Macquarie Island is a remote speck in the wild Southern Ocean. Since 1948, itís been home to an Australian research station. Every year, thereís one visit from a ship to resupply the station for the next 12 months. Go behind-the-scenes for this yearís resupply, and hear the stories of those who travel there, those who stay, and why they keep coming back.
Production: Mark Horstman, Australian Antarctic Division
Additional audio: Ryan Osland, The Australian
↓ Download MP3 (23.9 MB)
(king penguins, gulls and waves)
Weíre about halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica.
Macquarie Island is a plush green mountain range rearing up from an often lumpy ocean in the middle of the Furious Fifties.
James Doube - I suppose you could describe it as a bit like living in some sort of nature documentary, Attenborough style of event. In that there is just so much life packed in so close.
3.5 million seabirds and 80,000 elephant seals canít be wrong.
Itís also home to a tiny community of around 14 scientists, tradies and rangers.
Kat Panjari - It is quite a surreal feeling to see that ship leave the shore. You look around at each other, and there'll be 14 of us, and you think this is us. This is it for the winter.
Visiting just once a year, the icebreaker Aurora Australis is a lifeline for food and supplies.
Brad Collins - Refuelling just means life. If you donít get the fuel there, you can't stay there pretty much. It provides everything, it provides power, the light, the heating, the whole lot, all comes from the fuel.
Resupply: a little word for a massive operation.
Gíday, Iím Mark Horstman, from the Australian Antarctic Division. Come behind-the-scenes for our annual resupply of Macquarie Island, or Macca, as itís fondly knownÖ (helicopter sounds) Öone of the worldís most remote places, at its busiest time of the year, and find out what keeps people coming back.
(Ship noise, wind and waves)
It usually takes 3 days to get from Hobart to Macca on the Aurora AustralisÖ (Ship noise, wind and waves) Öbut going full tilt to beat bad weather and huge swells, you can do it in 2.
Running the resupply in 2019 - and radiating calm - is voyage leader Anthony Hull.
ĎHullyí Ė Yes, a given day can be quite challenging. I think promoting a controlled calm exterior is important when you're in these leadership positions because that filters through the rest of the teams that you've got working, so that's a key attribute, I think, in any management team. But in saying that, some moments get quite hectic and you might have helicopters, you might have people on the water, you might have cargo moving on the water, so once again that safety element of everyone is key.
From the ship, Hully works with his counterpart on the island, outgoing station leader Ali Dean. (tussock in wind) For her, resupply is the last major duty before returning home.
Ali Dean - Iíve been here for the past year, almost to the day, and I feel really lucky to have spent that time in such a wonderful, wild place.
In fact, Ali has been a winter station leader at most of the Australian Antarctic research stations.
(tussock in wind)
Iíve had an excellent team here this year. So, there was 14 of us over the winter. And, I canít think of a problem that we had, other than the pipes freezing, at one stage.
I love the station leader role because itís all-encompassing. So, I get an overview of everything thatís going on station. I love that. From cleaning the toilets to our helicopter operations. Itís wide-ranging. When I first went down south, I was a geologist. So, I went in as a scientist. And, I could see how dynamic stations were and just how everything had to come together, to actually make things happen. And, thatís what I love about being the station leader. I make things happen.
(walking with Kat sounds)
Incoming station leader Kat Panjari is also no stranger to spending a winter on an Antarctic research station, but she is new to Macca.
Kat Panjari - My first impressions are just how embracing this island is. It instantly felt like home. I think it's because it almost has a farm-like feel about it. There's tractors rolling by. There's agricultural-type buildings around the island. You can feel the layers of history on the island, and the scale of it; feels like a small village or a small town, and a community feel about it. So even though it's potentially a very hostile environment, in the middle of the Southern Ocean, it's green and it's a lovely place to live. So I instantly felt at home, which is quite different to being on the continental stations, which can be a little bit more hostile and a little bit more difficult to get used to. So that's been a really lovely surprise.
As the resupply swings into action, helicopters carry sling loads from ship to shore. (Chopper sounds) Amphibious vehicles called LARCS rumble up and down the rocky beach, ferrying cage pallets from the Auroraís cargo hold. (LARC sounds; walkie talkie in Green Store)
Some of the first cargo to come ashore is food, which has the new chef Kerryn Oates fully occupied.
