The Professor Khromov left from Dunedin, New Zealand during the Antarctic summer, destination: Macquarie Island. The Khromov is a Russian ice breaker based in Vladivostok that spends most of her life traversing polar regions on both ends of the planet. With omnipresent smiles and an eagerness to help, the Russian crew steered the Khromov through the most hideous of ocean swells towards the Antarctic pack ice.
After three days of travel through howling winds and heaving seas, the Khromov anchored up at Sandy Bay, Macquarie Island. I peered out of my porthole window and saw a sea of bobbing heads. Gentoo, king and royal penguins had decided to visit the Khromov, excited about what our arrival might have to offer. Soon, derricks swung into action, lowering the motorised inflatables into the water so we could go ashore.
Sandy Bay’s black volcanic sands are home to several thousand king penguins, about the same number of royal penguins and elephant seals, which capitalise on the soft, ebony sands to breed. After landing on the beach, one of the Khromov’s guides ran the gauntlet through crowds of penguins and seals to find a spot where we could keep dry bags. The kings were lined up like a trussed row of tuxedoed old gents. When we approached, they turned their bills into the air and sauntered off. A couple of minutes later, their own curiosity got the better of them and they came back in to investigate their strange homosapien guests.
I lugged my camera backpack off the boat and dropped it on the sand. As I was in the process of taking my camera out, I was immediately approached by a baby elephant seal. I didn’t know what to do. We had been cautioned to give animals their space, but obviously the animals didn’t know that. “It’s OK,” Magnus, one of the guides called out, “He just wants some attention. Their mothers have left them on the beach to get used to being alone before they go to sea. He won’t hurt you.”
“Is it OK to touch him?” I queried, trying not to laugh.
“Sure,” Magnus replied.
After firing off a few pics, I rose to my feet and wandered around to the king penguin colony. The few remaining chicks were interspersed with many adults, which lent a fluffy brown contrast to a sea of white and grey feathers. Chicks would be calling for their parents, while younger birds practised their trumpet calls. I laughed when I noticed that if a younger one tried to trumpet and didn’t get it right, they would be slapped on the back by an older bird until they called properly.
Closer to the shoreline, a group of male elephant seals – weighing up to four tonnes each – lazed around as though semi-conscious. In this state, the males almost go into a trance and researchers can sit on their backs without them even flinching. I gasped at their huge size and decided not to test this theory. Suddenly, an interloper from the sea approached their posse. A large male ‘beachmaster’ swung around and started a fight. It was like watching a clash of sandy titans. Try to imagine two semi-trailers colliding, but dressed up in fur and blubber. I decided to keep my distance as I watched on.
Later, I wandered around to the colony of royal penguins, a busy little crowd of characters occupying a spot in the middle of the beach. Approaching them, I realised why they had chosen this particular locale. They were standing on a bed of coin-sized pebbles. Royal penguins use pebbles as gifts and currency to attract a mate. To humans, they are just little black stones washed round by centuries of waves, but to royal penguins they are priceless treasures.
When I arrived, I realised I had left something in my bag back down the beach. I left my camera bag and tripod with the royal penguins to go and collect it. When I returned, three of the royals had decided that my tripod was the thing to play with. Competition spawned a fight and I laughed when I saw these three penguins throwing a tantrum over who got to play with the tripod first.
I decided to hang with the royals while their antics continued. Some snoozed, others engaged in mutual preening, fights occasionally broke out for pebbles and calls were practised. A couple passed by my boots, sniffed them and turned their noses in the air before waddling off. Another inspected the inside of my jacket pockets for goodies. At one stage, I gently held my finger out and a young royal approached and took my finger in his bill. He didn’t bite, he just teethed on it for a while. It didn’t hurt.
I wondered what I could do to engage them further and decided to lift a pebble. To my absolute astonishment, one approached, took the pebble, wandered off with it, dropped it, picked up another and brought it back to me. As I held out my hand, the replacement pebble was placed gently into it. I almost cried. I had never experienced anything like this from a wild animal before. Although small, that gesture made me fall in love with royal penguins. I had to tear myself away from them when it came time to return to the Khromov.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The next day, we visited staff from the Antarctic Division and Parks Tasmania, who were spending the summer at the base on Macquarie. Life for them imposes a set of challenges unique to existing on the island. Staff have tried to cordon off the buildings and dome-like meteorological station from marauding elephant seals. Occasionally, an adult elephant seal manages to squeeze through the fence and enter the base. Attracted by the warmth of the heating system, adult seals have tried to wobble their way up onto the building’s balconies, only to take the entire balcony out. Even the best constructed balconies will cave under the weight of a three-tonne seal. Windows? Well, seals sometimes view them as mirrors. On occasion they have been known to attack their own reflections, resulting in the need for a new window or two.
