History of Science and Research

While the extreme exploitation, or slaughter, of Macquarie Island’s animal population ran unchecked in the 19th century, from the earliest days of occupation there has been scientific interest in its isolated, unique environment.

In the 20th century scientific research became the primary activity on the island, as its values for climate monitoring, geological studies and wildlife and wilderness preservation became widely accepted and championed.

Today it has the distinction of being one of the most researched sites in Australia (Macquarie Island World Heritage Area Management Plan 2006), and enjoys the protection of local, national and international laws and agreements.

The first dedicated scientific voyage to reach the Island was captained by Thaddeus von Bellinghausen, an Admiral and explorer sent by Czar Alexander I of Russia. The Russians collected specimens and provided a rich written account of their experience there, including their interactions with the isolated, deprived sealing gangs stationed on the island.

The American navigator Charles Wilkes also visited the island in 1840 on his global voyage, but found the island almost impossible to land on or undertake a study of (W. Bixby 1966). The Antarctic explorer Robert Scott briefly visited the island on the Discovery in his 1901 expedition to Antarctica, but did not make a close account of his short stay.

The first report in English on the islands environment were observations published by Thomas Raine in 1822, a shipowner and agent who ran a mercantile company out of Sydney. This was followed in 1879 by the work New Zealand naturalist J.H Scott who visited the island to collect specimens which he later described.

Augustus Hamilton, also from New Zealand, visited the island in 1894 and made observations of the decline of the native parakeet, and also has the ‘dubious honour’ of undertaking the first attempt to introduce productive, alien plants to the island. (Selkirk et al.,1990). Hamilton scattered the seeds of various European and New Zealand tree species, and attempted to cultivate cabbages. Luckily, the attempts were unsuccessful.

By the 1900’s, the decimation of Macquarie Islands’ wildlife had become a concern of the Tasmanian government, and the last oiling licence (for penguin oil) was not renewed when it expired in 1920.

Scientific interest in the island grew in the first decades of the 20th Century, thanks in part to the reports of Antarctic exploration expeditions that would stop at the island on their way south. Led by the famed Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911-14 established a scientific base on the island which combined a wireless relay station and a meteorological observatory (Selkirk et al.,1990).

The wireless relay was to become a vital connection between the Australian mainland and bases in Antarctica. It was established on Wireless Hill, a relatively flat-topped hill that bulges out of the north-east tip of the island above the isthmus, named for its eminent suitability for this purpose. Alongside the relay station, meteorological observation aerials were also installed. The AAE undertook the first detailed topographical mapping of the island, and compiled comprehensive weather reports during their time there. Studies of the islands geology, geomorphology and botany were also pursued.

The next scientific expedition to Macquarie was the 1929-1931 British, Australian, New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE), led again by Mawson. Mawson saw the value of the islands unique environments, and his lobbying of the Tasmanian government for protection of the island resulted in it being declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933.

After World War 2, the establishment of a permanent Australian base on Macquarie Island became a government priority, and in 1948 a contingent of scientists landed on the island under the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) program. In the first years of scientific occupation of the island the research focus was on the physical sciences – geology, meteorology, seismology, and auroal physics, among others. The island, with its isolation and unique geology, is an ideal field research location for these topics.

The first ANARE expedition established huts in the same location as Mawson’s earlier ventures at the somewhat protected base of Wireless Hill, at the north end if the isthmus. The current stations living quarters are in the same location, and work buildings have spread further down the isthmus.

station gate

Entrance to the station base

The base established by the ANARE team in 1948 has been continually staffed ever since, with the research topics broadening to include the biology of the islands flora and fauna, and the effects of climate change.  Ecotourism has become a fixture of the island, with small numbers of tourists allowed each year. Public interest in the Subantarctic has grown considerably in the last century, and monitoring the effects of tourism on the islands ecosystem has become a new area of research on the island.