Kerryn Oates - We're currently in the green store at the moment, unpacking a year's supply of food. We've many hands, doing a chain gang.
Q: What does a year's supply of food look like?
A: A lot. We're probably looking at about maybe 12 cartons of tinned hams, 20 cartons of tinned tomatoes. We also have maybe 60 to 70 cartons of frozen meat. Just masses of amounts of food, because we don't want to run out through the year, so we probably have more than we need, but it'll all get utilised because people also eat more in the cold weather.
Q: When does the next lot of food arrive? How long do you have to plan for?
A: The next lot will arrive in about 12 months' time. We have to plan very far ahead.
(Chain gang sounds)
As the cage pallets are fork-lifted in, theyíre unpacked by a small army of willing workers passing boxes hand-to-hand.
A: We're doing pretty good. The last two days, we've probably received about 80 per cent of our stores for the year. We've still got a little bit to go but yes, many hands make light work.
Q: It's all hands on deck when it comes in, isn't it?
A: It is, and it's fantastic, but that's what this is all about, the team and the community and everybody helping out when they can.
(Chain gang sounds)
Kat Panjari Ė Lots of toilet paper and toothpaste to keep us going for the winter, so resupply at Macquarie Island is just that little bit more complicated because we are on an island, because we rely on ship to shore transport and because of the prevailing weather conditions, which just add an extra element of logistical manoeuvring.
(LARC driving up beach)
Remember those LARCs? Well, a Macca resupply is unique for using these Ďboats with wheelsí, and the small group of people with the skills to drive them, called LARCies.
James Doube is one of them.
James Doube - I donít know exactly how many resupplies of Macquarie I've been involved with, but it would be something in the 20s, and thereís others in the group with similar sort of numbers of these voyages. So yeah, it is a fairly happy get together of the group, and at least half of us would be the same in any voyage.
Q: What is it about a Macca resupply that makes LARCs essential?
A: The surf would be, in one word. So, Macquarie Island lies really in the middle of the furious 50s as they're termed, and Australia got a little bit short changed when it came to harbours on our islands. If you go well to the west, you get Kerguelen, which has got these magnificent sort of long gorge like fjords in to it. You go across to the other side to the east, and the Kiwis have got islands with magnificent harbours, and Macquarie Islandís stuck here in the middle, as basically a single strip that runs nearly north south, with no useful harbour at all. Thereís no nice little super sheltered bay to bring a barge in to. So, we need a vehicle that can carry cargo through surf, and a LARC really is about the only thing thatís out there, that can do that.
Q: How much cargo have you carried this voyage?
A: Oh, itís an endless source of debate between us and the helicopters, but of course we carried far more than the helicopters.
It ends up being 128 tonnes ashore and 86 tonnes back-loadedÖbut whoís counting?
(theme music; elephant seal sounds)
James is also trained as a biologist and a medic. What keeps him coming back, in any role, is the nature.
James Doube - The oceans around here are tremendously productive, itís why all the seals and penguins and everything are down here. But they donít really, well some of them do, but many of them donít really like sitting on the ice, for the same reason that we donít like sitting on the ice. That is that it's rather cold and unpleasant. So, everything that wants to be down here for the food, but doesnít want to sit on the ice, has to pick these very small pieces of land, these last little specks of green, before you get down in to the land of white. They're all packed in together, and so itís a pretty amazing variety of wildlife.
In addition, from a vegetation point of view, these are the last bits of green, and so things are right on the edge of struggling, to get enough light and keep themselves going enough to keep themselves going through the winter. So it has pretty unique plants as well, and both the plants and the animals, donít really have much in the way of terrestrial predators. Naturally thereís almost nothing here. So sure, if you lean over the top of a seal and say boo, it will get a fright, but as long as you give things a little bit of space, most things have got other things to worry about other than you, so youíre remarkably tolerated in their environment, which is really nice.
(elephant seal snoring)
Thatís the relaxed sound of an elephant seal snoring. Kat Panjari is keen to meet the locals and explore.
(walking with Kat sounds)
The thing I'm most looking forward to is our ability to go down island and to walk across those peaks and onto that plateau, which I can barely see under some low cloud cover this morning, and to spending time in those field huts and supporting the rangers to protect this amazing nature reserve.
And thatís the thing Ė Macca is listed as World Heritage and strictly protected as a nature reserve by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.
