Life on Macquarie Island in the sub-Antarctic

By AG STAFF September 21, 2011
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There are still few places in the world that are truly wild, but Macquarie Island in the sub-Antarctic is one of them.

MACQUARIE ISLAND IS A sliver of unexpected rock in the vast Southern Ocean. It is wild, beautiful, wind chilled and wave bitten – defined by its profound and powerful remoteness. An island born unto itself alone, Macquarie Island has never, in its geologically short history, touched another landmass.

At 54°S, Macquarie Island is almost a halfway point between Tasmania’s southern coast and the Antarctic ice; its nearest neighbours are the Auckland Islands, more than 600km to the east. Just 34km long and up to 5km wide, the steep and slender island broke the ocean’s surface sea some 600,000 or more years ago. The tiny tip of a submerged section of the Macquarie Ridge, the island was— and still is—pushed upwards by the collision of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates.

With its World Heritage listing, its status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and with its immediate waters forming a large Marine Protected Area, Macquarie Island has been acknowledged as a place of global significance. The World Heritage listing rests, in part, on the island’s unique geology. Here, as nowhere else on Earth, perfectly preserved rocks from up to 6km below the ocean floor are exposed above sea level, enabling geologists to study oceanic crust formations that are usually well beyond the reach of drilling technology.

World Heritage Macquarie

The island is considered by the World Heritage committee to be both “an outstanding example representing major stages of the Earth’s history” and a place of “outstanding natural beauty and aesthetic importance”.
When Macquarie Island first emerged, it would have been nothing more than a minute rocky outcrop surrounded by millions of square kilometres of stormy ocean. Only thousands of years after the island’s emergence would sea birds or seals be able to breed there, safe from the surging waves of the Southern Ocean. Wind and waves brought the ancestors of the island’s indigenous flora and fauna to rest on its shores. But simply reaching the island gave no guarantees of establishment. Successful colonisation of this speck of land was both erratic and fortuitous.

Today, the island’s 120 sq. km of rock and vegetation give life to vast numbers of sea birds and seals. For the southern elephant seal, three species of fur seal, four species of penguin, four species of albatross and numerous other bird species, the island’s shores are a place to moult and rest and breed. What the island lacks in species diversity it makes up for in sheer biomass.

Penguins abound on this wild sub-Antarctic island

Colonies of penguins stretch the length of beaches and, in springtime, there appear dense creches of elephant seal pups that seem as much a part of the landscape as the rocks that surround them. This island is a place of textures, of gritty, black-sand beaches and leathery convolutions of olive-green kelp, of velvety sage-coloured herb fields and coastal terraces of quaking bog.

On many of the island’s peaks, mosses and lichens are ribbed with bare rock—an environment that botanists call ‘feldmark’. Between the scalloped coves and sea-stacks of the island’s wild west coast and its comparatively sheltered east coast are green-pelted slopes and a highland plateau dotted with wind-rippled tarns. Lying in the path of the Furious Fifties, the island is characterised by oceanic weather that is at once energetically changeable and remarkably stable.

Although a single day may contain fog, drizzle, hail, snow and windows of brilliant sunshine, temperatures vary only a little during the day, and between the winter and summer months. Rain falls on most days of the year. When snow falls—and sometimes it falls as low as the island’s beaches—it is quick to melt away even from the highest peaks. Wind is ubiquitous. To be on the island is to be buffeted and blustered by the prevailing westerlies.

This is an edited extract from the new book by Alistair Dermer and Danielle Wood, A Hostile Beauty.