This week at Macquarie Island: 8 November 2019

The pace of life at Macca accelerates

An amazing spectacle of order and disharmony

The pace of life is beginning to accelerate on Macquarie Island, for animal species and expeditioners alike. With the annual spring-time explosion of wildlife, comes an extra gamut of tasks to complete. 

The most intensive team effort this last six weeks has been completing the counts of female (breeding) Elephant seals on the isthmus to the east and west of station, and at certain locations down the island.

As ANARE expeditioners, we feel that the opportunity to participate in science support programs is brilliant, and something that provides us with a greater understanding of, and insight into, the island communities among which we find ourselves. Two months ago Ranger Andrea found a very receptive audience when she explained the history of the Elephant seal studies and the relevance of the counts we would do.

It was with great expectation that we started paying attention to the arrival on the beaches of huge male elephant seals. The bulls, at the peak of their physical condition, began to jockey and fight for prime sections of coastline… a spot where a lady and 300 of her girlfriends might like to give birth, feed and wean a bundle of joy in the space of three weeks, before departing the scene freshly inseminated. It took another couple of weeks for the first of the cows to start moving onto the beaches.

We noted the first pup of this season was born in early September, a very cute little bag of bones with luxuriant black fur. Over the next few weeks, the harems began to fill up. We witnessed some brutal battles between bulls, and were treated to such an amazing spectacle of order (and disharmony) within the harems.

The weekly counts started with pairs of expeditoners walking along the east or the west coast harem groups on Saturday afternoons, rapidly clicking counters and trying to remain focussed on where you were up to in any given harem. This is not an easy task. The snapping, bickering heads of a great mass of female elephant seals squeezed together, contending with their pups, the unwanted attentions of a lumbering great oaf (Big Daddy) and his adversaries, and the ever present Skuas and Giant Petrels, resemble the vipers on a medusa’s head.

It’s mesmerising, quite disconcerting and easy to lose your count. 

The repeated counts of harems in the vicinity of station were supplemented by other counts from down the island. The stretch from Bauer Bay back to station was completed by Mark B and Andrea. The stretch from Brothers Point to station was completed by Kezza and Billy. And I was lucky enough to be able to do the stretch from Waterfall Bay to Hurd Point with Stella. Pretty big days, but so worthwhile!

Tim James, Senior Met Observer

two male elephant seal bulls clash with waves in the background
An argument over who is going to be beachmaster for the day
(Photo: Stella Thomas)
A man stands on a beach counting elephant seals
Beachmaster Pete doing a great job at keeping count of the 100+…
(Photo: Stella Thomas)
A man in a yellow jacket stands in front of a colony of king penguins
Commuting to the census area passing by Lusitania Bay
(Photo: Stella Thomas)
a man and a woman stand in front of a elephant seal harem
Doug and Kate counting the west coast harem
(Photo: Kate Kloza)
A woman stands on the side of a cliff holding a counter and notebook
Stella with her final count at Hurd Point
(Photo: Tim James)
A headland covered with penguins and seals
Hurd Point harem surrounded by 1000's of Royal penguins
(Photo: Tim James)
two hands hold counters with matching numbers
It's always a relief when the numbers match up
(Photo: Billy Wallace)
a beach at sunset is covered with penguins and elephant seals
Hurd Point Harem is the largest in the south east census area
(Photo: Stella Thomas)