The Wonders of Macquarie Island

An Australian Oasis for Abundant Marine Life

They say that early in the wet season Botswana's Okavango Delta teems with ten-thousand pink flamingoes wading amongst dozens of thirsty zebras, all under the hungry eyes of a pride of lions. I've not seen the Okavango yet, nor have I had the privilege of watching a thousand caribou migrating haughtily to winter pastures in Canada's Northwest Territories. Until just recently, my premier experience of wildlife en masse was a night camping on the edge of Klamath Lake in Oregon, the rest stop for a few hundred geese along their northerly migration route.

Then I went walking on Macquarie Island, three days by sea south of Tasmania.

Home to thousands of elephant seals and millions of penguins, Macquarie Island is overwhelming. There is nothing quite like the sight and sound, not to mention the smell, of two thousand king penguins milling about as you sit on the beach at Sandy Bay. On a recent visit there, I discovered that the strikingly-decorated kings are curious and unafraid; they approached me in groups of twos and threes. I put my hand out and one leaned forward to gently take a finger or two in its beak. Satisfied, the penguin waddled away, presumably to report back to its mate on this funny breed of bird that wore a red Gore-Tex jacket and kept pointing a shiny, black thing marked Nikon at him.

Experiencing such natural wonders was once out of the question for all but a relative handful of scientists and wildlife officers. No longer. Each summer, hundreds of well-heeled visitors arrive on cruise ships to spend two days on Macquarie Island, visiting Sandy Bay and the northern isthmus where the Australian Antarctic Division's base is located.

For most visitors, the highlight is Sandy Bay, with all those king penguins. Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service has spent thousands of dollars constructing walkways and observation platforms that allow visitors to get close to the wildlife without disturbing it or its habitat.

A bit too close actually. The meter-tall kings are such inquisitive birds that photographers sometimes have to back away to get them all in focus. And the duckboarded paths also ensure that you needn't be Billy Bushwalker to enjoy the thrill of a penguin peck. Three summers ago, a lady in a wheelchair was brought onto the beach where she was promptly surrounded by extra-curious kings. The tears of joy in her eyes said it all.

"The greatest experience of my life," she was still telling fellow passengers days afterwards.

Guiding visitors through the penguins, seals and tussock grass is just one of many jobs performed by Macquarie's ranger staff, which expands from one or two in the winter to four in the peak summer tourist season.

Rangers also have the demanding yet extremely vital task of battling cats, which until recently have been wreaking utter havoc on the island's immense bird population. It's hard to imagine any joy in shooting a cat dead but it's a necessary if onerous task if the island's albatross and petrel chicks are to ever have any chance of flying.

Introduced by sealers more than 60 years ago, the cats rank even higher than rabbits and rats as the most malevolent of intruders. A dogged campaign of shooting, gassing and trapping has had a big impact on the feline population. Today there are perhaps 200 cats on the island—few years ago there may have been as many as 650.

Ranger Terry Reid, who is posted on the island for 16 months, spent more than 300 days out trapping the wild and wary felines. He says he personally hates killing any animal but, he has seen for himself the carnage that cats can wreak on unprotected chicks. He estimates he's shot around 160 cats, but that's far from a record. One legendary ranger nicknamed Biggles dispensed with at least 275 cats a few seasons ago, when they were more plentiful and less cautious. Today, a tally of five or six is a good day's shooting.

It's hard to feel sorry for the dead moggies. They and their rat cohorts have already been responsible for the extinction of at least two endemic species, the Macquarie Island parakeet and the Pacific banded rail.

As for the other ferules, a virus introduced a few years ago has brought the rabbit numbers down to a manageable number. Rats, once prevalent, could return in plague proportions if the cat population is cut back much more.

Tourists, though, are highly unlikely to ever see any of the introduced nasties. Instead their tours, done in groups of 15 for easy management, highlight the fascinating life cycles of the four commonly seen penguins and Macquarie's real heavyweights, the elephant seals.

Besides seeing king penguins, which raise only one chick each year, visitors can also marvel at the sight of the more numerous royals, whose flocks can grow to 100,000. A rather small bird, the royal is the punk of penguin society. Sporting an oversized beak and a crest of bright orange feathers above each eye, royals exude a "don't mess with me" insouciance.

