It’s a wild time of year, weather-wise, at Macquarie Island which sits at 54° 30′ south. Although the view of the snow-covered plateau is breathtaking it’s making this year’s resupply a challenge. When RSV Nuyina arrived a week ago, there were 500 tonnes of cargo on board and 250,000 litres of fuel.

High winds played havoc with work schedules early on, but the Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo boats (LARCs) and helicopters have now shifted two thirds of that cargo. 

“It’s a really challenging environment that’s always changing so we have to be very mindful of the weather conditions and have a good network of support including weather forecasting,” Helicopter Resources pilot Dave Paton said.

“The highest mountain on Macquarie Island is just over 400 metres and those winds come straight off the ocean so there’s a lot of mechanical turbulence associated with that.”

‘You have to place the load as gently and accurately as you can’

Location-specific weather forecasting is provided every few hours by Bureau of Meteorology forecasters based on the ship and at the station and the helicopter and voyage management teams pay keen attention. All operational planning is based on those forecasts.

The helicopters have been grounded on and off since resupply started due to the weather but when conditions are right, they make a dent in the cargo load very quickly, sling loading up to 900 kilos at a time.

“It requires a lot of skill and a lot of training,” Dave Paton said.

“You’re looking out vertically straight down the line and you have to place the load as gently and accurately as we can. We’re always very mindful of safety.”

“Like driving a fridge with a prop”

The LARCs – which are boats with wheels – can take loads of up to three tonnes and work in up to 35 knot winds (although swell and wind direction can influence that).

They also take people to shore, but the wind restriction then is 25 knots.

“LARCs are amazing boats. It’s like driving a fridge with a prop but they are so stable in the water,” LARC skipper Bec Tite said.

“When I’m at the helm my job is to keep the LARC as steady as possible close to the ship.”

The crane driver lowers the load down and a ‘dogger’ guides it on to the LARC, communicating with both the crane and the LARC crew using hand signals.

Biggest challenge kelp and seals

When the load is on, the LARC crew notify the ship’s bridge that they’re away and they head across the bay, engaging four-wheel-drive to get up the beach.

One of the biggest challenges is getting through the kelp and avoiding wildlife.

“If the kelp gets tangled around the propeller shaft it can really impact your movement,” Bec Tite said.

“Also we’re in a nature reserve and we don’t want to damage the environment so we try to stay away from it.

“Seals also get in the way sometimes too, so you just try to make yourself look really big and shoo them away.

“I love this work. It’s a really dynamic job, every load is different and you have to reassess what you’re doing every time.”

“We really need to upgrade or rebuild a lot of those buildings”

There’s more cargo than usual on board this year – it’s normally around 300 tonnes – because of the concrete panels, accommodation pods and other materials being brought down for the Macquarie Island Modernisation Program (MIMP).

Old accommodation blocks, some dating back to the 1950s and 60s, are being demolished and rebuilt and several field huts and fuel tanks are being replaced.

The temporary accommodation pods will provide housing for some expeditioners in the interim.

The work will feed into a new station replacement program, funded in the May budget to the tune of $371m over the next nine years.

“We’ve done risk assessments of Macquarie Island’s infrastructure and a lot of it is old and really not fit for people to live in anymore,” MIMP project lead Paul Farrow said.

“To continue operating as a year-round station, we really need to upgrade or rebuild a lot of those buildings.

“There was a serious storm event in 2022 followed shortly after by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake which caused landslides and coastal erosion. We’ll also be doing work to mitigate those sorts of risks to the station.”

Mr Farrow spent a few days down island at Bauer Bay and Brother’s Point, working with surveyors to determine where the new field huts will go.

Construction is likely to start this season.

Watching the weather roll in

Meanwhile, while the LARC operators brave the extreme conditions (it’s 1.9°C outside and the water is 4.4°C) other expeditioners wait on the Observation Deck and watch it all happen while waiting for their turn to go ashore.

The new team is itching to get started. Macquarie Island expeditioners heading home are happy to settle into their cabin on the ship and eat fresh fruit and vegetables for the first time in a while.

And everyone waits for the next weather forecast.