Reconstructing the lives of Heard Island's sealers

A survey of relics is helping to reconstruct the lives of 19th century sealers on Heard Island.

The survey, conducted in 2003-04, was confined to the coastal ice-free areas between Fairchild Beach, in the northeast, to Long Beach in the south, where intensive sealing operations occurred between 1855 and 1877. The survey complemented similar efforts at Atlas Cove in 2000-01.

Several hundred sealing relics were located using historical photographs from 1947-87 (when Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions documented the state of relics around the island), earlier archaeological surveys from the mid 1980s, and published and unpublished field notes from previous expeditions. The relics ranged in size from shards of pottery to the foundations of cobble stone houses. Their locations were recorded using a Global Positioning System (GPS), and photographs were taken in situ, to supplement the GPS data and field notes.

One of the more significant findings was the rediscovery of the sealers’ cemetery on the vegetated slopes overlooking Doppler Hill and the seal processing facility on the beach. The cemetery was discovered by Max Downes, a historian and early expeditioner at Heard, during a visit in 1987-88 and consisted of four relatively prominent headboards. However, it was not mapped accurately at the time. In 2003-04, after two days of searching, three headboards were discovered, barely protruding from the surrounding vegetation. In some cases there was less than two centimetres of wood exposed.

Ruins of two sealers’ huts at Capsize Beach, on the southeast coast, were reported by a private expedition in 1965, but were overlooked by subsequent visits. These ruins were relocated and numerous relics and fragments were found, including parts of machinery and tools associated with the sealers’ work. Fragments of cast iron were also discovered at Fairchild Beach, providing the first evidence of sealing activity in the area.

A database has been established to manage all of the GPS data and associated pictorial records. Future surveys will add further information to the database in ongoing efforts to reconstruct the lives of 19th century sealers and to manage the cultural heritage of Heard Island.

Eric Woehler
Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies and Australian Antarctic Division