bill and the aroma of the finished product drove us crazy in the hour before dinner!  Moving them from the galley sink for Resty’s evening meal prep, I put them on the table.  Mistake and almost sheer disaster!  Gannet Sam spied the prize and while he contemplated the imminent yummy taste, Resty wrestled him aside, threatening fire and brimstone should he eat before the designated dessert timeframe.  It could have been very messy!   Well done, Resty!  Good self-control Sam – albeit under Resty’s sturdy grip!

With a bouncy swell on our port stern quarter we enjoyed the waves sloshing and the albatross ducking and weaving.  Getting out of the grip of the ‘Mother of the Beast’ is the main aim right now, which is where this swell to our west is originating… keep on, keeping on Whale Song!

Surrounded by albatross on the wing and a pink sunset sky,


Centre for Whale Research

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