NO PATHWAY HERE
by John H Marsh
|I SPENT my first day on Marion Island photographing
the landing operations and the camp area and then,
from the Natal's motor-boat, a most interesting portion
of the coastline as far down to the south-east as the
site for Anderson's projected harbour. The engineer
was with us in the boat, and he pointed out where it
might be possible to dynamite the cliff and thus improve
the approach to the harbour from the landward side.|
The water was deep, with few outlying reefs or rocks, and we were able to cruise along within two or three boat-lengths of the cliff. The water was almost as calm here as a millpond, since the kelp effectually quietened the incoming surface breakers. Only the deep-travelling swells from the ocean were able to heave their way through the barrier, and we were to see ample evidence that the kelp was unable to stop them. The cliffs, averaging about 100 feet in height, were perpendicular and pitch black, their faces eroded and contorted into fantastic shapes by the action of masses of solid water flung against them with great violence down through the centuries. Coming in from seawards we had noticed what looked like three great submarine pens cut close together into the face of the cliff at sea level. Close examination now proved them to be natural caverns hollowed out of the lava rock by the action of the sea. There was enough movement of the water for us to follow the surge into and down the largest of the caverns until it was lost to sight in the blackness beyond.
Days later we were to watch from seaward the aftermath of storms, when huge swells flung themselves against the cliffs and solid walls of white water shot skyward to the very cliff tops. At Cape Crozier, the south-western point of the island, which was exposed to the
|full force of wind and weather coming from the west,
we were to see seas sweeping over cliffs 150 feet high.
Even Gunner's Point must have been swamped on
occasion, for all round the bivouac site sea-shells were
to be found. That they were not deposited there by
birds seemed certain, because of the absence of shells
On the beach that evening we supped on bully beef, boiled potatoes and coffee. Though the naval party had told us that this was a warm day for Marion, we felt the cold severely after the sun had gone. Everybody turned in early and I made a sleeping-bag out of half-a-dozen blankets and dossed down on a mattress laid on the ground in the officers' lean-to.
Ere long we realised that Marion had a plague. I awoke with a start when something large and furry touched my face. I could not locate it even with the aid of my torch, but next morning I saw a little grey field-mouse run across the ground at my feet. I found that others also had been disturbed by mice during the night. Bond complained that two of them seemed to have been running a relay race up and down the boards alongside him most of the time. Somebody was sure he had also seen rats, and their presence was confirmed later through the damage they had done to some of our supplies.
Before long the rodents were to become so great a nuisance to the men on Marion that they were forced to take some action. They borrowed a kitten from the guard-ship but were puzzled because it never seemed to chase the rodents. Eventually they caught a mouse and put it in a box with the kitten. The terrified mouse ran to the cat and snuggled under it. The cat licked the mouse's fur reassuringly. The onlookers, dismayed decided to ask instead for a supply of mouse-traps and rat-poison to be sent from Cape Town.
Whether these rodents came to Marion way back in the days when the world's land masses were linked, or whether they are descendants of the survivors of
|shipwrecks, nobody knows. But the latter possibility
is remote since there is record of only one ship - the
Solglimt, in 1908 - having been wrecked on this island.|
It may be significant that rodents swarm also on the island groups to the east, and it is recorded that a party of shipwrecked men who were fortunate to catch some wild pigs kept the latter alive on rodents that they found lying on the ground, half-frozen, on winter mornings.
There is also some insect life on Marion, though it is apparently not extensive. I saw a few small rock and grass spiders, a cutworm and some tiny grass beetles. Von Suhm's fly with the rudimentary wings is, of course, also found.
While the other members of the expedition were busy getting the stores ashore from the Gamtoos, Sara and I took our cameras and went off to examine and record the wealth of wild animal and bird life on the island.
The sea-elephants naturally drew our interest first, not only because of their size and number but because of their comparative rarity. Apart from a small reserve off the Californian coast they are found only in the Antarctic and a few of the islands of the Southern Ocean. They make their way to civilisation only rarely and then by accident rather than design. An average of once every ten years one struggles ashore on the South African coast to die of exhaustion or starvation. Invariably they are old bulls that have been driven out of the herd in battle, and their many wounds bear evidence of it. They are the largest of the seal family, the bulls growing to a length of 20 to 25 feet, and weighing four to five tons. The females seldom exceed half< that size. Their real home is said to be the waters to the south of Cape Horn and the coast of the Antarctic Continent in the region of King Edward Land. They make their way to the Prince Edwards, Crozets, and Kerguelen every summer to breed, travelling up to 5,000 miles for the purpose at the speed of a steamship. Though they may cover 250 miles in a day by
|swimming, on land a mile a day leaves them exhausted.
Their flippers are of little use out of the water, and they
worm their way clumsily along. For all that we saw
some sunbathing quite high up the mountain slopes,
a good half-mile inland.|
We saw only cows on Marion, though some told us that they had come across one or two bulls. We saw a few bulls on Prince Edward later. The cows were docile and did not trouble to move unless they thought we were menacing them. Then they struggled to reach the safety of the nearest water, clambering over each other and slithering down the sloping banks.
