An elephant at sea

Friday August 23, 2013

[From the trip East Coast Odyssey]

The strong westerly winds that were helping us get back on schedule and hoping to still make Flinders Island continued today and if anything increased in strength.  This was great speed-wise, but presented a similar problem to the northerly winds in that Flinders Island lies due west of where we are sailing.  In the end, despite a valiant attempt, we had to abandon our plans of reaching the island and instead made use of the favourable winds to start our Bass Strait crossing.  With our sails rigged, and motor off, we were making around seven knots, flying along in the wind.  Seabirding continued to be excellent, with great numbers of petrels and albatross around the boat.  This was the first of only two days of this whole voyage that would be spent completely out of sight of land, and for those of us who were not experienced sailors it was a slightly eerie feeling.  Towards sunset we had one of the most magical experiences of the trip.  Towards sunset bird activity was picking up, with about 30 Great-winged Petrels swirling around the boat, playing in the wind turbulence created by our sails.  I spotted a strange but large object floating in the water less than a hundred metres off to port.  Calling it out to the others on deck thinking it could be a small whale, I was disappointed to see it just floating and not moving.  We nearly decided it was just a large piece of rubbish in the water until it suddenly resolved into a seal-like shape.  Indeed, as it came closer it became obvious it was an enormous seal.  Seriously enormous.  Through the binoculars I could see enough in the dying light to make out large puffy snout atop the huge head of a Southern Elephant Seal.  While these massive creatures (made famous by David Attenborough and also the movie Happy Feet) are now found mostly in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters, they are recorded very occasionally in Tasmania and Victoria.  Apparently a long time ago they were known to breed in the Bass Strait, so perhaps that is why they occasionally return to the area.  He kept his head raised high out of the water for nearly a minute, unmoving, until finally he decided he’d had enough and slipped gently beneath the waves.  The sun fell and between scudding clouds the stars came out over a wide expanse of ocean as we sailed across the strait.

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Written by

Chris