6 July 2018

At times, AFMA’s observers need to brave harsh and unforgiving conditions to collect the scientific information required to understand fish populations and the marine environment.

This is especially the case in the extremes of Australia’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fisheries, as experienced by AFMA observer Tamre Sarhan in a hurricane force storm in June 2016, which he recounts for us here.

As an AFMA Observer I have experienced hurricane force storms in the Southern Ocean on a number of occasions. In a storm of this ferocity, winds will exceed 64 knots (117.4 km per hour) and the seas will be huge, with waves surpassing 14 metres. The sea will be white with foam and visibility will be greatly reduced, due to the air being filled with driving spray.

In June 2016 a storm that was about to hit us was so large it had the entire commercial fishing fleet in the area ducking for cover. The weather map painted a bleak picture: a low pressure, spanning hundreds of miles across the Indian Ocean which was almost upon us, with the barometric pressure at the center of the storm predicted to drop below 930 hPa. Waves were forecast to exceed 16 metres and winds in excess of 70 knots or 130 km per hour were expected.

The skipper of the boat promptly made the decision to retrieve as much fishing gear as possible and head towards Heard Island before the storm hit. Heard Island is about 4,100 km south west of Perth, which is roughly the same distance as Perth to Canberra. He told me that this was a once-in–a-decade storm and that we didn’t want to be in the open ocean when it hit.

I agreed.

We made it to Atlas Cove, a small bay at the North West corner of Heard Island, just before nightfall and dropped anchor to ride out the storm. By the following morning, the winds had become so strong the boat began to move on its anchor. If we stayed in Atlas Cove we would risk being run aground.

We promptly headed a short distance out to sea, while still trying to get some protection from the island, as it was too dangerous to remain so close to land.

At that stage there were four fishing vessels, all within a couple of miles of each other, slowly making their way back and forth along the coast of the island. The strength of the wind was phenomenal. Gusts reached over 80 knots or 146 km per hour.

I’ll never forget the sound of the wind hitting the boat, it drowned out all other noises and sounded like a helicopter was hovering above us.

The waves were larger than 10 metres and even though we had protection from the island, at times, we could not see more than 100 metres around us. I was extremely grateful that we had the island near us which offered some form of shelter to protect us.

When the conditions became suitable enough to allow for safe anchorage, we re-entered Atlas Cove, along with two other Australian vessels operating in the area.  It was quite surreal. Three of Australia’s largest fishing vessels were anchored alongside each other in a small bay surrounded by snowcapped mountains and huge glaciers. The wind was still blowing with force but the sun was out.

Once the storm had subsided we headed back to sea to finish the remainder of the fishing voyage.

After the event I spoke to the captain of one of the other vessels about the storm and he told me that he had been fishing the Southern Ocean since 2002 and had never seen a storm that monstrous and that he had never previously left the fishing grounds because of a storm.

I have no doubt that another storm like this will one day hit Heard Island again, I just hope that I am not down there on the open ocean when it does!


By Tamre Sarhan

AFMA Observer