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Adventures on Macquarie Island
 

I am one of the luckiest people imaginable. Someone told me a couple of weeks ago that fewer people have been to Macquarie Island than have climbed Mt Everest; interesting statistic, though what it fails to convey is that Macquarie Island is also surely one of the purest and most strikingly beautiful places on the planet. Due to the islands world heritage protection and ‘edge of the world’ remoteness, not many people do get the opportunity to visit such a unique place. Hence I was extremely privileged to have the opportunity to see the island in all its glory.

The icebreaker Aurora Australis in Buckles Bay

The icebreaker Aurora Australis in Buckles Bay

We set off from Hobart on the 6th of April in the Aurora Australis, as a part of the annual Macquarie Island resupply, termed V4 (voyage four). The Aurora is Australia’s Antarctic icebreaker and it was nearly at capacity, carrying 114 crew and expeditioners, not to mention IRB’s, LARC’s and 4x squirrel helicopters for the resupply. Acronyms run rife here, but once you get a handle on them, it’s not so hard: IRB is inflatable rescue boat and LARC’s are an amphibious truck/boat. The resupply is hugely important from a number of perspectives, and this year was set to be particularly critical after complications in the 2014 resupply. The station needed to be refuelled (which was critical), the plateau huts used in the pest eradication program (read more about this here) were set to be removed, the permanent field huts needed resupplying with food and fuel, all rubbish needed to be removed, and of course there was the round trip science programs to be undertaken. The 2014 wintering team also needed to do a hand over to the incoming winterers. Winterers stay on the island for a year, carrying out scientific duties and maintaining the station. A round tripper is an expeditioner on board just for the resupply.

The 4 squirrel helicopters to be used for the ressuply

The 4 squirrel helicopters to be used for the ressuply

My round trip assignment was to assist one of my PhD supervisors to collect live collembola samples, or springtails as they are commonly known. Dr Aleks Terauds works for the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart, where he has a number of research interests, including understanding biodiversity patterns on multiple scales, conservation of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic and springtails, of course.

Ship life ended up being incredibly enjoyable for me, as I was fortunate to not be sea sick. Life on a ship practically revolves around feeding periods, where breakfast is 0730 – 0830, lunch 1130 – 1230 and dinner 1730 – 1830. After several days on the Aurora – spent productively working on my PhD (of course), playing trains (a board game based on building train routes across the US) with other expeditioners, doing a large amount of birding for pelagic seabirds and don’t forget eating, we arrived into Buckles Bay at Macquarie Island on Thursday afternoon of the 9th of April.

The banner on display in the Macquarie Island Station messhall

The banner on display in the Macquarie Island Station messhall


Macquarie Island station as viewed from  North Head

Macquarie Island station as viewed from North Head

Though it appeared sketchy for awhile, Aleks and I were off on one of the choppers that afternoon, and were welcomed into the Macquarie Island ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) station to spend our first night on the island. 2015 will mark the 68th ANARE season for Macquarie Island, where the years have marked a number of changes, most notably the successful eradication of cats, rabbits and rats from the island.

After a field briefing with Ranger Chris and a good feed from Benny the chef we were off to bed to get in a good nights sleep before our little ‘walk’ the next day. Little could I imagine it would also mark the night of my first aurora viewing. Needless to say, this was a pretty special experience – as I have longed to see the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) for a good number of years, and though starting out slowly, it did not disappoint – with a number of arcs and bands dancing across the sky in various shades of green and white. Surely there could be no better start to a field trip than this remarkable welcome.

King penguins at Sandy Bay

King penguins at Sandy Bay

Finch Creek, looking out over Brothers Point

Finch Creek, looking out over Brothers Point

Our first days hike consisted of walking along the east coast of the island, where I saw my first gentoo, royal, and king penguins, elephant and fur seals, and a variety of seabirds including northern and southern giant petrels. The scenery was indescribably beautiful, the wildlife ever pleasing and Aleks was constantly delighted with the good recovery of the islands vegetation after the rabbit removal. We cut inland at Finch Creek (just before Brothers Point), where we stopped to see the royal colony, before continuing on the OLT (overland track) the rest of the way to Green Gorge hut (halfway down the east coast of the island). Of course, we stayed dry the entire day, until being hit with a little sleet storm within sight of the hut, but anyway I wouldn’t have got the full Macquarie Island experience if our trip was to be only sunshine.

