This month marks 100 years since the end of the oiling industry at Macquarie Island.
Macquarie Island had a long history of wildlife exploitation before it was declared a sanctuary for wildlife in 1933. Fur seals were targeted first, harvested for their pelts soon after the island was discovered in 1810. It didn’t take long for sealers to move on to boiling down elephant seal blubber and then penguins for oil.
Large metal cauldrons called trypots were used until the more advanced technology of ‘steam pressure cookers’ (digesters) was brought to the island from the late 1880s. The men who lived at Macquarie Island during those years endured months of isolation and harsh conditions.
The headquarters of the last stage of the industry was at the Nuggets, located on the north-east coast of the island near large breeding colonies of royal penguins. Rusting digesters, graves and hut remnants can still be seen. Small artefacts are sometimes exposed, often unearthed during storms or by elephant seals. A bottle fragment was recently found near the Nuggets with markings of Joseph Hatch of Invercargill, the very man responsible for bringing the advanced steam digester technology to the island.
The oiling industry eventually came to end thanks to campaigns to conserve Macquarie Island. Sir Douglas Mawson was the highest profile advocate for the island’s protection. In April 1919 the last ship associated with the Macquarie Island oiling industry departed the island loaded with 450 casks of oil. The Tasmanian Government cancelled the last oiling licence in 1920.
These days the rusting worksites scattered along Macquarie’s rugged coastline have been reclaimed by seals and penguins.
Andrea (Ranger in Charge)