Elephant seal census results are in, a couple of our summerers report back on their first ventures at station and the rockhoppers are back on the island too.

Elephant seal census

Wow! What an incredible few months it has been. At the start of September the beaches around station were occupied by just a handful of large male elephant seals. Throughout October the number of elephant seals on the beaches exploded, to the point where there were harems (or groups of females) that spanned 10–20 metres wide and over 100 metres long! Now, there are only a few breeding females left on the beaches, with most having returned to sea, leaving a whole lot of weaners (pups) scattered across the beaches and station.

On the 8th of September we had the arrival of the first elephant seal pup — what a great privilege it was to have witnessed an ele seal birth! Soon after, on the 18th of September, we commenced the elephant seal census. This census has one main objective: to determine the number of breeding females on the island this year. Macquarie Island has over 90 kilometres of coastline, so this is not an easy task!

In 2005 a method was developed to achieve the aim using the resources at hand. Basically, we count the females on particular beaches near station on a weekly basis to establish when females are coming ashore to pup and then at the time of the peak of pupping we count a large subset of beaches around the island. It was still a large task to complete, but many hands on station made it achievable. We were also fortunate to have pretty good weather conditions on most days we were scheduled to count the seals. It also helps that the seals are incredibly endearing: look at those big, dark eyes and puppy–like skin rolls!

The results of the census have just come in!

This year over 9000 breeding females were recorded in the census area. That means 2016 is the second consecutive year that we have recorded an increase in the number of females within the annual census area. While these are great results, further work is required to determine whether these results are indicative of a change to the long term average population decline of ~ 2.5%, or an indication of annual variability.

The annual census will continue over the next few years and a whole-of-island census will be attempted in 2019. For now we will continue to enjoy the company of the many weaners on station and their curious behaviour.

Marcus Salton 

Tom heads out on his first communications island tour

I was a bit apprehensive about my first walk ‘down island’ despite preparing since before I received my contract with the Australian Antarctic Division. Rob, my fearless trip leader and fellow radio technician, assured me that our walking plan was not excessive, with well placed rest stops at field huts each day.

Day one saw us leave station and head up the challenging ‘Doctors Track’ onto the plateau. Then on to Bauer Bay Hut via the Island Lake Track.

There were indeed lakes and the sun even came out. It was quite pleasant and my first view of the west coast was breathtaking. After a little fault finding at Bauer Bay Hut, Rob and I determined that the power problems there were caused by a faulty underground cable to the remote area power supply (wind, solar and petrol generator on a box). A job for our talented electrician to fix!

We paced the cable out at a bit over 15 metres and thought about telling him to carry in 60 metres of cable just to be sure. Or maybe make it an even 100 metres. The other job we were there to do, installing a satellite phone, did not go well. It refused to work with the antenna we installed on the hut. A puzzler…

Marcus and George joined us for the night as they would be heading out along the west coast doing a bird census the following day.

Day two saw us climbing out of Bauer Bay and over to the east coast via the Bauer Bay Track, then along the Sandy Bay Track and Sandy Bay beach to Brothers Point Hut, with a quick stop at the viewing platform to see the royal penguin colony.

I've stayed in ‘Smartie’ type huts previously on the Antarctic continent and this one was no exception; spacious, well placed under-floor storage and comfy beds. It was a lot warmer than I remember too.

We again failed to get a satellite phone installation to work at this hut. A quick call on the VHF radio back to station confirmed our suspicions. We had the wrong type of antenna. We will have to return to the sites to complete the jobs once the correct antennas arrive next resupply. We finished up the day with a few compass and GPS exercises to refresh my rusty navigation skills.

After staying overnight at Brothers Point we headed on to Green Gorge via Brothers Point Track and the Overland Track. Dinner that night was two spectacular pizzas cooked up by the Tasmanian parks ranger in charge of the island, Chris. Very much appreciated the carb loading.

The next day saw our first bit of cross country walking to the top of Mount Waite to inspect the VHF radio repeater and the site for its planned replacement. We were blessed with a clear day and had views both north and south along the island as far as the eye could see. On the way back down to Green Gorge, Rob marked a few GPS waypoint locations of burrowing birds we could hear.

These locations are of interest to the island’s biologists. The final bit of the cross country return to Green Gorge was rather wet as the ‘dry looking’ crossing at the bottom of the Gorge turned out to actually be a thigh deep marsh. The antidote for this mildly traumatic crossing was the fact that the rustic log cabin at Green Gorge has a camp shower with a view over the bay full of seals and penguins.

