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Mary on Macquarie
Mary's Macquarie diary
Macquarie After Mary
Inspiring Antarctic Women
Modern Macquarie Island


Mary on Macquarie

In December 1959, the quartet of Isobel Bennett, Hope MacPherson (Australian), Susan Ingham and Mary Gillham (British) became members of the first Australian expedition of female scientists to the Antarctic when they visited Macquarie Island where an all-male group – members of an Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) – had been in existence at a shore camp for a number of years previously.

In August 1959, Mary was still determined to convince the Australian Department of External Affairs to allow women to travel to Macquarie Island. In her diary for Saturday 22 August 1959, Mary writes: 'Composed letters to Ratcliffe and Phil Law, Antarctic chief, the letter in response to a disquieting letter from Brazenor that morning saying that Law thought we wouldn’t be able to go to Macquarie because of the “publicity attached to including women in the party”. Men! "Grrrrr!"'

Mary met with Phil Law after a public lecture on 'Preparing for an Antarctic expedition' on 25 August, and clearly expressed her views on his 'publicity' comment, although she writes that Law appeared to be on her side stating, "Don't worry about it now, it all depends on the Minister for External Affairs". Mary later heard that 'his (Law's) mood at present was to be dammed to the powers and to include us and tell them after' and also 'that the minister did as Law told him when it came to Antarctica, so things look hopeful'.

On 21 September, Mary writes 'Another letter from ANARE stating that it was pretty certain I should be on the boat for Macquarie Island in a few months'.

Mary’s inclusion in this expedition with ANARE was approved and guaranteed by 10 November when Mary received confirmation from the Australian Acting Minister for External Affairs to attend this extraordinary voyage. Not only were the women to be equally as involved as the men in their scientific work on the island but, it would be fair to say, that that work and the women’s ability to 'fit in' would come under scrutiny with those in positions of authority who were casting strong doubts on the place of females in Antarctic exploration.

Prior to them being accepted for inclusion in the December 1959 ANARE visit to Macquarie Island, Mary and her three female colleagues were required to acquiesce to the points itemised in the 'Agreement' which doesn’t leave any doubt regarding what’s what and who’s in charge.

A condition for the journey was to take out an all risks insurance policy for at least £2350, which Mary describes in her diary as 'an absurd sum'. Mary also attended a compulsory medical exam on 11 November, though her examiner, as Mary writes, 'did very little more than record in various ways that my heart was beating and state that I was obviously quite fit'.

Mary was also sent an official letter agreeing to her participation in the Macquarie expedition – with provisos! Note the suggested clothing and equipment, and things to consider before the expedition began! The letter was from Philip Law, the director of the Antarctic Division, Department of External Affairs.

The Danish ice-breaker, the Thala Dan, carried the women (and other members of their party) to and from Macquarie Island. In command of the Thala Dan was Captain Hans Christian Petersen. (Courtesy: The Australian Women's Weekly)

The Thala Dan was the newest of a fleet of three such vessels (the others being the Magga Dan and the Kista Dan, this latter 'now used by the Belgians' [MG]), 'had [says Mary] a crew of 32 and was between 2000 and 2100 tons. Captain Peterson in charge, notices etc. in Danish'.

The four female scientists were present to support the on-going study of various aspects of animal and plant life on the island, with marine biologists Isobel and Hope looking at the ecology of inter-tidal origins and shells respectively, biologist Susan at the lives of Bandit Penguins, Wandering Albatrosses and Elephant Seals, while botanist Mary’s brief was to analyse the effects of sea birds on the island’s vegetation.

(The complete article from The Australian Women’s Weekly, 23 December 1959, describing the departure of Mary and her academic peers to the Antarctic. Courtesy: The Australian Women's Weekly)

Though drunkenness and ribald behaviour was tolerated in the male expedition members, the performance and behaviour of the four women came under intense scrutiny, by the media, by their fellow ANARE crew members, by government, university and other institutional officials. If these ground-breaking women had not acquitted themselves with complete decorum and undertaken their scientific research in an exemplary manner, it’s highly likely the future involvement of women in similar scientific expeditions would have been greatly hindered and delayed.


