At the southernmost reach of one of the world’s roughest oceans sits a remote land that is so infrequently visited, the animals forget what humans look like. Heard Island and McDonald Island are so far off the radar that few people know they exist and even fewer know where they are.
Both islands are located on the southernmost point of a compass that places India at the north, South Africa at the west and Western Australia at the east. Extend the south marker towards Antarctica and before you hit the pack ice, Heard and McDonald Islands will stop you in your path.
Situated almost 4500km south-west of Perth, there is no easy way to get to these islands. In November 2012, a group of travellers assembled on the dock in Fremantle, WA, to board the Russian icebreaker Spirit of Enderby to undertake the mammoth sea crossing down to Heard and McDonald Islands, Australia’s most remote island territories, via the French Antarctic island of Ile Amsterdam. It was the first commercial journey of its kind in a decade.
Of course, there was no guarantee that either island would allow a landing. Both are home to Australia’s only active volcanoes and its highest mountain, the glacier-clad peak of Big Ben. They sit there like steaming, rumbling dragons in an ice-cold sea, their summits breathing smoke from fumaroles obscured by layers of thick snow.
After a week at sea against the prevailing westerly conditions, the expedition leader on this journey, renowned Antarctic adventurer Rodney Russ, radioed in to the French authorities requesting a few hours of respite in the lee of Ile Amsterdam. In contrast to its island neighbours further south, Amsterdam is nondescript in appearance, reasonably flat and green. It is, however, home to the world’s rarest species of albatross, the Amsterdam albatross. Ile Amsterdam is one of the last breeding outposts for this species, which now only number around 25 breeding pairs in the world.
While the ship stopped, some expeditioners enjoyed a cooked breakfast in the relative calm of the island, while others spent the morning up on deck to see the Amsterdam albatross in their natural habitat.
Slowly, Russ turned the vessel southward and we set sail for Heard and McDonald Islands to the south-west. As soon as the Spirit of Enderby left the lee of the island, the Southern Ocean unleashed her fury and dragged out every tool in her magic box of oceanic conditions to torment our passage.
Howling winds whipped the surface of the ocean into a frenzy of white foam. Stepping outside on the starboard side of the vessel wasn’t for the faint hearted: that wind was enough to blow us off our feet. Gigantic rolling ocean swells lulled the ship southward towards Heard. Trying to sleep in these conditions was virtually impossible as we would invariably end up sliding from one end of the bed to the other. The next morning a motley crew of dishevelled-looking passengers made their way to the dining room. Asking anyone how they slept was a waste of small talk … the answer was a grumble or eye rolling, followed by a competition for who had the biggest bruise.
The next period of respite came when the Enderby crossed the Antarctic Convergence, allowing a brief moment of calm. The sudden change in water temperature cast an eerie sea fog over the vessel as conditions petered out to a bearable level. Less than a day later we were back into the raging Furious Fifties and battling some of the worst ocean conditions in the world on the approach to Heard Island.
A couple of very rough days ensued and we arrived at Heard in a force-nine snow storm that annihilated any views of the island. Anchoring up at Atlas Cove, we struggled to peer through the snow to see anything. Ice began to build up on every available sheltered surface of the vessel and snow drifted across the decks, which made walking outside treacherous. The wind was blowing so hard that the chill factor bit into the soul.
Outside I was shocked to see seabirds, normally hardy fliers in the skies of the Southern Ocean, literally blown out of the sky onto the sea surface, then forced upwards again in the next gust. In those conditions, there was absolutely no way any landing parties could be launched.
WELCOME TO HEARD
A stiff breeze was still blowing the next morning, but at least the skies had cleared enough for us to catch our first glimpse of Heard. Layers of snow had settled on the horizontal rock stacks of the Azorella Peninsula. Beyond the entrance of the cove, the glacier-clad hulk of Big Ben loomed in the distance.
Heard Island doesn’t look like the other islands that dot the Subantarctic. It looks more like a chunk of the Antarctic continent that has broken free. There is vegetation, but it is limited to the hardiest plants and most sheltered parts of the island. Elsewhere the terrain is harsh, windswept, desolate and icy. Glacier termini adorn almost every black sand volcanic beach that skirts the island. Driftwood and shards of buildings well past their prime litter the coastline.
Russ decided to do a reconnaissance to see if a landing at Spit Bay, on the eastern side of the island, would be possible. The cruise along the coast afforded us views of the stark reality of Heard’s formidable stance. The summit of Big Ben breathed steam like a sleeping dragon and tossed up eerie cloud formations.
Spit Bay wasn’t an option for landing that day. The weather deteriorated as the island’s terrain flattened out, so Russ took us back to Atlas Cove. As the inflatable dinghies landed ashore, a couple of southern elephant seals lazily opened their eyes to greet the visitors and a group of king penguins sauntered over to check out the new arrivals. Heard’s wildlife doesn’t see humans very often, consequently the animals that live here have very little fear of visitors and this was evident when we scrambled around the rocky coastline to visit a colony of rockhopper penguins. En route we came across a black-faced sheathbill, a rather odd little bird about the size of a chicken, which had encountered the carcass of a dead penguin and was happily picking at the remains for lunch.