They're also touchy about invasions of their personal space. When a royal emerges from the ocean after feeding, it may well be that his private little patch of sand is up to fifty meters from the shoreline. Do the other penguins simply let the little royal waddle peacefully to his spot? Would that be punk? No, the poor penguin has to run a gauntlet of vicious pecks, angry flippers and extremely abusive language before returning to its patient mate, who's been sitting on the egg all day waiting for a meal of some delicious regurgitated fish.

Rock-hoppers look very similar to royals but tend to live in much smaller clans. The shyest species is the little gentoos with their pale orange beaks and soft white chests. Gentoos are perhaps the only penguins here that have some success in raising two chicks at a time.

One absolute delight for late summer visitors is the sight of hundreds of young kings attired not in the typical tuxedo-looking white and silver gray plumage, but in a mass of dark brown baby down. Youthful kings keep this warm covering for nearly all the first year of life. Only when they finally shed it can they go out to sea to fish and play. Until then, they are utterly dependent on their parents for food and protection from predators.

Elephant seal pups, on the other hand, have to deal with the harsh cruel world at a much earlier age. By the age of eight months, they're in the water fishing and playing amongst the rocks. In November, they're also dodging pods of migratory orcas, the killer whales that regularly visit the island's more sheltered eastern coast in search of small furry meals. A few of the young seals that we saw on the beach bore the marks of lucky escapes, deep gashes in their sides or missing flippers. Hundreds of their mates were not even that lucky.

Nothing, not even an orca, messes with a full-grown bull elephant seal. Weighing up to three tons, these obese lumbering Jenny Craig dropouts just love to gather in groups of three to a dozen, flop down close together in the dark sand and do absolutely nothing for hours on end.

Approach an elephant seal and its first reaction is to open its bloodshot-looking red eyes, widen its mouth and emit a deep rumbling snort that sounds like someone with a bad sinus condition clearing his nose. Get even closer and the fun begins. A big one that I strayed rather close to suddenly reared up over my head and made a menacing gesture which roughly translated into ".... and how would you like to be reduced to the dimensions of a pancake?"

Once, near a rock feature called The Nuggets, ranger Noel Carmichael and I had to work our way through about 30 of these chunks of blubber to cross the beach and make our way down to Sandy Bay. While Noel distracted the more aggressive seals, I darted and danced between their prostrate bodies to the safety of rocks on the southern end of the beach.

Although it's unusual for anyone to be harmed by an elephant seal, a few researchers trying to tag them have suffered broken ribs or severe and infected bites when the behemoths got just a bit too uptight. Treat them with the respect that their size decrees.

If Macquarie is an Eden for penguins and seals, then it is even more of a paradise for far-ranging birds like petrels, gulls, cormorants and especially albatrosses.

Four species of this magnificent bird breed on Macquarie, the wandering, the black-browed, the light-mantled sooty and the gray-headed. Wanderers truly live up to their name—one banded on Macquarie Island would up at the Falklands, some 7,500 kilometers to the east. Employing wings that can span better than three meters, albatrosses are experts at catching the prevailing winds which encircle these far southerly latitudes and letting themselves be carried to points far away.

If the wanderer is the champion traveler, it is the light-mantled soot that wins all of the beauty contests. Preferring the sheer cliffs for their nests, the 800 or so pairs of sooties here are not easy to photograph. But capture an image of this graceful bird and you will see a steel gray body topped by an ash purple head and a set of white eyebrows that give it a permanently amazed look.

The utter opportunist of bird society here is the skua, which would probably eat your backpack given the chance. So you think gulls are nature's ultimate avian scavengers? Nah, skuas leave 'em for dead, or more likely eat them and leave the bones.

At breeding time, penguins must be ever-vigilant to prevent skuas from making off with their precious eggs. These dark brown vultures of the sub-Antarctic gladly feast on dead seal meat, pulling the tastiest bits out through a layer of fat. And when a ranger shoot dead a feral cat and leaves it out overnight, he knows it will be reduced to a clean skeleton the next morning. Fur, claws, the lot... it's all on the skua's menu.