A Summary of Mary’s 15 day expedition to Macquarie Island (a detailed journey from Mary’s diary can be found on the Mary's Miraculous Macquarie Island Expedition map)

Mary departed from Melbourne harbour on 17 December. From the 17th to the 23rd of December Mary, her fellow female scientists and members of the Macquarie expedition team were sailing the 2156 kms to Macquarie through rough Antarctic waters.

DUKWs were used for transporting equipment and personnel between the island and waiting ships. These are vehicles that can be lowered into the water from a ship, can sail on water, and then can be driven onto land.

The landing on Macquarie Island took place on Wednesday 23 December. Mary wasted no time and began inspecting the local wildlife, and greeting the elephant seals and Gentoo penguins, which had no concerns with waddling and lumbering all around the isthmus where the ANARE station is located.

Mary and her colleagues received a very warm welcome from the ANARE station residents. The biology hut, in which Mary and her colleagues would be staying, was newly accessorised with Christmas decorations.

Mary made an extensive description of the livestock the station kept, these animals being kept in order for the islanders to be self sufficient in the provision of food during emergencies. The camp was also frequented by menacing skuas and a few resident feral cats, left from the sealers' camps during the days of industrial exploitation on Macquarie.

The isthmus had a rich array of wildlife to be explored. Elephant seals dozed by the seashore and in the wallows. The elephants rarely moved except for scratching or a very occasional mock battle with other young bull elephant seals. As per her role on the island Mary took notes on the plants growing on Macquarie.

A Rockhopper penguin colony, which was situated very close to the station, attracted Mary’s attention. She describes the Rockhoppers as 'handsome, practically fearless and very aggressive', and their vicious peck managed to get through Mary's thick clothing. The Rockhoppers at this time were hatching eggs, and Mary had quite some trouble trying to photograph the newly hatched chicks due to the determination of the parents to stay by them.

The isthmus also had many Gentoo penguins going about their business, and Mary spent much of the afternoon watching their antics and the unyielding optimism of the young chicks to get food from anything that could move. The Gentoos had little fear and investigated Mary’s presence in their domain. They must have determined her to be of little threat as curiosity took them over, and they would gather around her to get a closer look.

Mary finishes her diary that day, describing Macquarie Island as a fantastic natural zoological garden.


Thursday 24 December saw a trek to North Head, with John Munroe as Mary's guide. They came across an endemic Macquarie Island cormorant colony, this species exhibiting vivid blue eyes. These birds were very tame and did not fear Mary, nor were they very aggressive towards intruders in their company. Mary writes 'so tame were the birds that I could sit among them and stroke them on the nest'. These birds were also breeding and many of the nests contained eggs.

The habitual weather of Macquarie Island, of rain, fog and wind, appeared to be non-existent, as Mary notes having to remove layers because of the 'almost unbearable' heat.

Further north on the island Mary had an encounter with nesting Black-browed albatrosses. She describes them as 'magnificent birds', fearless and they 'budged not an inch' from their nests. The nests contained a 'single fluffy white chick' with an almost ever vigilant parent guarding them. Mary received quite a surprise when, whilst climbing up the steep hill, she came face to face with one of the marvelous birds. Just two feet separated Mary from its formidable-looking weapon of a beak, but they seemed far from aggressive.

Not far from the Black-browed albatross nests Mary found nesting Light-mantled sooty albatrosses, which Mary describes as 'even more handsome than the black brows'.

At North Head was a rookery of mixed Royal and Rockhopper penguins. Mary also spotted a couple of fur seals, a species decimated by the sealing industry. They then returned to the ANARE base 'running the gauntlet of elephant teeth and Rockhopper beaks' along the way.

Mary comments on the activities of the Danish men as they celebrated Christmas Eve with 'much drink, music and song', which Mary gathered went on till about


Friday 25 December
Mary, Susan, Stefan Csordas and John Warham journeyed to Handspike Point on the northwest corner of the main island, although Mary complained that she was not left nearly enough time to make plant notes and was often trailing along behind. 

Mary noted the abundance of rabbits and the damage they'd caused to the native vegetation on the island. The area the group had to cross was a so-called 'featherbed' community where deceptive plants covered deep pools. Mary writes 'A floating turf of peat, moss and mat plants swinging on a substratum of liquid peat and swaying underfoot as one walked'.

