This week at Macquarie Island: 16 December 2016

Field training for new arrivals gives an intro to the island; fur seal counting and our first group of tourists for the year land on the island

Macca field training

Every walk on Macca starts with a hill and today Lewis “two steps” Firth, John “ The Machine Walker” Burgess and myself Daniel “Many Steps” Mizza were heading out for our field training for the first time.

The weather was amazing compared to the day before (good choice to postpone the walk) from 3.3°C to a maximum of 8.5°C, 20 knots and easing, high cloud and no rain forecast: perfect start to the weekend.

So up the first hill to everywhere on Macca is Doctors and I think it’s called that 'cause that’s what you need when you get up there…

The view back down to the station and beyond from there is just stunning. But no standing around, we had walking to do.

First stop was going to be Sandy Bay and Brothers Point Hut for lunch. Just outside of the turn off to the hut we ran into Rocket the master chef of Macca on his way back from his trip around to a few huts over the past few days. Quick chat and he was on his way home.

We made our way down to Sandy Bay to check out the royal penguin colony there and sat down for a quick break and a heap of photos of all the new chicks that have just hatched and are still hatching. Along the beach to Brothers Point Hut we saw king penguins in their moulting stage and the same with the elephant seals.

The Smartie shaped hut is a perfect little spot to chill out for the weekend but we only stopped there for a quick bite for lunch and then moved onto the west side of the island to Bauer Bay Hut for the night.

So up another hill we went to get across the island. It’s not a long walk to Bauer Bay but you guessed it: another hill to get down into the bay. Once we got to the hut we went through the list of things that need to be done to open the hut and soon had the kettle on for a cuppa and biscuits.

We then went for a walk along the beach to check out the locals and take many photos before my battery ran out!

Dinner time now and Fray Bentos was on the menu for me – thanks to Chris “Scottish” George for getting me onto them last season. You would've been proud of me Chris!

Fed and relaxed, it was bed time and get ready for the walk home in the morning.

Sunday was another beautiful day and it was a pleasure walking home but I was feeling the pain from yesterday's walk, the old knees were feeling it!

Up and down a few hills and a couple of knee deep mud holes and we were at the top of Doctors looking down to the coast and we watched the cruise ship leaving with tourists and a few of our mates heading home; we got a few more mates off the ship for a science program they are running.

The walk and training we got from John were fantastic and I’m looking forward to getting back out for another walk across the big green sponge as soon as I can!

Mizza

A view looking along Sandy Bay at Brothers Point
Hitting the boardwalk for a view of Brothers Point and the hut…
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
Hundreds of king penguins out on the beach at Sandy Bay
King penguins hanging out on the beach at Sandy Bay.
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
King penguins moulting on the beach
King penguins moulting on the beach.
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
Royal penguins with chicks at the colony at Sandy Bay
Royal penguins with chicks at the colony at Sandy Bay.
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
A royal penguin with chick
A royal penguin with chick
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
Four king penguins on the beach keeping an eye on everything
King penguins on the beach keeping an eye on everything.
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
A close up photo of an elephant seal that is moulting
A close up of an elephant seal moulting.
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)
The Bauer Bay field hut
The Bauer Bay field hut - a welcome cuppa at the end…
(Photo: Daniel Mizza)

Fur seal count

The other Sunday the weather was right for a group of rangers and volunteers to head into the SMAs on North Head to do a fur seal count. Three times this summer they will count both the Antarctic and sub–Antarctic fur seals to assess the status and trends in their breeding population. The beaches of North Head are the only place on the island where they breed.

At this time of year all the pups are Antarctic fur seals – the sub-Antarctics breed a little later. The pups are very active and mostly seem independent of their mothers and are playing with each other in groups both on the beach and in the water. A privilege to see!

Helen Cooley 

Antarctic fur seal pup
Antarctic fur seal pup gazes at the world
(Photo: Helen Cooley)
Antarctic fur seal pups checking each other out
Antarctic fur seal pups checking each other out
(Photo: Helen Cooley)
Antarctic fur seal pup in the sunshine
Antarctic fur seal pup in the sunshine
(Photo: Helen Cooley)
A male Antarctic fur seal, also known as a 'bull' seal
A male Antarctic fur seal, also known as a 'bull' seal
(Photo: Helen Cooley)
A sub-Antarctic male fur seal.
A sub-Antarctic male fur seal. Note the paler face and tuft of…
(Photo: Helen Cooley)

Visiting Macca

It’s the time of year again when Macca hosts a number of tourist ships, well, not actually Macca, but the wildlife rangers with the help of some volunteers.

Last weekend I did my bit and helped out at Sandy Bay and this time I was a bit better prepared than I was two years ago when attempting the same role. Waiting at the top of the viewing platform armed with my cheat sheet the rangers had provided, I was soon greeted by a group of people wanting to take my photo.

Ranger Chris Howard had briefed the group on the beach about the chippie at the top of the stairs who knew nothing about wildlife. Most of the visitors are usually quite up to speed on the different species of wildlife at Macca, and most were quite interested about the physical running of the station.

On Sunday at the 6 am (NZ Time) briefing a passenger reminded everyone that today 11/12/2016 was the 105th anniversary of Douglas Mawson’s arrival at Caroline Cove, Macquarie Island on his expedition to Antarctica.