King penguin at Green Gorge

King penguin at Green Gorge

The Green Gorge hut could not be better situated (over a beach of king penguins), and I was only too pleased to spend some time enjoying their company and taking photos. Upon arrival at the hut we were also informed that there was lone rockhopper penguin blending in with the kings, thus allowing me to see all four Macquarie Island penguin species on my first day. Brilliant! After a refreshing night spent with Rob, Madeleine and wildlife ranger Anna at Green Gorge, we set off on the OLT for Hurd Point.

The royal penguin colony at Hurd Point

The royal penguin colony at Hurd Point

The plateau is stunningly beautiful and it was a pleasure to trek the ~20km to Hurd, passing by a number of crystal blue lakes – which always looked deceptively inviting to swim in. Though the day began in sunshine, it soon turned to snow, which was surprisingly pleasant (as it meant little wind). The variation in weather on the island was a constant source of amazement and amusement for me, where the landscape would change drastically from day to day. It is hard not to have a begrudging respect for the vegetation that survives in sub-Antarctic climates, coping with extreme temperatures, variable rainfall, sleet, hail and snow. In fact I deeply enjoyed learning the names and natures of the Macquarie Island flora, including the edible Macquarie Island cabbage, the beautiful Macquarie Island Orchid, the very unique azorella, the comely, though invasive poa annua and the every-annoying acaena (which stuck to all manner of clothing).

We arrived into Hurd Pt hut late that afternoon, after climbing down the creek to descend from the plateau – which afforded unbeatable views of the Hurd royal penguin colony. Hurd Point forms the southernmost point of the island. The two albatross girls Rachel and Kate, who we were to spend the next three nights with, arrived soon after we did, and after we had sat in front of the heater for a suitable period of time we cooked up and consumed considerable amounts of risotto and chocolate, before a second magnificent aurora viewing. This one was picturesque – just like you see in all the photographs (better even). It’s hard to describe something more magical than colourful lights dancing across the sky, in fact I was enjoying it so much I forgot to even try and take a photo.

Enjoying the king colony at Lusi Bay

Enjoying the king colony at Lusi Bay

King penguins around the penguin boiling vats at Lusitania Bay

King penguins around the penguin boiling vats at Lusitania Bay

Day 3 consisted of a hectic climb back up to the plateau (cheers to the intrepid alby teams that climb the jump up every day) and a hike to Luisitania Bay to collect springtail samples. Lusi Bay is location of the largest king penguin colony on the Island and consequently, also served as one of Joseph Hatch’s penguin harvesting (for oil and fur) sites until 1919, when the Tasmanian government would no longer extend his lease of the land. In one of the earliest demonstrations of an international conservation campaign, Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson successfully convinced the global public that Hatch forced the penguins to walk up ramps into vats of boiling oil – causing such an outcry that the government was forced to bend. This set a pretty grand scene as I ate my lunch and gazed at the kings gambolling around the giant boiling vats.

Climbing up from Lusitania Bay in the snow

Climbing up from Lusitania Bay in the snow

The trek back to Hurd was made challenging by the onset of a blizzard and I was grateful that I got to follow all of Aleks’ footsteps through the deeper snow drifts. Of course, this meant a well-deserved seat in front of the heater, hot BCJ (black current juice) and gobbling down plenty of chocolate and dried mango (Aleks!). In fact props to Aleks for making a delicious lentil pie while us three girls sat around the heater. Cooking in the field huts requires an innate ability to be creative, as all food must be long life. Hence there is plenty of tins, jars and dehydrated or dried everything. Macquarie Island field cooking inspired the inhabitants to put together their own cookbook, aptly titled ‘How to cook an albatross’, though of course there is no recipes for cooking albatross – plenty for using up the stacks and stacks of polenta though.

