Southward: 18th & 19th December 1959

At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. The likelihood of females joining future research trips would depend on the success of these ground-breaking women. We’re retelling Mary’s tale and talking more about Macquarie Island where this was all to take place…

Though the Thala Dan sailed from Melbourne on Thursday 17th December 1959, the women’s party did not land on Macquarie Island until Wednesday 23rd of that month.

Mary’s diary on Friday 18th: Up for 8:00 am breakfast & a morning divided between strolling the deck, reading and struggling to keep awake in spite of pills. By lunchtime members of the party were “amusing ourselves” recognising landmarks as they sailed by them.


Mary again: “Breakfast and dinner were excellent meals and would have been complete if one had only eaten from the oddments “on the board” without any of the main course. Boat drill after lunch was heralded by a series of short blasts on the ship’s siren & we mustered on the boat decks & donned our brilliant red life jackets. Then a chat with Dick Thomson (O.I.C.) on arrangements at Macquarie. He advised that we live ashore as, if the weather changed direction, the ship might have to lay off for a couple of days & we should be sitting on board biting our nails.

We rounded the Southwest corner of the Furneaux group and ran along the South of Clarke Island. The whole lay dark under the black rain clouds which had enveloped us since leaving Melbourne. At 2:30 pm, we passed through the gap from Bass Strait to the Tasman Sea with Clarke Island & Cape Barren on our left and the Swan Island Lighthouse and Tasmania on our right.”

Saturday 19th: “The drizzle and cloud of the past 2 days were left behind & the sun shone brightly from a blue sky tempting us to spend much of the day on deck and burning Susan to a dark red. 

The Pacific gulls with a sprinkling of silver gulls which had been our followers the previous day, were also left behind & replaced by a mob of wandering albatrosses with a sprinkling of prions and other petrels… Early in the day the wheeling, scavenging flock numbered only about 10; as we proceeded South it increased to an average of 20-25 by evening. The sun set at 8:00 pm & the shadowy wheeling forms could still be seen in the dusk, gliding effortlessly behind the ship … like a band of terriers taking a “walk” with their master.

Wandering albatrosses

At breakfast time we were in the latitude of Hobart, after which we headed into the great rolling emptiness of the Roaring Forties, en route for the Roaring Fifties where lay our objective, still several days away. Conditions were probably quite good … but the mountainous swells looked big enough as they bore down on us inexorably from the West – hitting us broadside on. Even 2 hours before sunset … the roll was sufficient to cast the boat deck into shade when tilted Eastward. “Thala Dan” rolled a great deal more than an ordinary ship, her function as an icebreaker entailing that she should have a flat bottom so that the ice floes could glide easily beneath her. The result was a great deal of physical discomfort, tho’ we were little troubled by seasickness thanks to the new drugs which had evolved during the past 3-4 months. Hope was under the weather today but the doctor gave her an injection & some more tablets of a different kind & she was on her feet again by afternoon.

The armchairs hurtled back & forth across the cabin & there were tremendous clatterings throughout the day & night although everything stowable was, of necessity, stowed. Chairs had been smashed in the past, (this one, tho’ new, was coming apart already) & we were issued with chains and screws to attach them to the floor the next day. The dining salon arrangements altered daily. First the cloths were wetted to prevent the crockery slipping then wooden ridges were screwed onto the margins & everyone grabbed at the most vulnerable things near them each time an extra heavy swell came. It was quite impossible to keep cutlery on the table once one had let go of them & I suspected that the sprinklers which had formerly left the skirts of the cloth dry had been discarded in favour of full immersion. How else could the cloths always look so clean?

By Sunday morning our coffee cups had been bereft of their saucers, as they slid less easily on the cloth, by lunchtime, soup plates gave place to deep metal bowls with handles.

We overtook a whale in the afternoon.

An uncomfortable & partially sleepless night ricocheting from one end of the bunk to the other with sorties to rescue the furniture.”

Read on tomorrow!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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