There are no trees for birds to nest in. The nearest are found more than 500 kilometers northeast on New Zealand's Campbell Island. Tussock grass and buzzies, or Acaena Magellanica, tends to dominate the steep hillsides, pushed aside by stands of what everyone here calls Macquarie Island cabbage. Brittle with big leaves, this cabbage actually tastes more like tough celery, as we discovered when one of the rangers whipped up a tuna fish casserole at Bauer Bay hut. Disappearing for a few minutes, Noel returned with several stalks of the plant, then chopped them up and tossed them into the pot.

"It's a great source of Vitamin C and just about the only fresh vegetable we get around here," chef Noel explained. "A hundred years ago the sealers practically lived on this stuff. It prevented scurvy and it was a welcome addition to the usual meal of dried beef strips."

Nestled in between the cliffs and the beaches are fascinating botanical features called featherbeds. These are actually floating patches of vegetation which carpet pockets of water. Amazingly, the vegetation is so thick it will support the weight of a human. Go walking farther inland and you'll discover leafy gardens and serene little tarns fed by trickling creeks. Since rain or drizzle visits on more than 320 days a year here, sometimes as much as 25 millimeters of it in a single day, there's no shortage of water, standing or flowing.

Because the island is geologically young and very unstable, Macquarie is regularly jolted by seismic tremors. Terry Reid remembers feeling at least a dozen during his 16-month stay. Except along the shore, walking on Macquarie Island is no casual stroll: From the beach it's a steep rise to a plateau dominated by hills that can be more than 430 meters high.

Up on the gently rolling plateau, wooden stakes painted bright orange stretch into the distance. They're essential as navigation aids during the frequent episodes of lousy visibility. They also help keep walkers on the harder surfaces and away from fragile mosses and cushion plants.

The day we left Bauer Bay heading back to the ANARE base at the island's top end, one of those pea-soup fogs had descended and I was supremely grateful not only for my companions' bright red Gore-Tex jackets up ahead, but also for the orange stakes that several times saved me from wandering into an icy tarn or worse, over a cliff into an impenetrable jagged canyon below.

This was early autumn, one of the island's most pleasant seasons. In July the mercury dips to -3C and from the southwest you can expect gale force winds of up to 60 knots, more than enough to blow you off your feet and into a bog. Vicious hailstorms are fairly common in winter, too.

Amazingly, only five people have died in recent years, one because he tried to ski over a frozen lake that wasn't frozen and another broke a femur which became infected. There is a doctor on the island who can perform emergency surgery for appendicitis and the like. His assistants are park rangers and communications officers who do a hospital course so they can actually be of some use in an emergency.

Typically in summer, when the tourist boats visit, the island is cloudy with mist and periods of light rain. On the occasional clear day, plan on temperatures of around 8-10C and a gentle 10 knot breeze. It is cool enough to wear a thick jumper or a coat but becomes remarkably comfortable after an hour or two of walking.

A few months ago, Macquarie Island was granted World Heritage Area status, ironically not for its incredibly diverse wildlife but for its geological importance. It seems the island is the best reserved fragment of ocean crust above sea level. "It's like being able to explore the geology of the sea bed 2,000 meters underwater, except you are standing on dry land," one scientist gushed after spending a week there.

Reflecting its near-pristine qualities, the island is also listed as a UNESCO Biosphere, one of just 12 in Australia. This means that, over the centuries, interference by man has been minimal and thus any changes caused by climate or other natural factors can be more accurately monitored.

But will tourism inexorably alter the island in ways that nature cannot? Very unlikely. The ANARE base, a few abandoned and rusting penguin-boiling drums and the unobtrusive boardwalks at Sandy Bay, are the most obvious signs of 187 years of human activity here. The rest of Macquarie Island is pretty much the way it must have been when Captain Frederick Hasselborough in the sealing brig Perseverance became its first tourist in July, 1810. Since then, the island has witnessed frantic periods of seal and penguin hunting—orgies of killing prompted by demand for their oil that very nearly rendered several species extinct. Today such greedy thoughtlessness is banned and the seal and penguin numbers are back to pre-exploitation levels.

Which means, of course, that we are ultimately the richer, whether it is through being privileged enough to lie on the beach at Sandy Bay surrounded by a hundred curious king penguins, or just for knowing that they and all the other species of this island have a secure home on this incredibly remote strip of land in the sullen vastness of a hostile sea.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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