The unique and largely unmodified natural qualities of Heard Island and its surrounding waters have for many years attracted the attention of hardy scientists, willing to make the long ocean journey and brave harsh elements to better understand what's there, how it is changing and why.

Early visits were brief but important in providing initial records and baseline data, which has been built upon by more recent expeditions.

Early scientific visits

The first recorded scientific visit to Heard Island was by the Challenger in 1874, when a brief landing was made at Atlas Cove and a few scientific samples were collected. Poor weather limited the visit to 3 hours.

Later the same year, the Arcona brought a German expedition to Heard Island, looking for suitable sites for observing a transit of Venus. It is likely that the poor weather discouraged their interest in the island.

Three scientific visits to the island were made in the early 20th century. The first was in February 1902 by the German Antarctic Expedition, when a small team landed at Atlas Cove for a brief visit to make observations and collect samples.

The second was an 8-day visit to the Atlas Cove region in January 1928 by two French geologists and the third was in November 1929 by the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, led by Douglas Mawson. As with previous visits, poor weather reduced the duration of the visit and limited the scientific investigations by the field party.

Lifespan of the station

In December 1947, Australia established a research station at the north-western end of Heard Island, at Atlas Cove. The station was originally planned for Spit Bay at the eastern end of the island, but poor weather prevented landing operations there.

During the 9 years that the station was operated, ninety-one expeditioners wintered on the island. They studied the island's animals, plants and rocks, the region's weather and atmosphere, and they mapped the island.

The station was closed down on 9 March 1955, following the establishment of Mawson on the Antarctic continent in 1954.

1960s – 1990s

The next Australian scientific visit was for 6 weeks in the first 3 months of 1963. During this visit, a number of scientists and a small climbing party were landed on the island. Poor weather prevented the climbers from reaching the summit of Big Ben, the 2,750 metre high glacier-covered active volcano that dominates the island.

Between March 1969 and April 1970, the ANARE station at Atlas Cove on Heard Island was occupied by American scientists involved in the US Coast & Geodetic Survey. The scientists’ objective was to photograph a satellite in orbit. These photographs were to be used in triangulation calculations to determine the shape and size of the Earth, and to determine the relative locations of the photographic stations. Unfortunately, poor weather limited the number of photographic opportunities.

Early in 1971, a joint French-Australian expedition visited Heard Island for six weeks. During this expedition, the first landing of only two landings to date was made on McDonald Island. A helicopter landed two scientists for 45 minutes for a brief inspection.

In 1979/80, a National Mapping expedition visited Heard Island for little more than 2 weeks. During this visit, the second landing was made on McDonald Island, this time by amphibious vehicle. A small team was present on the island for 5 days conducting the first scientific surveys of the island.

Between 1985/86 and 1987/88, three extended visits were made to Heard Island for the 3 summers, with the 1987/88 expedition present on the island for 5 months.

A short month-long mid-winter visit was made in 1990 by a team of 4 at Spit Bay. Five expeditioners wintered on Heard Island between January 1992 and March 1993.

2000s onwards

Further expeditions were present on the island in 2000/01 (42 expeditioners) and 2003/04 (28 expeditioners).

During the summer of 2003–04 the AAD conducted a multi-disciplinary scientific expedition to Heard Island. The party of 28 scientists and support staff spent two months on the island undertaking a range of programs including animal, bird and terrestrial biology and glaciology.


  • Satellite tracking of albatrosses, penguins and seals to determine their foraging areas. Dive recorders provided information on the activity of these top predators and the use of their foraging space.
  • The diet of the predators was studied with traditional and new molecular techniques to determine what they had been eating whilst at sea.
  • At the same time that the animals are foraging, the Aurora Australis conducted a series of oceanographic projects, including trawling in the areas utilised by the predators, to better understand the characteristics of the predators’ prey.

Terrestrial biologists

  • Research into impact of climate change as part of a major international project called RiSCC (Regional Sensitivities to Climate Change). Heard Island is a major research site along the Antarctic Environmental Gradient (AEG). The AEG spans 30 degrees of latitude and includes a range of macro-climatic zones from cool temperate islands to the frigid and arid Antarctic continent.
  • Conducted simultaneous studies on Heard Island and the Kerguelen Islands during the 2003–04 summer. These studies focused particularly on documenting variation between the islands in important environmental parameters, such as temperature, and the effect these parameters have on fundamental attributes such as life cycles, phenology and growth of terrestrial organisms.


  • Detailed studies of the Brown Glacier. Surveys of the glacier's snout and surface would determine if glacial retreat is rapid or punctuated. Measurements on the mass balance of the glacier, as well as more detailed ice thickness measurements using a portable radar echo sounder, were undertaken. Monitoring of climatic conditions continued, with an emphasis on the impact of Foehn winds on glacier mass balance.
  • Repairs were made to an automatic weather station established in November 2000.

Current intentions are for the Australian Antarctic Division to support further Australian Antarctic program summer visits to the region approximately every 3 years over the next decade to undertake research, monitoring, and any required on-site management activities.