The heater at Hurd Pt put to good use drying all manner of gloves and thermals

The heater at Hurd Pt put to good use drying all manner of gloves and thermals

The following day was a stroll in the park compared to the last few days, where we stuck pretty close to the hut collecting all manner of springtails. Known for their furca, or springer the springtails are a ubiquitous group of hardy survivors, that can, in a single bound spring the equivalent of a human leaping over a 30-storey building. This kind of athleticism, combined with an unbelievable ability to adapt to extreme environments and plenty of striking patterns, means these little guys (up to 20mm) command respect from all who lay eyes on them. Not to be outdone, the other wildlife on the island is likewise spectacular, not to mention innately curious. King penguins are happy to encroach on one’s personal space, Elephant seals glare as you pass and the light-mantled sooty albatross glide a couple metres over your head as they check you out.

Rowdy elephant seals at Hurd Point

Rowdy elephant seals at Hurd Point

Collecting springtails consists of shaking them out of their tussock homes onto a tray and vacuuming them up using a pooter (a tube with mesh inside to prevent you sucking them all the way up). Collecting springtails turned out to be an activity I immensely enjoyed, and it was a pleasure to have an insight into their ‘micro’ world. Aleks had plenty of excellent springtail knowledge to impart to me and my favourites turned out to be the metallic blue Lepidocyrtus, the large, stripy and ‘hoppy’ Lepidobrya and the ironically named Megalothorax (which comparatively, is the size of a pin-head).

Collecting springtails from tussocks at Hurd Point

Collecting springtails from tussocks at Hurd Point

The fifth day consisted of the hike back to Green Gorge hut, where the weather was very obliging – providing us with beautiful sunny walking weather. Spending time in the field is simply unbeatable, and I was already dreading going back to ‘the desk’. Hiking with Aleks can only be described as ‘being in a documentary’, where his innumerable periods spent in the field and his immeasurable passion has given him incomparable knowledge of the island and its inhabitants (check out his book: Subantarctic Wilderness Macquarie Island). I was blessed to have such a guide, and I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could, enjoying every second on this spectacular island.

The overland track coming into Green Gorge

The overland track coming into Green Gorge

Unexpectedly, this ended up being our last day in the field, as a bad turn in the weather meant the ship had to try and leave ASAP (beating the bad weather back to Aus). The following morning we were choppered from Green Gorge back to the station, where we undertook some last springtail collections on North Head before being picked up in an IRB to go back to the Aurora. Unfortunately, the crew were unable to get the four choppers onto the ship that afternoon due to the very ‘reflective-of-Macquarie-Island’ winds, and we missed the window to beat the storm back to Aus. This resulted in us spending an additional four days sailing up and down the island, unable to leave due to expected 16m swells en route back to Australia.

View of Macquarie Island from the Aurora

View of Macquarie Island from the Aurora

However, I soon settled back into ship life, enjoying being out in the immense Southern Ocean. I found it hard to imagine having to prepare my own food once again, enjoying the excellent cuisine of the ships chef. Particularly the desserts – where every night he would surprise us with something new and delightful, including golden syrup dumplings, eaton mess, brandy snaps, birthday cake and chocolate-dipped strawberries. The journey home also meant some superb seabirds, including 7 species of albatross (wandering, black-browed, sooty, light-mantled sooty, bullers, shy and grey-headed), shearwaters and numerous petrels (including the elusive, or ‘not-so-elusive-on-this-voyage’ grey petrel).

In conclusion I will be forever grateful for my experience in this special part of the world (hopefully not my last), which was literally a dream come true (thanks Aleks). I wouldn’t change an instant of our trip. We covered over 95km, took over 144,000 steps, crossed windy ridge in snow, blizzard and sun, saw numerous awesome fauna species and many equally as awesome flora species, collected a wide assortment of springtails, met and befriended heaps of awesome and interesting people, and even managed to get a tan. The whole journey was an awesome opportunity to see some of the landscapes and ecosystems I have been reading so much about. I have also come back with a far-greater appreciation of invertebrates than I have ever had before, and though not a substitute for being in the field, I will now have to look for some springtails in my own backyard. We can all do it – all you need is a tray and a good set of eyes!

A curious audience watching springtail collections at Green

A curious audience watching springtail collections at Green

If you want to read more about the Australian Antarctic Division, follow this link. Or if you want to read more about life on Macca – click here.

Laura, Mel and Jasmine on the way home

Laura, Mel and Jasmine on the way home


My new friends Fred, George and Tubby at Green

My new friends Fred, George and Tubby at Green