Macquarie Island’s sub-Antarctic wildlife

This video is called Macquarie Island.

From Australian Geographic:

Macquarie Island: sub-Antarctic wilderness

By Ewen Bell


Smack-bang in the midst of the foaming Southern Ocean lies Macquarie Island, a tiny haven of wildlife.

A SMALL BUT MAGNIFICENT refuge in the midst of the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island is a protected wilderness that undergoes dramatic seasonal change, provides rare habitats for migratory species and offers adventurous travellers an abundance of wildlife that knows no fear of man. It is one of Australia’s truly great wilderness experiences, and just getting there can be an adventure and a unique challenge of its own.

Few people who visit the sub-Antarctic islands understand in advance just how rough the Southern Ocean can be. And while the Antarctic continent enjoys somewhat calm waters far below the roaring trade winds of the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island, however, is right in the middle of that churning mass of weather and waves, a tiny speck of solid land directly in the path of fierce storms and some of the worst sailing conditions anywhere on the planet.

If you sail directly from Tasmania you need three days at sea to reach Macquarie Island, or you can join a commercial expedition cruise ship and hop your way across the New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands.

The Snares, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island provide waypoints and occasional calm shelter. The passage from Campbell Island to Macquarie is no less than a day with good conditions, and possibly double that when the Southern Ocean is kicking up a fuss.

Macquarie Island: cruising the Southern Ocean

Very few cruise ships head down to this part of the world; it’s too remote and the journey often regarded too rough for the comfort of passengers. Heritage Expeditions is not in the business of luxury cruising, however, preferring to focus on adventure rather than relaxation.

Their ship is one of the ‘Professor Class’ Russian-built research vessels, now named The Spirit of Enderby but still crewed by a team of Russian sailors. It’s a small ship, with room for 50 passengers onboard, and a fleet of five zodiacs stowed on the stern facilitate shore landings.

Our expedition leader is Nathan Russ, who at the age of just 25 is vastly more experienced than his age would suggest. He’s spent Christmas in the Southern Ocean for 15 of those 25 years, and follows in the adventurous footsteps of his father Rodney Russ who founded the company.

From the very start of the journey Nathan talks about a “successful expedition”, as though this was something we shouldn’t take for granted. He followed this up on the first night at sea by casually declaring, “We’ll get you back alive.” And he meant it. Man does not belong down here, not without extraordinary resources and a large bag of seasickness tablets.

With weather conditions determining landings rather than the itinerary, there is no certainty about which beaches can be accessed with a zodiac landing. In fact there are no guarantees that you will land at all. …

King penguins

I’ve come here for the penguins, and the king penguins in particular. Kings are the second largest of all, and the most streamlined through the water. They are perfectly coloured to blend into the beach scene here, a smooth grey and white suit with hints of yellow and bronze. …

Royal penguins

Penguins always seem to have somewhere to be, and the royal penguins give the impression they are terribly late to be there. In between colonies of king penguins a narrow patch of beach at Sandy Bay has become a multi-lane highway for the royals, and what they lack in physical stature they make up for with personality. …

Royal penguins are part of the crested penguins family that includes rockhoppers and macaronis, and their wild tufts of yellow feathers above the brow give them a comical appearance that adds to their sense of personality. …

Macquarie Island: best times to travel

Late December is a good time of year to be in the sub-Antarctic islands. You still get a chance to see penguin chicks, and lots of them, and this far north of the South Pole they’re well advanced.

Summers on Macquarie Island are relatively ice free compared with the Antarctic landmass further south, and that’s just how the penguins like it. They love a cold climate but too much ice and snow can make life difficult for breeding. King penguins, royals, rockhoppers and gentoos on Macquarie Island take full advantage of the nesting sites on land and the feeding frenzy offshore.

Buckles Bay has a healthy population of gentoo penguins and their chicks have reached an age when they can be truly demanding on their parents. …

They are tolerant of the warmer conditions at Macquarie Island yet also able to survive further south in the colder latitudes where the more specialised Adélie penguins thrive on the abundant Antarctic ice. …

Macquarie Island: pest control

Ironically the history of pest control for introduced species at Macquarie Island is a tale of good intentions with unforeseen effects. Rabbits were reduced in the 1970s which led to feral cats increasing their prey on migratory birds.

Then the cats were eradicated a decade ago only to result in rodent and rabbit populations increasing to devastating proportions.

The problem with the remaining introduced species is their ability to destroy tussocks and other native flora that have evolved on the island. Vegetation that provides vital habitats for seabirds is eaten by rabbits before it can mature while the seeds are harvested by rodents and stored for winter.

The final outcome is exposed slopes and an increasingly denuded ecosystem. Even the tall thick tussock grass that young seals hide among has been visibly effected by the pests.

In the winter of 2010 the impact of introduced species on Macquarie Island will be challenged by the largest pest-eradication project ever undertaken in the world. The Federal Government is funding an initiative to simultaneously remove rabbit, rat and mice populations across the entire island.

The model for such an ambitious project was set by the New Zealand Government in 2001 when they used helicopters and poison baits to clear the rats from Campbell Island. Some of the same team members from the Campbell Island project will be working on Macquarie Island this winter.

Pete Tyree was a ranger and logistics officer for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation during the Campbell Island eradication, and was present on my cruise to Macquarie Island as a crew member for Heritage Expeditions.

Pete has seen firsthand just how dramatically the habitats on Campbell Island have improved since the rodents were removed. Vast mountain sides are once again covered with dense tussock grass and the sub-Antarctic megaherbs, providing the ideal environment for nesting albatross pairs.

Macquarie Island also has a rich variety of albatross species, although expedition cruise passengers are more likely to see the birds while making passage at sea than standing on a beach. Albatross prefer to nest high up on cliffs and exposed knolls where strong winds give them an easy take-off.

The habitat decline on Macquarie Island is evident to the experts but so is the wild beauty that abounds on this desolate outpost.

Pete explains the island magic best. “Macquarie Island is just an amazing place. From a photographer and conservationist’s point of view it’s a paradise,” he says. “The depth of interaction with the penguins down here was life altering for me.”

6 thoughts on “Macquarie Island’s sub-Antarctic wildlife

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