During my time this year I have learnt a lot more about the wildlife, scientific and atmospheric research conducted here. This came about from correspondence with the class my wife is teaching. Class 2A (8 year olds) have been studying Macquarie Island throughout the year and have been sending questions to myself and other station members.

The class now have a pretty good understanding of the island judging from the book they made about Macca, then posted it to us via VMI. They all fully understand and appreciate the importance of conservation and research conducted here. The highlight for the class was their own visit to Macca last Thursday, not aboard a tourist ship but on a class excursion to the Macquarie Island exhibit at the Sydney Maritime Museum.

The class had fourteen volunteer parents and five teachers (including the headmaster) for the excursion. Macca has had quite a bit of publicity during 2016 which was quite evident to me from the interest and support my wife’s class received from parents and fellow teachers.

Joe Ahearn 

A man stands in front of the Royal penguin colony
The Chippie guide at the Royal Penguin colony
(Photo: Joe Ahearn)
A picture of a book made by students about Macquarie Island
The book of their studies that 2A send to the island to…
(Photo: Joe Ahearn)
Royals on their nests in the colony at Sandy Bay
Royals on their nests in the colony at Sandy Bay
(Photo: Joe Ahearn)
A book with children's drawings of penguins
Class 2A's artwork renditions of the wildlife
(Photo: Joe Ahearn)
A school class photo in front of a picture wall
2A visiting the Macquarie Island exhibition in Sydney
(Photo: Joe Ahearn)

Flashback

As pointed out by the tourists, December 11 marked the 105th anniversary of Mawson’s AAE expedition arriving at Macquarie Island, so this seems a good week to move onto the history of science on the island.

Visitors with scientific interests had been to the island prior to Mawson, most notably the Bellingshausen expedition from Russia in 1821.

Bellingshausen made detailed observations of the local fauna including elephant seals, numerous parakeets, dogs and cats, some of which had already created feral populations, and birdlife including penguins, gulls and albatross.

Sealing vessel captain Thomas Raine, with his ships surgeon David Ramsey, completed a detailed report on the island covering geology, island layout, tides, flora and fauna, which was published in Sydney in 1822. Comment was made by them of the negative effects of the wild dogs on the local birdlife which was already evident.

In October 1880, the Jessie Nichol had a NZ scientist aboard, Prof. J.H. Scott, who presented papers in the following years detailing the flora and fauna of Macquarie Island and the local differences found between those inhabiting Macquarie and those on the NZ sub–Antarctic islands Campbell and Auckland.

Joseph R. Burton, a taxidermist with the Colonial Museum in Wellington, NZ came to the island in 1896 to work for Hatch and stayed for 3½ years (which would have to be some sort of record?). During this time, he made many detailed observations of the local environment and he was particularly interested in the birdlife. Due to the length of his stay, he was able to follow the annual lifecycle of various island inhabitants and he published two newspaper articles in the Australasian when he returned home, describing his experiences and wildlife he found on the island. His observations also indicated that the Macquarie Island parakeet and Macquarie Island subspecies of the Pacific banded rail had become extinct by the late 1800s, which he suggested was due to the, by then quite common, feral cats.

As global interest increased in the southern parts of the world, scientific traffic increased on the hunt for samples and information. November 1901 saw Captain Robert F. Scott visit the island on his way south and he found it, unusually, empty of all human occupants at that time. At the behest of his onboard scientists, they landed for collecting at Lusitania Bay. He described plentiful penguins, kelp weed and tussock grass – a description that would still be quite valid today.

Captain J.K. Davis, heading back to England at the completion of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-9, visited Macquarie Island in May 1909 under instruction to make zoological and geological collections and to observe if any of the Antarctic species they had seen in the south migrated there for the winter, as it had been observed that they leave Antarctica but it was not known where they go.

And that then brings us to Mawson in 1911: 105 years ago. Part of the programme for the AAE expedition included the scientific investigation of Macquarie Island and to construct a wireless station here to act as a relay for the Antarctic expedition. First landfall was made at Caroline Cove in the south west corner of the island as it offered some protection. However, the waters around it were dangerous and the ship made its way up the coast to Buckles Bay.

After assessment of the landscape, the decision was made to construct the wireless up on the hill at the northern end of the isthmus, a spot thereafter known as Wireless Hill. On December 24, the Aurora left Macquarie Island, leaving behind the five men who would form the first scientific party resident on the island – George Ainsworth, Harold Hamilton, Leslie Blake, Charles Sandell and Arthur Sawyer. More about them next week.

Sub Antarctic Wilderness by Aleks Terauds and Fiona Stewart and Macquarie Island by J.S. Cumpston were referenced for this post.

A picture of early explorer Admiral Fabien Gottleib Thaddeus von Bellingshausen
Admiral Fabien Gottleib Thaddeus von Bellingshausen.
Early explorer Robert Falcon Scott in captain's full dress uniform.
Robert Falcon Scott in captain's full dress uniform.
(Photo: Royal Geographical Society, London)
A group of men in front of a hut
The AAE Macquarie Island team and the first photo on our photo…