But more than a century of visiting ships left a legacy of feral pests. Cats, rabbits, mice and rats overran the island and threatened wildlife Ė until 2014, when Macca became the first island in the world to successfully eradicate four invasive species.
Ali Dean - Having seen the island for the past year, and then pictures of what it was in the past, before eradication, you can see the changes are remarkable.
Ali Dean, surrounded by tussock grass rippling in the wind.
Iím not very tall. I can now get swamped by tussock that was bare hillsides just a few years ago. And, I think everyone that comes back to Macquarie can see the benefit of the eradication programme immediately, without the thought of rats in the huts and the station, as well.
Keeping it that way is a remarkable duo of dog handler Sue Robinson from Biosecurity Tasmania, and a lively fox terrier cross called Nui.
Nui is an expert at detecting the faintest whiff of rodentsÖ (Nui snuffling) so heís very excited to see what my fluffy grey microphone cover has to offer.
Sue Robinson Ė Since Macquarie Island became rodent-free, which was around 2012-13, weíve got to be incredibly strict on our biosecurity, to make sure that rats and mice donít return to the island. Part of the whole process, of which thereís many stages, we have a trained rodent dog to check the cargo before it leaves, as itís on the ship, and we check the ship and then we also check the station and then receive all the cargo, to ensure that no rodents come back to the island.
Q: So, resupply is the busiest time of year for you? You've got everything coming through your shed here and Nuiís running his nose over all of it?
A: Yeah, thatís correct.
Q: How many tonnes do you reckon? How many pallets? Are you keeping count in your head?
A: I'm not sure of the tonnage, but itís around 150 items, like pallets and bundles and different things come in, yeah.
Q: Is there a trick to making Nui think that any pallet could be the next one?
A: Yes thatís right. You can't just have a dog working for no reward, and the way they're trained, itís all reward-based. An actual rat or mouse is a reward for a rodent dog, they get very excited when they smell that, and maybe even get to chase it. But clearly thatís not going to happen here. So, during the process, every 10 or so pallets, I'll put a little vial of rodent scent, I'll get someone to hide that, and itíll be hidden in a pallet. Then Nui will come along and heíll go whoa, I got something, and so he goes in to his response, which is to dig, sometimes to bark. Heís rewarded with a fluffy toy, itís on a rope, so itís a tug toy, and it's a fluffy thing, and for him, itís nearly as good as a rat. So thatís his reward, and he knows that if he finds his target scent, then he gets his favourite toy.
Sue first came to Macca in the 1990s to work on eradicating cats.
The seabirds just came back in droves, and that was one of the most amazing things to see, and essentially inspired me to work in the area of removing pests off islands. I've been involved in several other island projects since then. Part of that work is to ensure that the biosecurity is maintained once we have got rid of pests.
Beyond cargo, thereís another side to resupply.
Kat Panjari - welcome to pure science fiction down at Macquarie Island.
Kat Panjari shows me into the warm well-lit fan-forced world of the hydroponics house.
Kat Panjari - Here we are at the warmest, greenest interior on the island.
Q: Is this your home away from home, do you think? Is it going to be?
A: Oh yeah. In the depths of winter, this is the place to be. It's green, it's warm and it's quiet. You can almost hear things growing. So it's a lovely little refuge to pop in each day and do some gardening.
Q: I'm guessing you're a keen gardener or are you just starting out?
A: No, I do have a bit of a green thumb, so it's lovely to be part of that down here. So let's open up the seedlings today. And the pak chois have grown overnight, which is wonderful. So here we have a tray of seedlings that we're trying to establish during resupply so that we can then plant those out for the winter. So we'll just give them a bit of a water. So we've got the tomatoes growing. We've got some cucumbers, some rocket, two types of lettuce - a cos. We've got some pak choi and then I've just planted some basil, some tiny tomatoes, some spring onions and some sage.
Q: Because your fresh supplies won't last forever, will they? How long before they'll run out?
A: Yeah, look, we'll have fresh fruit and veg - we can make it last for perhaps five or six months if stored correctly and if we're lucky, but then you do miss the crunch of a fresh bit of vegetable, so being able to grow crunchy lettuce or capsicum or spinach or rocket and just get those fresh flavours of the basil and the sage and the juiciness of a tomato. It means everything to the wellbeing of an expeditioner, particularly in the depths of winter when there's not a lot of light around to be able to have things that you've grown to hand over to the chef each day. It gives them something to kind of stimulate their design of the menu as well, so they try to keep it based around the fresh produce that we can provide them.