This area was recorded as having breeding pairs of Wandering albatrosses present. Mary met a lone Wandering albatross, a male waiting for his mate that had not returned. The bird was somewhat annoyed by the group's presence and waddled away from his primitive nest while they passed and then returned to his nest once they had gotten some distance away. Mary got some close-up pictures of the great bird later whilst he was sleeping; the click of the camera awakened him, but he still sat on. Mary writes 'This I think was the high spot of Xmas day, to be strolling about within 6 feet of the world’s most majestic seabird', 'only at close quarters could one appreciate the magnificence of the snowy white bird'. The Wanderer eventually got tired of the group's attention, it 'stood up and stalked silently off, unhurried and unafraid. His only reaction had been to stretch his neck towards us and click his beak at us in irritation'.

On the way, the group was also set upon by parent skuas defending their chicks from the intruders. However, Mary notes that 'without the incessant calling and dive bombing to within extremely close quarters they might not have known where to look for the chicks'. She writes that 'the chicks just froze wherever they happened to be when they heard their parents warning'. The skuas were unafraid of humans; when the group stopped to photograph the chicks the adults settled within a few feet of them, their wings often raised and their open beak pointing skywards, a typical skua attitude. Mary reports that despite the skuas general impertinence, they were singularly stupid birds that could be chased away by poultry or would get themselves stuck in the hen house.

Mary and the group relaxed at Handspike Point, 'mists lifted and the sun shone from a blue sky'. On their return Mary lingered, continuing to make notes on the vegetation and the activities of Gentoos in the area. She puzzled over the high proportion of chicks in the groups, despite the absence of nests, during which time Mary lost sight of the rest of the group and had to make her way back alone. The featherbed plant community was deceptive, with treacherous deep pools hidden between innocent tussocks. Mary uses her botanical knowledge to aim for dry-place plants, though a Stilbocarpa let her down by concealing a deep pool. Eventually Mary plunged down through a wallow and travelled the last part of the journey along the mist-shrouded shore and back into the station.

The Christmas Day festivities were underway in the recreation room. The company was congratulated for their fine morale and the smooth running of change-over operations. She writes that there were many excellent comments regarding the inclusion of women in the party, and 'all and sundry seemed to think it a good idea'. Captain Hans Christian Petersen later gave out a random selection of Christmas presents to the group; Mary received a Royal Holland china saucer. The Captain commented that 'they couldn’t possibly have foreseen that there might be ladies present so if we got a pipe or something equally masculine perhaps we would swap it with a man'.

Mary and her female colleagues left the Christmas festivities in the recreation room. Hope and Isobel went off down the east coast to the Nuggets Penguin rookery. Mary and Susan 'went off to drowse in Garden Cove and reminisce on other Xmases in the Northern hemisphere'. However, the two later felt more energetic and examined the Rockhopper flipper bands to see how much wear and tear was being caused to the feathers of the body and flipper front where they rubbed. The two then took a leisurely stroll back around North Head in search of Sooty albatrosses, though they later returned to the camp for Christmas dinner.

The celebrations continued, and Mary and Susan, later joined by Hope and Isobel, were treated to a hearty Christmas meal. She writes 'A novel Xmas tea, such as I had not experienced before and was not likely to experience again. A Christmas to remember'.


Saturday 26 December 
Mary, accompanied by Chad Perry made the 3-and-a-half mile trek southwards down the island to Nuggets Point. Mary met with groups of King penguins along the way, many of which were moulting and 'looking exceedingly scruffy'. The Kings bred only in Lusitania Bay in the south, the isthmus colony having been destroyed by sealers. Mary describes the Kings as the 'handsomest and largest of the penguins', they were 'very tame if approached circumspectly and bore themselves with the dignity appropriate of Kings'.

However, Mary writes that the biggest sight of the day was the Royal penguin colony. There were many thousands of birds at Nuggets Point, and she describes the sight as 'taking one's breath away'. Mary describes the Royals as 'the tamest of any seen. It was quite easy to stroke their feathers or shake them by the hand as they regarded one with interest but never attempted to peck as did the more aggressive but otherwise similar Rockhoppers'.

They 'marched through the seething millions', to a point where the penguins took a path inland to their rookeries. Mary comments on the Royals' comic behaviour of keeping the two-way traffic streams to the left in a very orderly manner. The Royals had to travel a couple of miles from the beaches to their rookeries every time they went to feed their chick. Mary and Chad felt that a humane innovation for the birds would be to build an escalator system. Mary writes about her sympathy for the Royals, birds which were very agile in the sea but clumsy on land and 'yet doomed to use so many calories from their hard won fish and squids to achieve constant passages across it'.

