There are very few records of ships visiting Macquarie Island between 1850 and 1870 and the island and its inhabitants seemed to enjoy a reprieve from visitors for this time.
Sealing gangs returned in the late 1870s but the second era of exploitation really took off when the island caught the attention of New Zealander Joseph Hatch.
Always on the lookout for a way to create his fortune, in 1887 Hatch turned his attention to the revived elephant seal oil industry on Macquarie Island. However he soon saw that elephant seal oil alone would be insufficient to make him a wealthy man and animal numbers were plummeting again.
New steam digester technology now allowed oil to be extracted from bone and skin, as well as blubber, and this made the previously low–yield penguins worth pursuing. Penguins had the added advantage of being small, plentiful, defenceless and naturally congregating in large colonies to which they returned annually.
Hatch began ‘harvesting’ the king penguins at the Lusitania Bay colony, however king penguin oil had a high blood content and this led to difficulties with fermentation. He expanded his operations north to the Nuggets and the royal penguin colony there.
By 1909 the digesters at the Nuggets were consuming an estimated 3500 royal penguins a day with each penguin producing about one pint (600 millilitres) of oil. In October 1902, Hatch was granted a sole occupation licence from the Tasmanian government and he now had multiple processing sites around the island, including the Isthmus, the Nuggets, Sandy Bay, Luistania Bay and Hurd Point.
In 1911 the island saw its first scientific visitors with Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) setting up a small base and leaving some members to live and work on the island until 1914. These men travelled all over, sometimes using old sealing infrastructure for shelter, and on their return to Australia, had stories and images to share that started the public’s love affair with the penguin.
Pressure began to mount on the Tasmanian government to put an end to the slaughter and Hatch’s license was finally revoked in 1919. After a long campaign that included such illustrious petitioners as Sir Douglas Mawson, Macquarie Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 and the seals and penguins were finally left alone.
It is estimated that three million penguins were rendered into oil. Today the rusting remains of Hatch’s digesters, most still within active penguin colonies, are the most obvious reminders of this grim time in history.
'Sub-Antarctic Wilderness' by Aleks Terauds and Fiona Stewart; 'Life on Macquarie Island' by Alastair Dermer, and Karen Townrow's 'Survey and Excavation of Historic Sites on Macquarie Island' were all used as sources for this article.