Macquarie Island: sub-Antarctic wilderness

By Ewen Bell 7 September 2012
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Smack-bang in the midst of the foaming Southern Ocean lies Macquarie Island, a tiny haven of wildlife.

A SMALL BUT MAGNIFICENT refuge in the midst of the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island is a protected wilderness that undergoes dramatic seasonal change, provides rare habitats for migratory species and offers adventurous travellers an abundance of wildlife that knows no fear of man. It is one of Australia’s truly great wilderness experiences, and just getting there can be an adventure and a unique challenge of its own.

Few people who visit the sub-Antarctic islands understand in advance just how rough the Southern Ocean can be. And while the Antarctic continent enjoys somewhat calm waters far below the roaring trade winds of the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island, however, is right in the middle of that churning mass of weather and waves, a tiny speck of solid land directly in the path of fierce storms and some of the worst sailing conditions anywhere on the planet.

If you sail directly from Tasmania you need three days at sea to reach Macquarie Island, or you can join a commercial expedition cruise ship and hop your way across the New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands.

The Snares, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island provide waypoints and occasional calm shelter. The passage from Campbell Island to Macquarie is no less than a day with good conditions, and possibly double that when the Southern Ocean is kicking up a fuss.

Macquarie Island: cruising the Southern Ocean

Very few cruise ships head down to this part of the world; it’s too remote and the journey often regarded too rough for the comfort of passengers. Heritage Expeditions is not in the business of luxury cruising, however, preferring to focus on adventure rather than relaxation.

Their ship is one of the ‘Professor Class’ Russian-built research vessels, now named The Spirit of Enderby but still crewed by a team of Russian sailors. It’s a small ship, with room for 50 passengers onboard, and a fleet of five zodiacs stowed on the stern facilitate shore landings.

Our expedition leader is Nathan Russ, who at the age of just 25 is vastly more experienced than his age would suggest. He’s spent Christmas in the Southern Ocean for 15 of those 25 years, and follows in the adventurous footsteps of his father Rodney Russ who founded the company.

From the very start of the journey Nathan talks about a “successful expedition”, as though this was something we shouldn’t take for granted. He followed this up on the first night at sea by casually declaring, “We’ll get you back alive.” And he meant it. Man does not belong down here, not without extraordinary resources and a large bag of seasickness tablets.

With weather conditions determining landings rather than the itinerary, there is no certainty about which beaches can be accessed with a zodiac landing. In fact there are no guarantees that you will land at all.

The night before we pulled alongside the shores of Macquarie Island was the roughest seas for our entire journey. I’d grown accustomed to the pendulum swing of the vessel as it rode sideways through 8 m swells, was coping better than most on the ship to avoid the effects of seasickness and had even found a way to stop myself sliding up and down the length of my bunk while I slept.

The only thing keeping me awake was the calamitous crashing of massive waves landing on the bow.

The next morning conditions were calm enough to wander onto the top deck, above the captain’s bridge where nothing but navigation towers interrupt the view. Nearly everything up here is painted white, in contrast to the generous sprinkling of seaweed that had appeared on deck during the night. At least one of those waves in the darkness had gone clear over the bridge.

Have no doubt that a nautical expedition in the Southern Ocean is a journey into the world’s most dangerous waters. It gets rough down here, really rough. Only one other passenger vessel had been down here in the previous month, and she turned tail for calmer seas when the forecast turned serious.

Not The Spirit of Enderby however. The promise of manic penguins on the beach and hot scones at the research base was one that Nathan intended to keep.

Macquarie Island: Sandy Bay

What you remember most vividly from two weeks sailing the Southern Ocean is not the journey itself but the precious few hours spent walking one of the worlds most unique World Heritage Areas. After spending a week sailing south from New Zealand my first sight of Sandy Bay was exhilarating.

Watching the waves fade across volcanic black sand to meet the hundreds of thousands of king penguins jammed onto the narrow strip of beach, the battle between elephant seals as they crash a tonne of flesh against each other and the high-traffic zone of royal penguins darting in and out of the surf like British backpackers at Bondi.

In any given year just a few hundred people get to experience this scene. Unless you’re a park ranger or research scientist there is very limited access to the greater wilderness areas on Macquarie Island and our landings ashore are escorted at all times.

For the most part our rangers set the boundaries on where we can wander but we enjoy plenty of opportunity to spread out and meet the creatures on our own.