The pair edged their way up the side of the stream of Royal penguins, 'keeping to the left, to limit as far as possible the panic caused'. 'To stampede birds in the wrong direction seemed more than heartless when distances were so great at the best'.

The pair edged their way up the side of the stream of Royal penguins, 'keeping to the left, to limit as far as possible the panic caused'. 'To stampede birds in the wrong direction seemed more than heartless when distances were so great at the best'.

The rookery had many groups of small and half grown chicks huddled together, about 6-12 at a time apparently in the charge of a nursemaid although populations were so dense that they found it difficult to separate one group from another.

The returning adults were able to recognise their own chick among the hundreds before delivering up food. The noise of the rookery was absolute bedlam and one could scarcely hear oneself think. Mary notes that almost all the vegetation had been destroyed and any barely remaining tussocks supported one or more penguins isolated above the crowd.

This day was also 'a blazingly hot day'. The penguins were panting in the unaccustomed heat, 'the sky remained cloudless from dawn to dusk and the eternal Macquarie mist seemed lost in eternity'.

Mary and Chad returned to the beaches and admired the tolerance of the wildlife to share their space, 'Kings, Royals and elephants mingled in unorganised profusion'.

Mary lay and watched the antics of the adults and juveniles. After the pair had settled among the mob, the birds gathered round 'pecking inquisitively at the soles of my boots and later at portions of my clothing. So unafraid were they that some went to sleep within reach of my hand'. The most entertaining behaviour for Mary was the adult penguins playing in the water; some were porpoising, and others were having fun getting swept away by the waves and purposefully getting themselves tangled in bull kelp.

Mary had a philosophical revelation regarding the intelligence of penguins. She writes 'their attitude of “room for all, human or otherwise” must stem from the innate sociability which must be a major attribute of birds living in such vast communities. It was a pleasing thought that man, who had once slaughtered them in large numbers, was now acceptable and practically ignored as “just another individual”.'

'In the face of such anthropomorphism one pushed to the back of one’s mind all that one had heard of the stupidity of this exceedingly primitive bird. On what standards are we to judge stupidity?'

The pair eventually began to trek the miles back to the camp; this was the last full day of adventures for Mary on Macquarie, which she here describes as 'this magic sub-Antarctic isle'.


Sunday 27 December
The day dawned drizzly and misty. The brief spell of sun and blue skies on Macquarie was over, the previous few days tropical enchantment had now returned back to its habitual grey.

At midday, the old and the new Macquaryites gathered in the recreation room for the official change over. 

Mary spent her last few hours on Macquarie island on the isthmus making her final notes on wildlife and collecting some plant specimens to take back to Australia. After dinner, Mary and Susan strolled along the beaches and met the DUKW at the landing point.

Mary, along with Susan, Isobel and Hope, reboarded the Thala dan and made the return trip back to Australia, a further six days of sailing from 27 December 1959 to 1 January 1960, the seas being mostly calm for their return journey.

On the 31st, there was much celebration on the Thala dan. New Year’s Eve dinner was a 'riotous affair' and later, whilst Mary was relaxing in her cabin, she writes that her presence was requested by the merry crew members during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Eventually they managed to slip away and experienced their 'last night in bunks which didn’t send one ricocheting around like a pendulum all night'.

The ship docked at 8am, and the group was welcomed by a summery crowd at the quay. 'Television cameras whirred and press photographers darted hither and thither making the most of their opportunities.'

'It was not long before they got around to us and we certainly stole the thunder from the men in all the local newspapers.' Below is an article from The Age, printed 2 January 1960, about the women’s trip to Macquarie.




The Age’s report on Mary’s ANARE trip, published 2 January 1960.

A Christmas card sent from Hope MacPherson to Mary


Mary also gave an interview with the BBC in 1961 about her journey to Macquarie, see the transcript of the interview here.

In subsequent years, Isobel Bennett and Hope MacPherson returned to Macquarie to conduct further research.

Hope (Black) MacPherson also took many photos of her first and subsequent visits on Macquarie Island. These can be found here along with many other of her photo collections.


