Neptune’s fury has been delivering mariners to the depths since before recorded history, so the need for lighthouses dates back thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans built lighthouses all over the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Brittan to keep the trade flowing regardless of weather, offshore hazards, and peninsulas and to more easily locate ports of trade.
Ever since I was a child I have always held a fascination for lighthouses. There is a story behind each one that you wish the lighthouse itself could tell. However, since that will never happen, we are fortunate enough to have volunteers with a love and passion for their history and the willingness to share that history with others and one such individual took us around the Cape Otway lighthouse.
The lighthouse is situated on the south coast of Australia, separating Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean. Bass Strait is a sub sea shelf between Australia and Tasmania and is one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world. Unimpeded seas coming from the South West from Antarctica and the North East via the Pacific and the Tasman Sea all get funneled into the shallow water of the shelf and can create monstrous seas big enough to swallow a ship whole.
There are over 500 shipwrecks in these waters but it was the loss of a ship in the 1840s carrying over 400 settlers that created the demand to build Cape Otway lighthouse. It only took ten months to build the lighthouse, and it was built without the benefit on an infrastructure or nearby harbor which in and of itself is a feat of Australian ingenuity and resolve.
During the gold rush in the 1860s the lighthouse was undermanned but a telegraph weather station also existed at the same location. At one point, the lighthouse keeper had requested help from the telegraph officer to keep the light lit. However, since the telegraph officer was part of another governmental organization and was not getting paid to help keep the light lit, he refused to assist. This created a rift between the two that lasted over thirty years. This rift was so deep that even though the two lived only meters apart, they did not speak to one another and in order to communicate, the light keeper would give a message to a passing ship to take to Melbourne where it would then be telegraphed back to the telegraph operator if something needed to be said. This is just one of the many stories I find fascinating about the life of lighthouse keepers and their duties.
The experience became more unique after climbing inside the lens assembly to see the actual light itself. This was a huge treat because typically, this is a part of the lighthouse that visitors seldom see. The original lead crystal lenses cost an equivalent of $5,000,000 to make back in 1848 and give you the feeling of being in a crystal ball as the lenses turn around you.
We were also fortunate to have gale force winds during our visit and the full force of huge waves crashing along the rocks combined with the scream of the wind through the trees gave an ominous feeling to the entire experience. I could truly feel for the early mariners navigating along this rugged coastline without the benefit of modern navigational equipment, imagining how relieved they would feel seeing the beacon of light shining through a storms fury. Only by visiting a lighthouse such as Cape Otway, can you truly appreciate what a lighthouse represents.