Halfway to the Antarctic

Who wouldn’t be tempted by the mystique of remote islands?  After 12 days off-line, I’m home from a sea journey down through New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands to Australia’s own Macquarie Island and back. Heritage Expeditions operates this expedition cruise using a Russian research vessel.

Inhabited only by a few transient – and dedicated – researchers, the NZ islands remain zealously-guarded nature reserves, havens for penguins, albatross, sea lions and other wild creatures.

Male elephant seal moulting on Macquarie Island

Male elephant seal moulting on Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island is Tasmanian territory, but manned year-round by a small band of scientists and support staff at an Australian Antarctic Division research base.

In these latitudes, the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, winds blow almost incessantly, virtually uninterrupted by land as they gust right around the globe.  In the Auckland Islands, then again on Campbell Island, our  shipboard sleepness nights and sea-sickness were rewarded by glimpses of wild natural beauty and by close encounters with endangerered species.  On Macquarie, under the benign gaze of Tasmanian park rangers, we waded ashore into colonies populated by tens of thousands of stiff-gaited but curious penguins – and by huge elephant seals, sprawled lethargically across the shingled beaches.

Stepping ashore on Macquarie Island

Stepping ashore on Macquarie Island, that

Almost all of the austerely beautiful Macquarie Island, extending 40 km from north to south, is kept off-limits to visitors in the interests of conservation. This is supremely ironic on an island whose wildlife was devastated by 19th century and early 20th century sealers and whose terrain remains severely ravaged by feral rabbits.  Scientists and rangers now pin their hopes on the continuation of a multi-million eradication program during the (southern) winter of 2011.

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