Only the fittest and strongest creatures survive on Heard. On the beaches there are bones from animals that have succumbed to the relentless conditions, had their bones picked by predators and then cleaned to a brittle white by incessant snow storms. They ranged from the teeth of seals, whitened rib cages of seabirds to the gigantic vertebra of whales.
Human activity on Heard has been mainly restricted to sealing or research since it was first sighted in 1833 by Peter Kemp aboard the Magnet. Within 20 years of the island’s discovery, a lucrative sealing base was established. It was during this time that as many as 100 employees and their families worked the season during the Antarctic summer. Many people would depart before the start of winter, but a steadfast, small group remained there all year around.
Heard Island’s role in Australia’s Antarctic research is significant. Scientific research expeditions to Heard were undertaken as early as 1874, with the first British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), under the leadership of Sir Douglas Mawson, visiting in 1929.
Not much remains of any human activity today. Two rusting cast iron try pots and a flat building slab is all that is left of the sealer’s hut. The original research hut sits dilapidated, falling apart in the conditions or being smashed into pieces by marauding elephant seals. Now when the Australian Antarctic Division conducts research on Heard Island, it brings an entire station of demountable buildings in for the expedition that are later deconstructed and removed.
Departing from the sealers’ huts, I wandered along the beach, past the occasional elephant seal basking in the sun. An offshore breeze had started to glass the surface of waves crashing on the shoreline. I was fascinated to see prions, normally birds of the open ocean, feeding just beyond the breakers. Perhaps the wild conditions we arrived in had washed an abundance of food closer to shore, as it was highly unusual to see pelagic seabirds feeding near the beach.
On the easternmost point of the beach sits the Baudissin Glacier, which cascades onto black sand in a weird juxtaposition of black and white. As I walked along the edge of it I looked up at the shards of ice that formed the glacier walls towering 6m above my head. Occasionally I watched waterfalls carve paths through the ice face, making the glacier creak and groan. Sometimes it was so loud it made me jump and step back in fright.
Later that day the weather miraculously gave way to a momentous sunset, bathing the beaches in a golden glow and clearing the skies over the island. Returning to the Enderby, a pink hue was cast over the summit of Big Ben as the ocean conditions flattened out like a mirror in the cove. For an island that is covered in fog for most of the year, it was an incredible blessing to see it like this.
Sadly it was a very short-lived window of weather. During the night the gales blew in before our scheduled day of travel to Heard’s neighbour, McDonald Island. Sailing down to McDonald was another rough affair. Although the sun was shining, the wind was howling through the rigging of the Enderby. Approaching McDonald, I asked the captain if he had ever been there before. “No, and I hope I never have to again,” he responded.
McDonald is a volatile and active volcano. The island retains so much geothermal heat that no ice or snow settles for long. When you are seven weeks from the nearest help, approaching an island that was estimated to have tripled in size since it was last seen, it is wise to sail cautiously. The nearest we got to McDonald was around 10 nautical miles. Unsure of exactly how much volcanic activity had occurred beneath the sea’s surface and with a healthy fear of beaching the Enderby, the captain played a very conservative hand on the approach. We did, however, get fantastic views of the island before we retreated to the comparative safety of Heard Island.
Anchorages on these islands have terrified sailors since their discovery. McDonald Island is impossible to get anywhere near and, in Atlas Cove – one of only three safe places to anchor on Heard Island – sudden gusts of tornado-like winds called williwaws can spin a boat quickly around on its anchor, smashing it into the island’s rocky coastline. Over the years, expedition staff have been delivered to Heard by ships that remain there for the shortest time possible before beating a hasty retreat to the more sheltered anchorages of the French Antarctic territory, Kerguelen, around 700 nautical miles to the north. A larger vessel like the Enderby has a better chance of staying put, but it can still be treacherous.
Settling in for another windy night in the cove, the island allowed us only one brief, slightly rough landing on the final day of our stay. Arriving ashore, I saw a beach squabble nearby and realised that a particularly small elephant seal pup I’d seen two days before had succumbed to the harshness of life on Heard. Its carcass was being picked apart by giant petrels, brown skuas and kelp gulls, all capitalising on the incidental feast. Watching the melee was a stark reminder of how life plays out on this remote outpost, where an animal that stops for too long will die and yet that very act sustains so many others.
Heard Island had allowed us only two half days ashore during nearly a month at sea after sailing a distance of 10,000km. During that time, many passengers sported bruises and cuts from being bashed around on the journey and some were tempted to kiss their first stable land in Albany, WA, after weeks of seasickness. However, the one thing that united us all was the awe-inspiring, staggering beauty of these lands that so few people have visited, and where it is quite possible that no one will walk ashore for another decade.