Facing the world’s roughest seas

  • Letters
  • Thursday, 16 Jan 2003

Spirits are high as the scientists conduct their samplings even as the Aurora was pounded by 8m high waves and gale force winds in the Southern Ocean, according to Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Muka Head Marine Research Station director Assoc Prof Dr Zulfigar Yasin in the second part of his series on the Malaysian team’s expedition to the white continent. 

AS soon as the research vessel left port and turned south into the Southern Ocean, the ship began to heave, buffeted by swells that blew from the southwest. Within a few hours, we were well into the Southern Ocean – the roughest waters in the world.  

The next few days saw 6m to 8m high waves lashing the starboard bow of the Aurora Australis, our research vessel. 

On the bridge, where the captain sits, you can see the rise and crash of the ship’s front.  

Sometimes, the bow is lifted out of the water and one cannot see the horizon, then all you can see is water – black and cold. The heaving fall creates awe-inspiring blasts of white spray that washes over the ship.  

People on the bridge had to hang on to something for fear of being toppled over. This has lasted for nearly a week. We hope we have a break from this weather.  

On the second day, the wave increased in its ferocity and everything on board had to be latched down. Anything that is loose – chairs, boxes, scientific equipment, books and computers – had to be secured. Lockers had to be locked and drawers fastened. Anything loose will fly.  

For the Malaysian scientists, it is indeed a new experience looking down the microscope on a rolling and pitching ship. And doing this within the confines of the “cold room”, our laboratory that is kept at 1°C for the purpose of the study, it is easy to get disorientated. 

Many of the expeditioners are feeling sick – pale and green in the face. The crew and some of the seasoned expeditioners, on the other hand, being the old sea dogs that they are, took it in their stride, chatting and going about their business in the most accustomed manner. 

The difference became apparent during meal times. Whereas some had full plates and desserts to follow, many who were sick either did not bother or just came to the diner as a routine obligation.  

The Southern Ocean separates Australia, Africa, New Zealand and South America from Antarctica. It is a single stretch of water almost unimpeded by any great land mass.  

The wind creates what mariners called the roaring forties and the furious fifties – the gale force wind that had hindered many early Antarctic explorations. 

On Dec 14, 1897, Frederick A. Cook (the same person who claimed to have conquered the North Pole) when confronted with the Southern Ocean, wrote in his diary; “The wind poured upon us in hard steady blasts from the south-west for nearly two days, which gave us, on our growing menu, a taste of the normal weather of the roaring forties. This is the almost perpetual state of the sea at 40° – 50° South.” 

Perhaps the wind and wave are most felt as you lie in your bunk. For in the quiet of night, you feel their power. Comforting myself on one of these nights and unable to sleep, I amused myself by categorising the waves that lash the ship – according to the effect this had on our vessel. 

First, there is the rhythmic wave that rolls and pitches the ship in an almost constant fashion. Superimposed on this is the rogue wave, random wave that crashes hard onto the boat until the whole hull reverberates with its onslaught. 

Many have confided that these have knocked them off their bunks in the middle of the night. Then, there is what I call the “roti canai” wave - this will heave the vessel and almost at once swirl it and on board, I have seen expeditioners move that will make Michael Jackson proud.  

But it is not until you look out the porthole that you see the force of the Southern Ocean. Massive random avalanche of cold black water moving as far as the horizon and when the howling wind catches the crest of a wave, salty spray is ripped off the water and lashes the surface. 

Occasionally, even though my cabin is two-storey high, as the ship rolls under the assault of a huge wave, the porthole will be submerged in water. 

In the quiet of night, too, you hear the sounds of the ship. The creaks and groans of planks and fittings, the resonant slap of metal on metal, the quiet hum of the engine and always the growl of the wind. 

Despite these, spirits are high. The scientists carry on with their samplings and preparations for Antarctica.  

There is always something to do, new friends to engage in conversation and the self-effacing jokes of our tolerance to the moving ship. 

Some days after we left Hobart, we had terrific news that brought smiles to all of us for on the notice board was announced “Today, Rio Kawaguchi came safely into this world via Kobe – Congratulations So Kawaguchi on the birth of your daughter.” 

Science has inspired a father to leave home for Antarctica days before the birth of his child. How marvellous. How inspiring.

Part One

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