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Articles Blog

The Great Southern Ocean

Karyn Planett

Wet, Wild and Wonderful

In the year 2000, a fifth name was added to the world’s oceans when the International Hydrographic Organization designated the Southern Ocean as a separate oceanic division. You could be excused for wondering what took them so long to “discover” this new ocean, which had previously been treated as simply the southern extension of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. But advances in the science of oceanography have only recently made it possible. As you cross the Tasman Sea, you’ll skirt the northern limits of this unique body of water, which has already earned more nicknames than its august companions ever had.

The Screaming Sixties

Officially, the Southern Ocean comprises the waters of the World Ocean south of 60 degrees South latitude. World Ocean is used to describe a continuous, interconnected system of marine waters that covers and encircles most of the Earth. It is actually centered on the Southern Ocean with the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans extending northward like giant bays with the Arctic Ocean, at the opposite pole, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific.

The Arctic and Southern Oceans are opposites in more ways than one. The Arctic is surrounded by continents, the Southern surrounds a continent. The Arctic is a relatively warm sea surrounded by frigid landmasses, the Southern is a frigid sea. Sea ice forms at the center of the Arctic and only at the fringes of Antarctica.

One unique aspect of the Southern Ocean is that it is not geographically contained by bordering continents, as are the other four oceans. As a result, scientists do not yet agree on the exact northern boundary of this newest ocean. Some would set it at the Antarctic Convergence, a line between two opposing circumpolar currents that fluctuates seasonally. Oceanographers cite characteristics within the waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that are consistent all the way around Antarctica, but markedly different from the adjoining waters of the three contiguous oceans.

The Southern Ocean is the youngest of the five oceans, having been formed about 30 million years ago when South America separated from Antarctica, creating the Drake Passage. That separation is also responsible for the unique weather conditions that exist in this body of water.

The Roaring Forties

The latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees South have been known by this name for centuries, so dubbed by sailors because of the prevailing westerly winds. At these latitudes there is no landmass to slow them down so that they can build up quite a head of steam. These are the winds that have made the Tasman Sea, the Cape of Good Hope, and Drake Passage such storied bodies of water.

The winds of the Roaring Forties were chiefly responsible for the establishment of the clipper route by Dutch sailors in the 1600s. This was the route sailed by the clipper ships of the Dutch East India Company around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. The return voyage used these same westerly winds to sail home via the Pacific and around South America.

While this route offered captains the fastest circumnavigation of the world, and brought the greatest rewards for valuable cargoes, it also carried the greatest risks. Passing south of Tasmania, Stewart Island in New Zealand and the three “great capes” (Good Hope, Cape Horn and Cape Leeuwin in Australia), the voyage exposed ships and crews to howling winds, towering waves and growling icebergs.

The Furious Fifties

Although clipper ships have long been displaced by mechanically powered vessels, the clipper route remains the fastest way to sail around the world. It is now the course used by several prominent yacht races. The Volvo Ocean Race is sailed in full-crew boats, with several stops, every four years. Around Alone is a single-handed race with stops. Vendee Globe is a single-handed, non-stop race. These races cover approximately 30,000 nautical miles and have had their share of thrills and tragedies over the years, in part because yachts and crews are so far from assistance should trouble occur.

The clipper route has its heroes, as well. Francis Chichester was the first to sail it single-handed aboard Gypsy Moth in 1966. In 2005, Bruno Peyron and crew set a new world record of 50 days for the route that used to take clipper ships at least 100. That same year, Englishwoman Ellen MacArthur set a new world record of 71 days for a single-handed, non-stop passage. Good on ya’, Ellen.

The combination of fast boats and high risks continues to give this Southern Ocean its unique aura among the world’s great seas.