And the other thing, with the light and the warmth, you know, we have been known to drag in a deck chair and a good book and -
Q: And a potted palm.
A: - and to sit amongst the foliage and just take a little bit of time out. Yeah, it's a lovely environment to be on station.
Nearby in the surgery, the stationís sole medic Dr Kate Kloza is busy unpacking and packing.
Kate Kloza - Unlike a medical facility in Australia where you call the medical technician in and they come in and fix your - or do the service on your x-ray machine or your blood testing machine, we don't have that at all here. We have wonderful tradespeople that can do the basics but not that maintenance, so that has to get swapped out on the once-a-year resupply. We only have the resupply time to get that done so it's a fairly quick and - but important effort.
Q: After all the hurly-burly of a week or more of resupply, what's it like when everything's packed up and the ship's weighing anchor and heading for the horizon?
A: You can feel the whole station take a big sigh of relief. People start to feel, I think, a sense of ownership of the community. We start to bond even more tightly than we already have as we find ways to work and live together, and what our community standards are going to be.
Whatís a bit different this time is that Macca is the first research station to have a wintering community of 7 women and 7 men.
I'm super excited about it. This is the first time I've had an even split of gender. Normally - well, I shouldn't say normally. Previously, my winters, I've been in a significant minority, including having done a winter as the only woman. The change in dynamics, I think we're a much more natural community having that even balance. I'm really quite excited to see the differences in how we come together as a community.
Back on the ship, the final act of resupply is nearing its end.
One-and-a-half kilometres of fuel hose is being rolled back up after successfully refilling the stationís giant diesel fuel tanks. Brad Collins has been supervising operations like this one for more than a decade.
Brad Collins - This year we waited three days I think for the weather window to turn up, // we drag the hose from the ship, back to shore, set the hose up on shore, do the connections up, put anchor points in place at different points, north, south, to hold it in the right orientation and stops it drifting about. Connect it up to the ship and then go through the checklist and start the pumps.
Q: So, itís a real dance, it involves a lot of people doesnít it?
A: Oh yeah, thereís lots and lots of people involved in refuelling here at Macquarie, or any other station. Off the top of my head, I think itís about 30 people here, involved in refuelling.
Q: How did you go this year? What was the volume pumped and how much was lost?
A: None was lost, which is really good, and we pumped 100 litres short of 240,000, so itís 239,900 litres we pumped to shore.
And while weíre on numbers, the 16 day resupply also supported 11 science and construction projects, including the early stages of planning the station rebuild.
(people in restaurant)
Ironically, as the person in charge of the resupply, Hully was one of the few to not actually land on the island this time.
Hully- yes, it would have been nice to visit station, but that's a busy place during resupply, so the opportunities to do something on station wouldn't have been as I experienced in the past. So, in some ways, I was very happy just to be sitting here and doing the role on the ship.
Q: Is that what keeps you coming back, that satisfaction of making things work?
A: It's a good question, the motivation. I think if I could answer it just sitting round in the mess now and hearing the amount of noise that's there and the happiness and the conversation to me says that all the projects that were here on this voyage have met their objectives. So I think there's a sense of achievement for that to happen because everyone's come and achieved what they wanted to do, so I think that's a real reward.
It's time to go. The Aurora Australis starts to quiver as the engines rise in tempo and the ship pulls away from the island.
(expeditioners talking on deck)
From a hilltop, we see orange smoke drifting from some old flares, as the winterers remaining on Macca bid us a traditional flare-well.
(reactions to flares)
Itís a bitter-sweet moment for Ali Dean and her team as they stand on the shipís deck gazing back at their home for the last year.
Q: Itís at the end of a hectic resupply, is it a quiet sense of mission accomplished, or woo hoo?
Ali Dean - It's a bit of woohoo and a bit of relief there too, because it's a very tense time, resupply. Just getting it all done and getting it all done safely.
Q: What is it about the small communities in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic that keeps you coming back?
A: It is the can-do. It is the sort of just - the surprise at what a small group can accomplish if they put their minds to it. Just a huge skillset that you have.
Q: Will you be back, do you think?
A: Who knows? I never think about whether I'll be back but I always leave something to do when I - I never try and do everything in one trip. I think you've just got to enjoy what you do and think, "Maybe I'll be back." I'd love to. It's a fantastic place.