The final day saw us returning to station from Green Gorge via the Overland Track with a short cross country excursion to the top of Mount Elder to check the VHF radio repeater there. This was the longest walk of our trip and I will admit to flagging quite a bit towards the later third of the day. But we did make it to the top of the mountain and were again blessed with spectacular views.

Doctors Track was as challenging on the way down as it was on the way up and I was glad to be back on station. However I am now looking forward to going out again to complete the satellite phone installations when we have the correct parts. Though I’m not yet sure I believe the stories told of the island getting smaller with each walk you do.

Tom Luttrell 

Rockhopper penguins have returned

Our fourth species of penguins, the rockhoppers, have also returned to the island to mate and lay eggs. Due to their habitat of living in amongst the rocks of steep coastal cliff areas, these little guys can be much harder to spot and get photo opportunities with, but George got lucky recently while out and about as part of the skua census with ranger Marcus.

This is the rockhopper colony at Aurora Point on the west coast.

First lap of many of the island for Penny

Joining Kim on the 2016–17 summer albatross team, I have so far been given a very special introductory month to this amazing island! Heading out into the field as soon as the station stopped feeling like it was rocking, after the trip down on L’Astrolabe, we have jumped straight into the summer field work season.

So far we have spent around three weeks working out of the field huts, continuing to set up and check nesting study areas for black-browed, light-mantled and grey-headed albatrosses and southern giant petrels. Getting to meet and give identity bands to the five enormous wandering albatross chicks has definitely been a highlight so far. Footage from remote cameras set up near each nest shows they have been busily flapping away all winter, building up their wing strength. Now almost fully fledged the chicks will be leaving for sea in coming months, potentially not to return until they are ready to breed themselves in around eight years’ time!

A combined effort between the parks and albatross teams, and invaluable volunteer assistance from other expeditioners, also enabled us to almost complete our initial skua census around the island. We have even had the occasional glimpses of the incredibly cute newly hatched skua chicks peeking out from beside parent birds!

With all the wildlife, and some very un–Macca like calm and sunny weather, it’s been a pretty great first month of the summer season on the island!

Penny Pascoe 


There are very few records of ships visiting Macquarie Island between 1850 and 1870 and the island and its inhabitants seemed to enjoy a reprieve from visitors for this time.

Sealing gangs returned in the late 1870s but the second era of exploitation really took off when the island caught the attention of New Zealander Joseph Hatch.

Always on the lookout for a way to create his fortune, in 1887 Hatch turned his attention to the revived elephant seal oil industry on Macquarie Island. However he soon saw that elephant seal oil alone would be insufficient to make him a wealthy man and animal numbers were plummeting again.

New steam digester technology now allowed oil to be extracted from bone and skin, as well as blubber, and this made the previously low–yield penguins worth pursuing. Penguins had the added advantage of being small, plentiful, defenceless and naturally congregating in large colonies to which they returned annually.

Hatch began ‘harvesting’ the king penguins at the Lusitania Bay colony, however king penguin oil had a high blood content and this led to difficulties with fermentation. He expanded his operations north to the Nuggets and the royal penguin colony there.

By 1909 the digesters at the Nuggets were consuming an estimated 3500 royal penguins a day with each penguin producing about one pint (600 millilitres) of oil. In October 1902, Hatch was granted a sole occupation licence from the Tasmanian government and he now had multiple processing sites around the island, including the Isthmus, the Nuggets, Sandy Bay, Luistania Bay and Hurd Point.

In 1911 the island saw its first scientific visitors with Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) setting up a small base and leaving some members to live and work on the island until 1914. These men travelled all over, sometimes using old sealing infrastructure for shelter, and on their return to Australia, had stories and images to share that started the public’s love affair with the penguin.

Pressure began to mount on the Tasmanian government to put an end to the slaughter and Hatch’s license was finally revoked in 1919. After a long campaign that included such illustrious petitioners as Sir Douglas Mawson, Macquarie Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 and the seals and penguins were finally left alone.

It is estimated that three million penguins were rendered into oil. Today the rusting remains of Hatch’s digesters, most still within active penguin colonies, are the most obvious reminders of this grim time in history.

'Sub-Antarctic Wilderness’ by Aleks Terauds and Fiona Stewart; ‘Life on Macquarie Island’ by Alastair Dermer, and Karen Townrow’s ‘Survey and Excavation of Historic Sites on Macquarie Island’ were all used as sources for this article.