6AM Finally at Macquarie Island! Woke up to sun, rolling swell. Steep, green tussock covered hills of oceanic crust upthrust above the waves. Capped with cloud, setting moon echoing the geodesic dome of the base. Stunning. This morning we’re anchored in Buckles Bay by the Station base, went out on deck first thing to bright sunlight, blue sky and light winds – summer in the Subantarctic. We’ll be heading south to Sandy Bay later this morning. After breakfast 6 Macquarie Island staff were dropped off at Buckles Bay, they’ve been traveling with us from NZ. Not a bad commute. Now we’re steaming down to Sandy Bay to see the penguin colony. 4 Macquarie Island staff have come on board to guide us today, including the Ranger in Charge.
The ship is buzzing with anticipation for this morning’s landing – we’ll be surrounded by Royal and King penguins and Elephant seals, the first (and possibly only) chance to get so close to the wildlife. In our morning briefing we’re told that tourists must keep at least 5 meters from the wildlife at all times, but the penguins aren’t up to speed on that rule. It’s likely, if you sit still on the beach, they’ll approach and give you a fantastic photo opportunity.
Sitting is the key word here – lying down can invite amorous, 3 tonne Elephant seals looking for love. It’s molting season for the Elephant seals, a break from the breeding and pupping of early summer and there’s plenty of young males on the beach looking to claim a bit of territory.
There’ll be 2 landings today – a chance to spend all day at Sandy Bay. Royal and King penguin colonies, Elephant seals, Giant Petrels. A wet landing. We’ll have a 600m stretch of beach to explore, and a boardwalk up to the Royal penguin colony. The Elephant seal crowd includes weaners and sub adults this time of year. Our area of beach is bordered by Finch creek to the south, and the Rangers will mark a northern boundary up near the King penguin colony.
For photos, we’re told to go in low and slow. Penguin traffic will be thick, find a spot to sit and watch. But don’t stop amongst them, keep moving thru/past penguins. Explore the boardwalk and Pleurophyllum flowers. Skua nests and chicks. Historic site near King penguin colony on northern side, an old sealing site. We’ll see brown fluffy King penguin chicks, and adults with eggs in brood pouches. We’re so lucky with the weather. Our expedition guides and station staff, experienced Macquarie Island people, rarely see days like this. Blazing sun, blue sky.
Transcript – written on the beach at Sandy Bay
Sitting on the grey pebbly beach, feathers flying thick from molting penguins. Skua darting over hills brow on a sudden updraft, tropical blue waters on black sand. Reek of penguins and seals, each species strangely different. Guttural, farting croak of seals, hoots, whistles and clacks of penguins. Crunch of tourist gumboots on shingle. Giant kelp lazily swaying in the rolling swell. Penguins sleeping on their chests, sunning backs, dipping beaks into pebbles. Black flies buzzing past. 2 young male Elephant seals facing off in the wash zone. A piece of marine debris on the beach – plastic from a broken up fishing buoy.
Up the boardwalk into fields of Pleurophyllum hookerii, leaves like lambs ears, abundant reddish petal-less flowerheads. On closer inspection they’re clumps of tiny red flowers, like the heart of a daisy. Terrace bogs, remains of old beaches now uplifted, rivulets in the peat. Tussocks with fat healthy seed heads showing, smaller grasses and sedges. Old tussock pedestals, last remains of rabbit destruction. They look like rocks covered in moss but when you touch them, they’re soft.
2 Skua gulls sitting on a grassy sward, evidence of their penguin egg breakfast scattered across the bogs. Royal penguin colony at the end of the boardwalk, can smell it already.
The boardwalk terminates at a viewing platform overlooking the colony – a reeking hub of beaks, feet, phosphate and shrills. Fat teenage fluffballs begging for food. Rather than colony or rookery, the plural for Royal penguins should be ‘an argument’. There’s a thronging argument of penguins on view, clapping bills, croaking reproaches, slapping flippers, stretching their surprisingly long necks to the sky to voice their position. Like on the beach, penguins are lying face down, fast asleep. Stacked on top of each other for company, setting aside the mornings squabble.
Sitting on the beach gives an optical illusion. As myriad small feathers from the molting penguins blow amongst the rocks, it looks like the beach is moving. Penguins – Royal and King together, very regal – lying on their fronts lift 1 foot after the other towards the sun, then strreeeetch.
Chatted with Ranger in Charge Paul, he tells me that 9 ships are expected to land at Macquarie Island this summer including us, approx. 600 passengers in all. I can take the marine debris, the only thing anyone could remove from Macquarie Is. Most debris gets washed up the on the west coast (we’re on the east.) I can see the geodesic hut at Brothers Point, I remember a seeing it in a doco about the island. I asked about penguins resting on their heels with feet turned up. He said he thought they just did that in Antarctica to keep their feet warm, but even on a sunny day on ice-free Macquarie Island they’re doing it, so it must have another point – maybe it’s just comfy?
Just got swooped by a Skua, luckily it didn’t connect. So much for sitting still and letting the wildlife come to you! The seal weaners are so funny – calling, chuckling, squawking, grinning.
Moving around Sandy Bay to the King penguin rookery, it does smell different from the Royals up the boardwalk, but no less powerful. More seal pups around here on the steeper pebble beach. Big rocks on the shore, making a tidepool for the penguins and seals to splash into. So many feathers blowing in swathes down the beach. Every time a penguin stretches out its long neck and calls I’ve turned off my camera – typical! An old sealers hut with turf roof still stands at the base of the cliff.
We go back to the ship for lunch, as no food can be brought on shore. We’ll come ashore again in the afternoon. Back on the ship I washed my face and saw penguin feathers dropping into the basin. They must’ve stuck to my sunscreen when I got caught in a feather tornado. Over lunch I learnt about the ‘catastrophic molt’ penguins go through each year. During summer, they’ll feed very heavily then come ashore for 3 weeks, where they lose and then replace all their feathers in that short period. They can’t enter the water to feed during molt, and just have to bear it. Looks uncomfortable.
Later 4PM Darker, sky grey. Sitting behind troops of Royal penguins, after blundering through their ranks. Elephant seals are such lushes. Lolling about, scratching, flinging sand on to cool down. Big liquid bloodshot eyes and glaring nostrils, old copper brown fur sloughing off to reveal soft grey pelt underneath. They’re a glorious mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. The reek is strong at Sandy Bay, but with such stunning scenery you barely notice it after a while. Going up for another look at the Royal colony on the hill, past the Pleurophyllum.
6.30PM Just before boarding the zodiac back to the ship I saw 2 Orcas rolling through Sandy Bay. Just their backs and big black fins, really close to shore. And up in the Royal colony I spotted a blonde penguin – almost pure white. What a brilliant day.