Macquarie Island has an important role to play in environmental education through student research and educational tourism.
Students from Australian and international universities undertake field studies in biology, geology, climate science and many other topics on the island and its surrounds. According to the Macquarie Island World Heritage Area Management Plan 2006 (Management Plan), education projects that increase knowledge and understanding of the World Heritage values of the island to enhance its conservation are encouraged, and so are those that seek to identify and understand global climate change, human induced changes and natural processes and their impacts on conservation of the islands threatened species by undertaking, or contributing to existing, studies and monitoring.
Tourists like myself visit the island in small ship expeditions in the summer months. Subantarctic tourism has grown in the last 20 years with visitor numbers more than doubling. Tourists and tourism companies that visit the island must follow a Minimum Impact Code to reduce possible negative effects on wildlife and the islands ecosystem.
The only way to get to Macquarie Island as a tourist, unless you’re a very experienced yachtsman or woman, is with a tour company like Heritage Expeditions. Unlike Antarctica, where planes can occasionally land at some bases, there is no air travel to Macquarie Island.
The Tasmanian government has set very comprehensive guidelines for tourism operators on the island. These guidelines are designed to protect the islands World Heritage Values, which can be impacted by over-use.
The guidelines currently set a limit on 1000 visitors (tourists) on Macquarie Island in total each year. This has increased from 750 in 2006 (Management Plan p. 109) and reflects the increased public interest in the island. The impacts of tourism are monitored, and have formed the basis of at least one published study. One of the main concerns about tourism on the island is disturbing wildlife.
During the summer months when tourists reach the island, most of the wildlife is in the full thrust of mating and breeding. Seal pups and penguin chicks crowd the beaches, pelts and feathers are moulted, males are battling it out for mates. Tourists come to view these spectacular scenes and capture endless images of the islands’ charismatic population.
But although tourists are in the minority in numbers and make all efforts to have no contact with wildlife, our presence can disturb parents in the midst of bringing up a new generation of young, with sometimes devastating consequences. Wandering Albatrosses, listed as Vulnerable to Extinction, are under pressure from many human induced threats. Even walking close to nests can disturb their breeding. This is just one example of how even the most spectacular wildlife can be disturbed simply by us being there.
Tourists in the Subantarctic are seeking an environmentally responsible and informed experience. Tourism operators visiting Macquarie Island and the Subantarctic tend to pride themselves on giving visitors to the islands a spectacular experience with knowledgeable guides, while minimising impacts on the island wildlife and ecosystems. Helping to inform this type of travel is the Minimum Impact Code, the Antarctic environmental code of conduct and the Subantarctic Islands Minimum Impact Code. These codes are set by the Australian and New Zealand governments and are designed to inform tourists, researchers, students and government employees on the islands how they can get the most out of their experience while having a minimal impact on the unique environments of the Subantarctic.
Through sharing my experiences as a tourist on Macquarie Island I hope to support, in some small way, one of the objectives for educational tourism set out in the Management Plan – that is, to ‘ensure continued public support for conservation, scientific and management efforts in the reserve’.