Macquarie Island: a brief history

Macquarie Island station, looking north-east 1956
Macquarie Island station, looking north-east 1956 (Photo: Ivan Fox)
The station at night Orion over ANARESat

Named after an early governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, the small size of Macquarie Island belies its importance in the history, geoscience and ecology of the Southern Ocean.

A rare uplifted portion of the sea bed at the edge of two tectonic plates of the earth's crust, the island was declared a World Heritage property in 1997 for its geological qualities. The island lies beside the southern extension of the great Alpine Fault of New Zealand and experiences frequent earth tremors. But it is also home to vast quantities of Southern Ocean birds and mammals, a factor that made it a prime target of commercial interests in the 19th and early 20th century.

Not everyone has been impressed by their first view of Macquarie Island. In 1822 Captain Douglass, of the ship Mariner called it "the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exilium that can possibly be conceived; nothing could warrant any civilised creature living on such a spot".

Despite the harsh treatment meted out to convicts during Australia's colonial era, administrators baulked at sending them to Macquarie Island. In 1826 the Hobart Town Gazette contained the quote: "the remote and stormy region in which Macquarie Island is placed is a strong reason against the adoption of that place as a penal settlement".

Discovery of the island is attributed to Captain Frederick Hasselborough of the brig Perseverance who sighted it on 11 July 1810 during a sealing voyage out of Sydney. He may have been preceded by Polynesians or other earlier visitors - he recorded seeing a wreck "of ancient design" on the island. Hasselborough named the place after the then Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.

Hasselborough's main interest was in the enormous numbers of seals on the island - especially fur seals, estimated at the time to number between 200,000 and 400,000. The commercial reaction to his discovery was immediate: during the first 18 months of commercial operations at least 120,000 fur seals were killed for their skins and ten years later the population was almost wiped out.

With the fur seal population unable to support the skin industry, the focus of commercial activity turned to the elephant seals whose blubber contained oil that then had widespread commercial use. By the mid-1840s numbers of elephant seals had been reduced by 70 percent.

Commercial exploitation then turned to the island's prolific penguin population. Whilst not as valuable as seal oil, penguin oil at least had the advantage of being relatively easy to obtain. After the king penguin colony at Lusitania Bay was devastated by this activity, attention turned to the royal penguins at The Nuggets. At the peak of the industry in 1905, the plant established here could process 2000 penguins at one time with each penguin producing about half a litre of oil.

During this period a dispute between the colonies of Tasmania and New Zealand about sovereignty over the island was resolved in Tasmania's favour. Macquarie Island is now part of Tasmania's Huon Municipality.

From when it was first discovered, Macquarie Island was also of interest to scientists. The Russian expedition led by Thaddeus von Bellinghausen collected flora and fauna on the island in 1820. Charles Wilkes's US Exploring Expedition and two New Zealand scientists, JH Scott and A. Hamilton, followed. Joseph Burton spent three and a half years from 1896 collecting specimens while working with oiling parties on the island. Scientists with Captain Robert Scott in 1901 and Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909 also collected specimens on the island.

In 1911, Australia's Sir Douglas Mawson established the island's first scientific station. In addition to conducting geomagnetic observations and mapping the island, studies were made of the island's botany, zoology, meteorology and geology. The Macquarie Island expedition also established the first radio link between Australia and Antarctica by setting up a radio relay station on Wireless Hill that could communicate with both Mawson's main expedition group at Commonwealth Bay, and Australia.

From 1913 to 1915 the meteorological observations begun by Mawson's group were continued by the Commonwealth Meteorological Service but discontinued after the loss of the relief ship Endeavour with all crew and passengers in 1914. The Ross Sea party of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Aurora visited the island in 1915, and Mawson returned aboard Discovery in 1930 with the British, Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition.

The island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 and, with the establishment of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1971, Macquarie Island became a conservation area. It was upgraded to a state reserve in 1972 and in 1978 was renamed the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve. In 1998 Macquarie Island was granted World Heritage status.

Macquarie Island ANARE station was established on 25 March 1948 and has been operating continuously ever since.

This page was last modified on 17 June 2002.