We got ashore twice in two days on our visit to Macquarie, the first time to wander along Sandy Bay in the afternoon sunshine, and the second time we spent half a day visiting the research base and resident wildlife across the isthmus at Buckles Bay.

An entire cruise ship alighting zodiacs together sounds like an invasion, but in fact 50 people on the beach with tens of thousands of penguins is a very generous ratio. There are plenty of penguins to go around.

King penguins

I’ve come here for the penguins, and the king penguins in particular. Kings are the second largest of all, and the most streamlined through the water. They are perfectly coloured to blend into the beach scene here, a smooth grey and white suit with hints of yellow and bronze.

The pebbles at Sandy Bay are dark as a result of recent geological activity. Like the pebbles on Macquarie Island no two king penguins are the same, each with subtle variations in hues and humour.

From the moment I step off the zodiac and onto the beach, the kings take notice and wander past with interest. Park rangers and expedition crew have told me a dozen times to keep a 10 m distance from the wildlife, but often animals will have their own ideas and come in close to examine the newcomers on their turf.

I’m not sure what gave me away. The fact that I’m several times their height, the bright red jacket that makes me almost visible from the Moon or the repetitive click and thud of my camera. Penguins have yet to catch on to the digital photography phenomena but they are evidently curious.

Standing next to them on land they look diminutive instead of regal and grand, like a characterisation of the images we see in magazines. You have to lie down flat on the beach before a king penguin can truly lord it over you. Once you drop down to the height of their gaze a compelling urge for curiosity takes over.

Unsatisfied with an eye-ball examination I become the subject of a taste test as well. It looks potentially dangerous when a powerful pointed beak is thrown into your foot, but they peck with interest rather than aggression, before making a few gurgling noises among themselves and heading on down the beach.

Royal penguins

Penguins always seem to have somewhere to be, and the royal penguins give the impression they are terribly late to be there. In between colonies of king penguins a narrow patch of beach at Sandy Bay has become a multi-lane highway for the royals, and what they lack in physical stature they make up for with personality.

The noise is intense with more than a thousand foot-high drama queens competing for attention. Couples chat with each other in acts of pair bonding, neighbours bicker about boundaries between nest sites, males gather up pebbles to impress their mates and rogue romantics sidle up to females to try their luck before being chased off by irate partners.

On a sunny afternoon at Macquarie Island I watch waves of royals come hopping down the beach to dunk in the ocean and cool off. They charge headfirst into the surf with grubby bellies and stained feathers, and re-emerge minutes later refreshed and clean.

It becomes a social outing as rafts of royals chatter on the water, seemingly unconcerned about the seasonal arrival of leopard seals to the island. The more commonly sighted elephant seals on these beaches prefer to dine on squid rather than flippers.

Royal penguins are part of the crested penguins family that includes rockhoppers and macaronis, and their wild tufts of yellow feathers above the brow give them a comical appearance that adds to their sense of personality.

Each carries their crest with a different manner, emerging from the ocean with the crest slicked back like a flat-footed James Dean, flinging the salt-water free with a shake of the head, or hiding among the landed seaweed which happens to be the exact same bronzed-yellow colour.

Macquarie Island: best times to travel

Late December is a good time of year to be in the sub-Antarctic islands. You still get a chance to see penguin chicks, and lots of them, and this far north of the South Pole they’re well advanced.

Summers on Macquarie Island are relatively ice free compared with the Antarctic landmass further south, and that’s just how the penguins like it. They love a cold climate but too much ice and snow can make life difficult for breeding. King penguins, royals, rockhoppers and gentoos on Macquarie Island take full advantage of the nesting sites on land and the feeding frenzy offshore.

Buckles Bay has a healthy population of gentoo penguins and their chicks have reached an age when they can be truly demanding on their parents.

Gentoo chicks will go to great lengths to be annoying to anyone else’s parents too, the imperative of filling their stomach overriding penguin etiquette as they unsuccessfully beg from strangers. Unlike the royal penguins which can only be found on Macquarie Island, gentoo are very common throughout the Antarctic region.

They are tolerant of the warmer conditions at Macquarie Island yet also able to survive further south in the colder latitudes where the more specialised Adélie penguins thrive on the abundant Antarctic ice.

King penguin chicks dominate the landscape at Macquarie in December, with a colony in excess of 200,000 kings on Lusitania Bay and many thousands more around the island. In contrast to the elegant dress suit worn by adult kings, the chicks run about in their brown fluffy penguin pyjamas.

Where the colony gathers to herd chicks together the beach looks like a kindergarten slumber party.