These warm-blooded mammals, it is said, produce only one young at a time. They suckle them and, when they have fed, drag them by their necks into shallow water, where the young ones lie with only their heads above the surface, digesting their meal. If they are not taken to the water soon after feeding they vomit their food up again. Sometimes the backwash of a wave will drag the youngster out of its depth, and were it not that the vigilant mother immediately thrusts it by means of her strong flipper back into shallow water, its oversized head would sink and it would drown.
The bulls are polygamous, and their harems usually number 30 or 40 cows. They arrive in company at their summer "resort" a week or two after the females and immediately form themselves into a strong cordon along the beach between the females and the sea. They try by brute force to prevent any of their harem from slipping way. The "bachelor" bulls arrive a fortnight or so later and are segregated on another part of the island. They are not allowed near the breeding-place. As they reach maturity they begin to contest the authority of the older bulls and sooner or later the issue is fought out in pitched battle, right to the point of complete exhaustion and sometimes even death. Nature takes its course, and the old bull is cast out of the herd and a younger and stronger one takes his place. Apart from their comparatively large size there is nothing
|about the females to suggest the origin of their name.
But the bulls have a fleshy prolongation of the nose
which, when angry or excited, they can dilate
enormously. They then have a most ferocious
appearance. It is this appurtenance, suggestive of a
miniature trunk, that gives them their name.|
They are carnivorous creatures, and, like the sperm whale, live upon squid.
The sea-elephants have been the salvation of many shipwrecked crews on those southern islands. Their tongues, hearts and livers have provided castaways with meat for sustenance; their blubber fat burns well and has provided heat and light; their skins have been made into clothing, tents, blankets, shoes and even sewing thread, while their blood has been used for soap. Commercially their principal value is in their oil. This is contained in the blubber which surrounds the body beneath the skin, and in the bulls it is up to four inches thick. It insulates the body against the cold. A large bull may have up to a ton of blubber, which will produce perhaps 200 gallons of oil. This oil is as valuable as whale oil and for lubricating purposes is better. It is also used in manufacturing margarine and soap. At the time of our visit to Marion it was fetching not much less than £100 a ton on the world's market, and the supply was far below the demand.
We did not notice anything about the sea-elephants that would have made us care to live in close proximity to them. They give off a strong, unpleasant smell and belch wind or sigh loudly every few minutes. The noise is rather disturbing, particularly at night. Nobody was sorry when the sea-elephants, after enduring the presence of the men for a week or so, surrendered the landing beach and took themselves a little further away from all the noise and activity.
From the sea-elephants we turned our attention to the albatrosses. These, the largest of all ocean birds are also probably the most written-about in prose and poem, but in their habits they remain among the least
|known to man. Only seafarers make acquaintance with
them, for they are shy of land. They live on the sea and
come ashore only to breed. Then they choose islands
that are as far as possible from civilisation.
Comparatively few men have been privileged to see the
albatross on its nest or to learn at first hand something
of its domestic life. But the Prince Edward group is one
of its principal breeding-places, and now that the
islands are to be permanently inhabited, South Africa
should soon be in a position to give the world its first
full story of the habits and life history of these great
On our first sight of Marion we had noticed what looked like numerous large boulders, painted white, scattered singly over the green mountain slopes. Now, on closer inspection, we found they were nesting albatrosses. The nests were solidly built of a mixture of grass, peat and guano, and were placed in the open without any protection. They raised the birds about nine inches off the ground. At rest the albatross lay with his head on his back, facing behind him, and he nuzzled his beak well down among his feathers, so that even from a little distance one would scarcely have known that he had a neck and head at all.
We were usually able to approach within eight or ten feet before the bird raised his head and looked inquiringly at us. Only when we were close enough to touch him would he show any further reaction. Then he would stretch his head slightly back and chatter away while nibbling with his mandibles at the tripod leg that we thrust toward him. He would make no other protest as we levered him off the nest. He must have weighed on an average 20 to 25 pounds, his body being the size of the largest turkey. He had little control over it, and invariably when forced off his nest he rolled over the edge and fell sprawling on the ground. After a disgusted glance at the disturber, he would pick himself up clumsily and waddle slowly away while stretching his neck horizontally forward and muttering
|quietly to himself. Usually he left behind a large,
somewhat pear-shaped egg, chalky white and about
five inches long. He had been incubating it in a pouch
between his legs.|
With a few exceptions it was the male albatross that we found on the nest. There are 13 known branches of the albatross family, of which nine have their habitat in the Southern Ocean. The largest species of all is the Wandering Albatross, whose wingspan has been known to reach 17 feet. Members of this branch of the family are predominant on Marion and Prince Edward during the breeding season. Theirs is the only branch that distinguishes the sexes in outward appearance. The youngsters are mainly brown, their wings black on top and white below. As they grow older they get whiter. The adult male is snow white all over except for his wingtips and tail, which are speckled with black and grey. The neck of the adult female is mottled with grey, and she has a spot of the same colour on her crown.
