Located 1500 km south of Tasmania, Macquarie Island is just 34 km long and 5 km across at the widest point, a section of oceanic crust upthrust above sea level in the Southern Ocean approximately 600,000 years ago. Never attached to a continental landmass, the island’s splendid isolation at latitude 54.4 degrees south, longitude 158.50 degrees east puts it in the centre of the Subantarctic oceanic zone known to explorers, whalers, sealers, and scientists as the Furious Fifties.
Macquarie Island was first recorded in 1810 by the sealing ship Perseverance. The ship, which sailed out of Sydney en-route to a sealing expedition in the waters south of New Zealand was blown off course and came across this previously undocumented island.
Within 6 months of its discovery the island’s massive populations of fur seals, elephant seals and penguins became a target for ships from Australia, New Zealand and eventually America and Europe seeking fur and oil. The islands wildlife was decimated. Within 10 years the fur seal population was extinct and numerous pest animals had made a home on the island. Over the next century, Macquarie Island suffered the ravages of sporadic commercial wildlife harvesting and the depredations of invasive pest animals including rats, cats and rabbits.
Scientific interest in Macquarie Island began as early as 1820, with a Russian expedition landing to document the wildlife and the lives of sealers stationed there. Over the next century, a handful of scientific and exploratory expeditions stopped at the island, and interest grew in its exceptional geology and ecology.
Now heavily protected as a World Heritage Area, Biosphere Reserve and Nature Reserve, by the early 20th century the islands unique value as a wildlife refuge began to be recognised, helped by its strategic position between Antarctica and Australia. As Australia’s presence in Antarctica grew, the need for reliable communications became more urgent and Macquarie Island was well placed to be a key relay point for radio transmissions between the continents.
The first research base was established by Douglas Mawson in 1911, and the island declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. The current base has been staffed continuously since 1948, and the island has seen many significant environmental victories including the eradication of vertebrate pest animals as recently as 2014. Now plants, mammals, birds and even invertebrates are flourishing. It was a privilege to experience this rare and fascinating ecosystem, and see hope for the islands future.
In this section:
Journals and photos from two days on Macquarie Island: