Living the hut life for science

Field huts are an integral part of life for many researchers on Macquarie Island, providing a home away from home and an opportunity to become immersed in a raw, elemental and vibrant environment, with penguins and seals on the doorstep.

The field huts have played a fundamental role in a wide range of research, facilitating daily visits to penguin colonies, sampling and surveying of remote geological features, or long term-multi season monitoring programs like the albatrosses program.

This research has fundamentally changed the way we think about and manage the Macquarie Island environment and ecosystems. From defining the geological values that underpinned the island’s World Heritage status, to tracking seabirds to understand their past, current and potential threats, field huts have helped to deliver a range of positive outcomes for the Macquarie Island environment and its biodiversity.

But of course it’s not just about the research. The field huts also played a critical role in the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Program, acting as bases for bait drop operations during the helicopter operations in 2010 and 2011. They were also a welcome respite for the hunters and dogs as they spent three years literally walking their way over every square meter of the island — rain, hail or shine. For those of us who were involved in the early stages of the eradication operation, the announcement in 2014 that the island was rabbit and rodent free was a welcome culmination of over a decade of intense effort. To this day it represents one of the most satisfying conservation outcomes that I have ever been involved in.

Since 1996, when I first went to the island, I have spent many years living and working in the huts. One of my most memorable experiences was waking up to a heavy rainstorm in 2000 at Caroline Cove hut, situated at the base of a mountain in a south-western bay. The flooding river adjacent to the hut was the first sign that something was amiss, but nothing could prepare me for the deep rumbling sound of hundreds of tonnes of rock and dirt, as a massive landslide roared down Petrel Peak later that morning, enveloping the hut (and many of the penguins that were on the beach). After I’d climbed out a small window and dug the door out, I was left to contemplate what might have been, and appreciate the fact that I was there to appreciate the island.

Caroline Cove was condemned soon after, and although it was my favourite hut, I grew to love Hurd Point hut, where I spent many subsequent summer field seasons studying the albatrosses that live nearby. Bauer Bay field hut is also a special place for me, for its stunning location on the north-western featherbed, and for the many great memories of time spent there with friends and colleagues.

Twenty years ago it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend significant time alone in field huts. Often weeks would go by without my seeing another person; my only communication with the outside world through the nightly radio ‘sked’. But there was always plenty to do, and if I wasn’t writing up research or analysing data, I would spend time in the kitchen, baking bread or other treats and trying to think up creative ways of cooking vegetarian food in the field. To this day, lentil and bean pies remain a Macquarie Island hut favourite.

Now the field huts are host to a new generation of researchers, including those undertaking post-eradication monitoring to help understand how the ecosystem is responding to the removal or rabbits and rodents. But for several huts, their time is drawing to a close, as plans are made for rebuilding or major renovations (see previous story). Soon a new era of hut life on Macquarie Island will begin.

Aleks Terauds
Leader — Biodiversity Conservation, Australian Antarctic Division