I sat down on a tussock at Sandy Bay for a while with one of the park rangers, and we watched the creche of king chicks go about their day. A few chicks wander about harassing strangers for a feed, but most wait patiently for their dutiful parents to return with fresh fish.

Reuniting mother and child, or father and child, is a small miracle with hundreds of near identical chicks huddled into a small cove. But they manage with the help of voice recognition and a quick exchange of squawks and squeals reunites the family.

Chicks have a way of letting parents know that food is required, by persistently pecking and jabbing at the adults beak until a bolus of partially digested pulp is regurgitated.

Having spent several hours with the kings it was only then I realised that a good many of the adults were actually caring for eggs rather than chicks. They stand patiently in one spot with their feet clamped together below the egg and a belly of feathers rolled over the top to keep it all warm.

Every so often they lift up their stomach, gently tap the egg with their beak and then return to the belly cradling position.

It’s charming to be stalked by an over-curious king penguin and suddenly have a beak looking up at your nose, less appealing when it’s a fully grown elephant seal who wants you off his patch of sand.

I watched several territorial confrontations between male elephant seals and was sure to keep a healthy distance from their teeth and tonnage.

Macquarie Island: conservation management

Spending time with the wild creatures is greatly enhanced by the presence of experienced rangers. Macquarie Island falls under the management of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and the experience of the rangers is evident.

What at first was a sea of grey and brown penguins becomes an intricate network of organisation when there’s a zoologist on hand to point out observations. The ranger noted skuas trying their luck in the colony, loitering out of pecking range in search of a snack and making off with a penguin’s eggs when the chance arises.

Rangers are a necessity on Macquarie Island and far from being an obstacle to exploration they in fact make it possible for travellers to experience close encounters with the wildlife.

By defining which parts of the Macquarie Island habitat visitors can roam, how to interact with the wildlife without causing them stress and restricting how many people at one time can come ashore the unique ecology of the island can be protected without being hidden away from the public.

You can’t have cruise ships landing passengers anywhere they like and disturbing the breeding colonies, for the sake of the animals and for the sake of the travellers themselves.

Aside from being a passionate source of information on sub-Antarctic ecology the rangers also facilitate research on better management and protection of the island’s wildlife.

Rabbits, rats and mice have caused incredible damage to the natural habitat here during the past decade and a great deal of work is needed to restore the environment.

Macquarie Island: pest control

Ironically the history of pest control for introduced species at Macquarie Island is a tale of good intentions with unforeseen effects. Rabbits were reduced in the 1970s which led to feral cats increasing their prey on migratory birds.

Then the cats were eradicated a decade ago only to result in rodent and rabbit populations increasing to devastating proportions.

The problem with the remaining introduced species is their ability to destroy tussocks and other native flora that have evolved on the island. Vegetation that provides vital habitats for seabirds is eaten by rabbits before it can mature while the seeds are harvested by rodents and stored for winter.

The final outcome is exposed slopes and an increasingly denuded ecosystem. Even the tall thick tussock grass that young seals hide among has been visibly effected by the pests.

In the winter of 2010 the impact of introduced species on Macquarie Island will be challenged by the largest pest-eradication project ever undertaken in the world. The Federal Government is funding an initiative to simultaneously remove rabbit, rat and mice populations across the entire island.

The model for such an ambitious project was set by the New Zealand Government in 2001 when they used helicopters and poison baits to clear the rats from Campbell Island. Some of the same team members from the Campbell Island project will be working on Macquarie Island this winter.

Pete Tyree was a ranger and logistics officer for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation during the Campbell Island eradication, and was present on my cruise to Macquarie Island as a crew member for Heritage Expeditions.

Pete has seen firsthand just how dramatically the habitats on Campbell Island have improved since the rodents were removed. Vast mountain sides are once again covered with dense tussock grass and the sub-Antarctic megaherbs, providing the ideal environment for nesting albatross pairs.

Macquarie Island also has a rich variety of albatross species, although expedition cruise passengers are more likely to see the birds while making passage at sea than standing on a beach. Albatross prefer to nest high up on cliffs and exposed knolls where strong winds give them an easy take-off.

The habitat decline on Macquarie Island is evident to the experts but so is the wild beauty that abounds on this desolate outpost.

Pete explains the island magic best. “Macquarie Island is just an amazing place. From a photographer and conservationist’s point of view it’s a paradise,” he says. “The depth of interaction with the penguins down here was life altering for me.”