Macquarie Island was declared a World Heritage property in 1997 for its geological qualities. The island is a rare, uplifted portion of the seabed at the edge of two tectonic plate. It lies beside the southern extension of the great Alpine Fault of New Zealand and experiences frequent earth tremors.
It is also home to large numbers of Southern Ocean birds and mammals. This made it a prime target of commercial interests in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Not everyone has been impressed by their first view of Macquarie Island. In 1822 Captain Douglass, of the ship Mariner called it 'the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exilium that can possibly be conceived; nothing could warrant any civilised creature living on such a spot'.
Despite the harsh treatment meted out to convicts during Australia’s colonial era, administrators baulked at sending them to Macquarie Island. In 1826 the Hobart Town Gazette contained the quote: 'the remote and stormy region in which Macquarie Island is placed is a strong reason against the adoption of that place as a penal settlement'.
The sealing era
Discovery of the island is attributed to Captain Frederick Hasselborough of the brig Perseverance. He sighted the island on 11 July 1810 during a sealing voyage out of Sydney. He may have been preceded by Polynesians or other earlier visitors. He recorded seeing a wreck 'of ancient design' on the island. Hasselborough named the place after the then Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.
Hasselborough’s main interest was in the enormous numbers of seals on the island — especially fur seals. At that time, fur seals were estimated to number between 200,000 and 400,000 on the island. The commercial reaction to his discovery was immediate. During the first 18 months of commercial operations, at least 120,000 fur seals were killed for their skins. Only 10 years later, the population was almost wiped out.
Once the fur seal population was unable to support the skin industry, the focus of commercial activity turned to the elephant seals. Elephant seal blubber contained oil that had widespread commercial use. By the mid 1840s numbers of elephant seals had been reduced by 70%.
Commercial exploitation then turned to the island’s prolific penguin population. While not as valuable as seal oil, penguin oil at least had the advantage of being relatively easy to get. After the king penguin colony at Lusitania Bay was devastated by this activity, attention turned to the royal penguins at The Nuggets. At the peak of the industry in 1905, the plant established here could process 2,000 penguins at one time. Each penguin produced about half a litre of oil.
During this period, a dispute between the colonies of Tasmania and New Zealand about sovereignty over the island was resolved in Tasmania’s favour. Macquarie Island is now part of Tasmania’s Huon Municipality.
A place for science
Macquarie Island has been of interest to scientists since its discovery.
The Russian expedition led by Thaddeus von Bellinghausen, collected flora and fauna on the island in 1820. They were followed by Charles Wilkes’s US Exploring Expedition and two New Zealand scientists, JH Scott and A. Hamilton. Joseph Burton spent 3 and a half years from 1896 collecting specimens while working with oiling parties on the island. Scientists with Captain Robert Scott in 1901 and Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909 also collected specimens on the island.
In 1911, Australia’s Sir Douglas Mawson established the island's first scientific station. In addition to conducting geomagnetic observations and mapping the island, studies were made of the island's botany, zoology, meteorology and geology. The Macquarie Island expedition also established the first radio link between Australia and Antarctica by setting up a radio relay station on Wireless Hill. This station could communicate with both Mawson's main expedition group at Commonwealth Bay, and Australia.
From 1913 to 1915 the meteorological observations begun by Mawson’s group were continued by the Commonwealth Meteorological Service. They discontinued after the loss of the relief ship Endeavour with all crew and passengers in 1914. The Ross Sea party of Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Aurora visited the island in 1915, and Mawson returned aboard Discovery in 1930 with the British, Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition.
The island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. With the establishment of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1971, Macquarie Island became a conservation area. It was upgraded to a state reserve in 1972 and in 1978 was renamed the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve. In 1998, Macquarie Island was granted World Heritage status.
On 21 March 1948, ANARE established Macquarie Island station. It has been operating continuously ever since.