Considerable sealing activity had been going on since the 1770s at Îles Kerguelen, but Heard Island, only some 400 kilometres to the south-east, remained undiscovered until more southerly shipping routes into the Southern Ocean were adopted.

The first confirmed sighting of Heard Island was made on 25 November 1853 by Captain John Heard on the merchant vessel Oriental. Earlier sightings of land in the area in the 1830s are considered doubtful.

At the time of its discovery, Captain Heard’s wife was on board, and her description is the first recorded of the Island:

“At 10 o’clock the Captain was walking on deck and saw what he supposed to be an immense iceberg. … the atmosphere was hazy, and then a heavy snow squall came up which shut it out entirely from our view. Not long after the sun shone again, and I went up again and with the glass, tried to get an outline of it to sketch its form. The sun seemed so dazzling on the water, and the tops of the apparent icebergs covered with snow; the outline was very indistinct. We were all the time nearing the object and on looking again the Captain pronounced it to be land. The Island is not laid down on the chart, neither is it in the Epitome, so we are perhaps the discoverers, … I think it must be a twin to Desolation Island, it is certainly a frigid looking place.”

The nearby McDonald Islands (approximately 40 kilometres further west) were discovered by Captain William McDonald on 4 January 1854. Poor weather at the time prevented a landing by the ship’s crew.