Females seem to be at a premium on Marion. We saw some pairs courting. The male would alternately throw his head in the air with his bill pointing skyward and then stretch his long neck forward as far as he could, the while he uttered curious cries in a low key. The female would stand by, apparently unconscious of the efforts of her suitor to win her attention. After a while she would turn and look at him, cocking her head slightly sideways, encouragingly. Now, encouraged, he would spread and elevate his tail, and while keeping up his vocal performance and swaying his neck from side to side he would slowly begin to unfold his wings. And what a ceremony this was! There were no fewer than four distinct folds in each wing, and by the time the last section had been slowly spread out to show the full span of the wing, the male was truly an impressive sight. The female having by now fallen victim to his charms, she, too, began to stretch her neck forward and to respond to his crooning, while they brought the tips
|of their bills lovingly together in frequent kisses. This
performance would carry on for half an hour or even
longer. It absorbed the full attention of the birds, and
they completely ignored our activities as we
photographed them from a distance of only 20 or 30 feet. We
found that the eternal triangle complicates the love-life
of the albatross. Occasionally while we watched, a
second male would alight alongside the courting couple
and endeavour with voice and wing to divert the
attention of the female towards himself. The first
suitor would for a time not deign to notice the presence
of the other. After a while he would disengage himself
from the "embrace" and waddle towards the interloper,
lunging threateningly at him between clashings
of their beaks. Invariably this demonstration of his
rival's determination discouraged the philanderer, who
would fly off to another pair and try to oust that male.|
Only the younger albatrosses fly. They are so heavy that they require a long, clear runway from which to take off. They waddle along for quite a distance with their wings outstretched before they feel sufficient "lift" from the air under them to give them confidence for their flight. Their take-off was ungainly. They had their recognised runways, and we noticed that whenever we disturbed a group of them they all made for one spot nearby from which they took off into the wind one after the other.
The older birds make no attempt to fly, and even when chased try only to run. Consequently they are easily caught. The sealers used to kill them in large numbers only to make pipe stems from their wing bones and tobacco pouches from the webs of their feet. Their breast skins were valued in the old days for ladies' feather muffs and boas. The early sailors used to catch albatrosses in the waters south of the Cape in order to make feather rugs and other articles out of their skins. It was probably for this reason that they gave them the name "Cape sheep," by which some seamen still know them to-day. Few sailors now will harm an
|albatross since the legend was born that in the breast
of each is the departed spirit of a seafarer. The Poet
Laureate, John Masefield, used this superstition as a
theme for his poem, "The Wandering Albatross."|
Albatrosses were, of course, a popular subject of discussion among the crews of our ships at Marion, and we heard the usual stories about their following vessels untiringly for days and even weeks. Some held that they even slept on the wing while following ships. Certainly on the passage down we saw many albatrosses as much as 500 miles from the nearest land, and I never saw one settle. They continued gliding around the ship, silently and without visible movement of their wings, through the night as well as the day. It is on record that an albatross marked with a French ring at Kerguelen in 1914 was captured three years later near Cape Horn, about 6,000 miles away.
Shipwrecked mariners have tried on occasion to draw attention to their plight by inspanning the help of albatrosses. The most notable case was that of the 13 survivors of the French sailing-ship Tamaris, which was wrecked on the Crozets in July, 1887. They captured an albatross and fastened around its neck a metal ring on which they had punched with a nail a brief message in French stating what had happened and appealing for deliverance. The bird was released on August 4 and on September 18 it was found dying, choked by a fish it could not swallow, on the beach near Fremantle, West Australia. The finder happened to be the Secretary to the Governor, and his attention was drawn to the bird through the fact that it was a rarity for this species to be found there. He discovered the ring with its message and took steps to pass the information on to the proper quarters. Thus, in December, the French warship Meurthe reached Hog Island, which the castaways had given as their location. They were no longer there, but she found a message stating that they had exhausted their food supply and had therefore left in their small boat on September 13 for
|Possession Island, about 50 miles away, where they
knew there was another food depot. The warship went
there but found no sign of them. They must have been
lost when trying to make the crossing.|
The bird that carried that dramatic appeal for help travelled more than 3,500 miles in the 45 days, averaging nearly 80 miles a day. The crew of a sailing-ship reported that it had followed them from the neighbourhood of the Crozets the whole way to Fremantle.
The late Sir Rider Haggard, that imaginative writer of adventure stories with South African backgrounds, used an adaptation of this true story when he wrote the first, and what seems hitherto to have been the only, book on Marion Island. His Mary of Marion Isle is a romance about two castaways who also used an albatross to carry their SOS to civilisation.
Copyright John H Marsh (1948)