Meteorological staff regaled me with a tale of one staff member accidentally leaving the door of the dome open at the start of shift. A male elephant seal tried to enter out of curiosity. The only problem was that the door wasn’t big enough and the seal got stuck. A bit of quick thinking on behalf of the staff member saw him pick up a broom, pull a spare t-shirt over the end of it and wave it above the intruders head. Thinking it was competition larger than him, the seal eventually waddled out again.
Elsewhere on the base, infant elephant seal pups, significantly smaller and weighing only around 200kg each, managed to squeeze through the fence and stack themselves up in the garbage shed, a warm spot with some lovely smells, for an elephant seal, anyway.
The base provides a significant advantage for some of the animals that have chosen to co-exist with humans. Gentoo penguins, knowing that humans will frighten away predators like brown skuas and giant petrels, have taken to nesting around areas of the base frequented by people. It is the safest place for them to rear chicks, therefore gentoos, utilising a quirky survival tactic, are actually increasing in numbers on Macquarie.
Workers on the base can occasionally be joined by a parade of king penguins on their way to breakfast or have their sleep disturbed by barking and burping seals. But the most persistent companions in this unique way of life are the relentless freezing winds that blast across Hasselborough Bay and through the base. Although daily life is punctuated by cute experiences with animals, the central heating, double-glazed windows and wall insulation actually provide little real shelter from the howling polar winds.
Back on the beach, a natural drama of epic proportions plays out each day. Here predators roam freely and can be seen either attacking weaker animals or feasting off carcasses of seals and penguins recently deceased. Walking along Hasselborough Bay near the base, I passed by some remnant buildings of the base and some old seal-oil pots from days long gone, when Macquarie was used as a commercial sealing base by Joseph Hatch. Towards the end of the trade in seal oil on Macquarie, Hatch became desperate and turned to penguins as an alternative source for oil.
Oddly, on the southern end of the island, thousands of king penguins now crowd around three remnant penguin digesters used by Hatch to make a living at Lusitania Bay. They now breed and roost around all three, oblivious to their ugly past where so many of their ancestors were killed in the name of oil production.
We visited Lusitania the following day. As we arrived, one of the guides announced: “There’s Nick, Macquarie’s oldest and most well-known male killer whale.” Nick, aptly named because of a large triangular chunk missing from his dorsal fin, was cruising the beach with his pod and had just finished a kill. Motoring ashore, we chanced upon the remnants of a king penguin that was actually Nick’s lunch. Giant petrels and cape petrels alighted from the feast of remains on the water’s surface, flagging the end of dinner.
On a tectonic freak of an island like Macquarie, black beaches can actually appear white. Not from the sand, but from hundreds of thousands of ruffled king penguin chests. Concentrations of king penguins are so high on Lusitania that it’s impossible for humans to land there. Unperturbed, we motored close to the shoreline and were joined by groups of kings eagerly swimming around the inflatables for a look.
A FRAGILE WONDER
Sadly, Lusitania was the site of an unnatural disaster in 2002. Through years of mismanagement, French blue rabbits and black rats have over-run Macquarie since feral cats were eradicated from the island in 2001. Constant grazing has decimated stands of Macquarie Island cabbage (Stilbocarpa polaris) and poa tussock (poa annua) that have held the hillsides of the island together. During the start of summer in 2002, a series of earthquakes shook the island and caused a landslide at Lusitania. Hemmed in by sheer numbers, many king penguins died when a massive landslide fell onto the southern end of the bay. Only days later, a second landslide smashed out the wooden platform used by researchers to work with the royal penguins on Sandy Bay.
Erosion of Macquarie’s hillsides has made it extremely difficult for the island’s population of albatrosses to nest and even more dangerous for albatross researchers to do their work. Rabbits are also dominant competitors for burrows used by seabirds to rear their young. Numbers of grey petrels, blue petrels and prions have dropped significantly since the island has deteriorated. Even approaching the island by boat, the surrounding seas are mysteriously devoid of seabirds, while other islands of the same latitude teem with life.
These catastrophic events led to the start of a campaign to rid Macquarie of feral rats and rabbits. Remaining stands of vegetation have been covered with cages erected by staff on the island and in the summer of 2010 a large-scale aerial bait drop will commence as the first stage of restoring Macquarie to its former glory.
Sir Douglas Mawson once described Macquarie as “one of the greatest wonders on Earth,” and after visiting the island, I emphatically agree. I already have plans to return after the restoration has begun to see the metamorphosis of the island’s landscape. I think I also forgot to say thank you to the lovely royal penguin who gave me the pebble, so I really must return…