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A Story of Loss and Learning in the Sub-Antarctic

that takes us from commercial exploitation to recognition; from carnage to care-taking.

Macquarie Island, Overlooking Sandy Bay

I’ve been focusing on the wildlife of the sub-antarctic in recent posts (Okay, not so recent; I’ve been otherwise occupied.)  Anyway, I’m guessing many of you had never heard of Macquarie Island (AKA Macca) before I started raving about it, so I want to share a little of it’s ‘specialness’ with you.  Not being an historian, a geologist,  or a biologist, I’m not expert in anything about it.  But I have books. Oh, yes.  Not only the books I brought home with me, but I’ve acquired a couple more since then.  Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be a geography lesson.  I was never any good at geography anyway, but I’ve always been fascinated by the … ‘extremes.’  And the quirky.  I’m not talking about extreme sports here;  they seem to me to just be self-indulgent, which is pretty ordinary.  I’m interested in extremes of Nature, which also are often quirky.

Macquarie Island is located at 54°30’S  latitude, which places it at the edge of what is called the Antarctic Convergence. That is where the cold Antarctic waters mix with the relatively (!) warmer oceans to the north.  This Antarctic Convergence encircles Antarctica, creating a ring of wild seas, cold mists and sea fogs, rain, and strong winds.  All. Year. Round.  So we have “Macca” in the path of “the Furious Fifties,” where winds–gales, really–and the constant swells of the Southern Ocean are unhindered by any other land mass.  I’m sure you get the picture: it’s an island of wind and rain, averaging over 300 days of precipitation a year.  So how lucky was I to be there on a day when the sun was bright and the winds were calm-ish!.  Amazing.  And spectacular.

It’s hardly surprising that Macca’s coastline is peppered with shipwrecks.  Even with today’s technology,  supply ships, research vessels, and the occasional expedition cruise ship  😉  have to “hold station” off shore awaiting a break in the weather before they can launch their helicopters, rubber duckies, or whatever they use to go ashore. The shipwrecks are a significant part of the cultural history of Macquarie Island.  In addition to two ships which disappeared after leaving the island (1891 and 1914) there are eight identified shipwrecks, six of which are up in the north part of the island and two more at the far south.  The most recent was the Nella Dan, a supply ship servicing the ANARE  base (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions),  which went down in 1987.  The other known wrecks occurred between 1812 and 1911. . .  the period coinciding with the skin and oil industry on the island, which was active from 1810 to 1919, and the period I want to focus on here.

Relatively few people have ever been to the Sub-Antarctic region, and yet the damage to this once-pristine wilderness is still evident. The evidence takes the form of introduced feral species that have ravaged the landscape, extinct species, vulnerable or threatened species, degradation of the land (and nesting sites), and the flotsam and jetsam of man’s presence there.

Flotsam and Jetsam of the "Skin and Oil Industry" on Macquarie Island

In the photo you’ll see, on the far right, one of the old “trypots” that was used to boil the blubber of the elephant seals to make oil for lamps, machine lubricant, and in the tanning and rope-making processes.

The “skin and oil industry”  sounds like a relatively civilized business venture, but it’s really more of a euphemism for the wholesale slaughter of seals and penguins, to the point of near extinction. It all started on July 11, 1810, when sealing captain Frederick Hasselborough first went ashore on Macquarie Island and discovered a bonanza: huge numbers of seals, right there for the taking.  Thus began ten years of intense–and profitable–harvesting of the island’s nearly 200,000 fur seals.  The seal population was virtually wiped out in those first ten years.

Elephant seals were the next target.  They were clubbed, stripped of blubber, and then rendered down in “try pots” for the oil. Knowing better doesn’t help, it seems, as their population was cut by 70% in the ten years between 1820-1830.  During those first twenty years — the peak years — of seal harvesting, nearly 100 ships were involved in the industry at Macca.  That was just too much to be sustainable, hence the rapid decline of the seal populations, and of the harvesting activity.  Only three ships were working between 1830-1874 when seal and penguin oil production was at a low ebb.


An Old Trypot

“Having killed the sleeping animals, the men cut off the blubber with a knife, and put it in a boiler [trypot], placed on stones and with room for a fire beneath it, which they kindle with lumps of the same fat.  The oil from the boilers is then poured into barrels.” (description of tryworks by Bellinghausen, 1820)


From 1880 New Zealander Joseph Hatch brought new technology to the island and established a penguin oil industry using steam digesters.  He continued operating there until 1919.  The penguins were herded into pens, slaughtered, and steamed in the pressurized digesters.  During peak production in 1905, the site at the Nuggets could process 2000 penguins at a time, yielding 1/2 litre of oil per carcass.

A Rusting Old 'Steam Digester'

But before you get too depressed, the good news is that Macca is now protected, and recovering. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933, and when Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service was established in 1971 Macca became a Conservation Area.  The following year it was upgraded to a State Reserve.  In 1977 it was declared a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s ‘Man and the Biosphere’ program.  AND  it was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1997.

A lot of work remains to be done to rid the area of introduced species such as rabbits and rats, but cats have already been removed, and a major eradication program is to be conducted this year to eliminate rabbits, rats, and mice.  Macquarie Island is a breeding ground for a number of seabird species, including four albatross species, four penguin species, and three kinds of petrels. and others. The damage to the environment caused by rabbits and rodents has a spin-off effect on the wildlife, particularly the birds, as their nesting sites are being devastated.

The damage done to h landscape by rabbits on Macquarie Island

In some ways I can understand the reasons–and the results–for the 19th Century plundering of the Sub-Antarctic wildlife.  The  exploitation of the environment is nothing new.  It’s been going on for hundreds of years, in many parts of the world. We may be horrified at the callous slaughter of seals and penguins during the 19th Century, and it would be easy for us to attribute it to ignorance and greed and let it go at that.  Perhaps they were ignorant of the consequences of what they were doing, but I’m not so sure they were greedy, given the harsh and dangerous conditions they had to endure.  Let’s just settle for ignorance.   So what’s our excuse elsewhere today?

There is so much more to tell about Macca, about it’s unique geology (which is the reason for its World Heritage listing), its role in meteorological and other scientific research, the wonderful birdlife, the flora, the marine biology . . .  but I’m going to stop here. It is an awesome place, and I was enormously privileged to go there.          MM