There are 50,000 of them and 50 of us. We officially were in the minority now. The animals are in charge, we are the visitors, and suddenly have to play by their rules. There are few places on the planet where humans are the visitors, however this rarely traveled southern part of the globe is one of them. Some might be intimidated by being in the minority outnumbered by 49,950, but not me. This is exactly why I came on this expedition to Eastern Antarctica – to feel small.
All I could do was grin as the zodiac pulled up to the shore of Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island. The energy and excitement had nowhere else to go but into my big smile. I thought about how I felt like a 7 year old again, getting to go to Disneyworld for the first time. A magical world created for me. I was overcome with excitement. As I got off the zodiac I nearly backed into an elephant seal as it gave me silent yell showing it’s teeth and letting me know I was too close. Suddenly I was aware that this was not make-believe. This was not a world someone made for my entertainment. This was real. I backed up from the elephant seal and apologized as if he could understand.
During our briefing one of the Park Rangers told us to give the island patience and understanding. This is one of the rare places in the world where you can mingle closely with the wildlife.
“Give them patience and the birds will come to you. They don’t care about tourism or your cameras. They are just going about their business,” Ranger Chris said with a grin.
I stood on the island, surrounded by animals, and I had no idea where to go first. Rodney, our expedition leader, had given us a map earlier that morning at the briefing, but the problem was that absolutely everything sounded amazing, and I had no idea where to start in this wildlife dream world.
The good news is that we had 4 hours to wander around Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island. It was a small area, but it was packed with massive amounts of penguins and elephant seals. Most people would think 4 hours was forever, but for me I knew I would be on the last zodiac back milking every moment I could on this seldom seen island.
Where is Macquarie Island?
Macquarie island is an outlying part of Australia, and the park there is manned by Tasmanian Rangers year around. It’s part of the Subantarctic Islands south of New Zealand. This island chain is a great stop on the way to Antarctica to break up the long journey. Macquarie is the real gem of the island chain, and is the only island in the chain that has humans on it. There is a small research station there with rangers and scientists. However, none of these people are permanent inhabitants on Macquarie Island. The Australian Antarctic Division station is occupied year round. But the only access to the island is by sea and there are no harbors or landing facilities; it’s pretty remote.
Why is Macquarie Island So Special?
Explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, coined Macquarie Island as one of the “wonder spots of the world”. It sits in the Southern Ocean practically unknown to humans, but animals are well aware of it. Much like it’s cousin (South Georgia Island) on the other side of the globe, Macquarie is full of wildlife. Around 3.5 million penguins and 80,000 elephant seals arrive on Macquarie Island each year to breed and molt.
The rocks that form the island have been forced up from the ocean bed by the collision of two oceanic plates. This is the only place on Earth where mid-oceanic crustal rocks, formed on or below the sea-bed, are exposed above sea level. Essentially Macquarie literally rose from the sea, and it’s still rising by miniscule amounts each year.
It’s these traits that were pivotal to giving Macquarie Island UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Our Visit to Sandy Bay
Luckily we were there on a perfect weather day; a rare phenomenon on this island that has 268 days of strong and gale-force winds that have been the cause of many a shipwreck. We had blue skies, and warm temperatures, for our time on this lush island. We visited the research base the day before and met with rangers and the handful of scientists who were living temporarily on the island conducting wildlife, plant, and geological research. But today was just about visiting the wildlife at Sandy Bay.
These are the Days of our Lives
There was more drama between wildlife on Macquarie than any soap opera I’ve ever seen. Love, hate, family, enemies, backstabbing, romantic entangles, and friendship everywhere you looked. But what I was most astonished at was the number of animals and how close you could get to them.
The bay was dotted with groups of huge juvenile non-breeding Elephant Seals flopped on top of each other. The seals were around 10 to 15 years old and had come ashore to molt. The larger ones were 1500 pounds; massive blobs making every disgusting noise you can imagine. If I were an 8 year old boy I would have been giggling the whole time.
Even though they all looked happy cuddled upon each other like a big blob of love, occasionally fights would break out between them. They would rear up and start bashing together with such a force it made you shudder. Standing only 10 feet from elephant seals fighting and biting each other – that’s one for the bucket list for sure. They sort of looked like giant worms fighting! They were so busy fighting that they didn’t care if we were walking around them or not.
Penguins more than any other animal have the most human-like interactions in my opinion. Macquarie has large colonies of king penguins ( at the time of our visit there were 10,000) and endemic royal penguins (40,000). I watched pairs of king penguins sit on and nurture their eggs on their feet, covered by their belly and thick coats of feathers. Occasionally they would check on the eggs, lifting up their feather layer and doting on the egg like expectant parents. Their partners would stand by and defend them against other nosey penguins by slapping them with their flippers if they got too close.
The king penguins seemed to come together as a team to ward off Skuas, scavenger birds, waiting for any opportune moments to steal an egg for dinner. Sadly, I did witness Skua’s work together to basically push a penguin off its egg at an opportune moment. The whole king penguin colony tried to ward them off. The noise was deafening as the big birds battled, but the egg eventually was a lost cause. I was so sad as I watched the Skuas peck at the egg and the penguins ‘yell’ out . But as the ranger said, “Skua’s have to eat too”.
The king penguins seemed to walk around in packs of 3 of 4, like a bunch of wise guys stopping to observe things, silently conferring (and sometimes bickering), and then they’d follow the leader and take off again.
While the royal penguin colony had a different set of interactions. There is a constant sort of hum that comes from a 40,000 large penguin colony. When a disliked penguin moves through the crowd you will hear it above the hum. Suddenly there was loud noise of penguin honking from one little section of the colony, I looked over and there was a skinny penguin trying to walk through the crowded area of wall-to-wall penguins. As it made its way through the crowd, the nearby penguins were literally ‘yelling’ at it, snapping at it, and slapping it with their flippers. If they could have picked up and thrown stones with those flippers they would have! I have no idea why they disliked the skinny penguin, but all birds were in agreement, this particular penguin was not welcome in this section of the colony.
It was also fun to watch the new little Royal penguin chicks learn to take their first swims and figure out how to get in and out of the waves…usually not so gracefully.
I also saw what appeared to be plenty of bullying going on too in the colonies. They clearly haven’t enacted a no bullying law yet in their colonies! So much drama – better than any midday soap opera! But then again – if you were living within inches of 39,999 other human beings, there’d be plenty of drama in your world too – just look at New York City.
It was a day to be patient and observe, which very few of us have the time to do these days. But it’s so refreshing for the soul. Being a part of this little “wonder of the world” even for 4 hours was an amazing experience. As predicted, I was on the last zodiac back to the ship. I was sad to go and leave this dramatic animal kingdom behind where I was the visitor in their world.
How to get to Macquarie Island
We stopped on our way to Eastern Antarctica, but if you want to just go to the Subantarctic Islands, Heritage Expeditions also has trips that do just that.
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I was a guest of Heritage Expeditions on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.