Macquarie After Mary

In 1971, the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service came into being and, as a result of this, Macquarie Island became designated a conservation area.

In 1972, the island’s designation was upgraded to State Reserve under the Tasmanian 'National Parks and Wildlife Act' of 1970 and, in 1978, it became the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve.

From 1997 until its withdrawal in 2011, Macquarie Island held status as a 'biosphere reserve' under the 'Man and the Biosphere Programme'.

Macquarie Island was granted World Heritage status in 1998.

One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded (measuring 8.1 on the Richter Scale) hit Macquarie on 23 December 2004. Despite the magnitude of this quake (which 'rocked the island to its roots'), it caused very little damage. This event took place exactly forty-five years to the day after Mary Gillham first set foot on the island.

Check out an interactive timeline of Macquarie’s history

From the very start of man’s arrival on Macquarie, rats and mice, inadvertently brought by their ships, prospered and multiplied due to the lack of predators. As a consequence, cats were introduced in an attempt to prevent those rodents from eating the humans’ food stores.

Around 1870, both rabbits and wekas were brought to the island by sealers who intended that the creatures would breed and thus provide them with a ready supply of fresh meat. And breed they did. In fact, one might say, they bred like rabbits, doing so with such success that, by the time a century had passed, in 1970 there were estimated to be more than 130,000 of them on the island!

Feral cats introduced to the island had such a devastating effect on Macquarie’s population of seabirds that they made an estimated 60,000 kills per annum!

Between 1985 and mid 2000, therefore, a programme was undertaken in an effort to save the seabirds from their feline predators, and this was ultimately successful, with the last of approximately 2500 of them being culled by June of the programme’s fifteen-year span. Consequently, the seabird population soared (pun intended) but widespread environmental damage still continued to be caused by wekas, mice, rats and rabbits.

As might be expected, with the culling of the cats, rabbit numbers multiplied rapidly but were reduced to c.10,000 when myxomatosis was introduced in the early 1980s, though, by 2006, the population had again grown to more than 100,000, with their nibbling of the grass layer leading to the soil erosion and cliff collapses that destroy seabird nests, as they did in September 2006 when a large landslip at Luisitania Bay also destroyed a significant part of the breeding ground of an important penguin breeding colony.

On 4 June 2007, the Australian federal government announced that it and the Tasmanian state government were to jointly fund the eradication of rodent and weka pests on Macquarie. This project, estimated to cost $A24,000,000, was to be based on initially mass-baiting the island, with this to be followed by the use of dogs for hunting remaining pests.

Despite a temporary suspension of the programme due to the unexpectedly high levels of bird deaths caused by the baiting, it was reported in February 2012 that wekas had been, and that rabbits, rats and mice had almost been eradicated from the island, hopefully enabling the restoration of the island's unique natural balance.

On 8 April 2014, Macquarie Island was declared officially to be 'pest-free', this coming after some seven years of concerted conservation efforts, and with its achievement making it the largest successful island pest-eradication programme ever attempted anywhere in the world.

In September 2016, the Australian Antarctic Division confirmed it was to close its Macquarie research station in 2017 but the Australian government responded swiftly to this (and to widespread protest from the Australian people) by announcing that it would make available funding that would enable the upgrading of existing infrastructure and allow the continuation of operations on the island.


Inspiring Antarctic Women

In the field of Antarctic and polar research, women like Mary and her fellow female expedition members provided inspirational role models for women hoping to follow in their footsteps. In subsequent years, Isobel Bennett returned three times to Macquarie to conduct further research but it wasn’t until the 1970s that women spent more than a couple of weeks on the island: medical practitioner Zoe Gardner was the first to spend a year there in 1976.

Nowadays, women polar scientists regularly join expeditions in the Antarctic region and frequently over-winter on Macquarie Island and at the various research stations on the continent, though their presence can still surprise. As Jaimie Cleeland wrote at the end of her recent stint on the island, older visiting tourists are still ‘astonished to see so many women working on the island’.

The list of women who have been on Antarctic expeditions is long and impressive, these achievements being more widely spread by the making of a Wikibomb, created by female scientists who wanted to increase recognition for women in the Antarctic and in polar science.

For an ‘on-site’ summary of life in the Antarctic, with muses on the experiences of females en route in today’s ‘enlightened’ times, check out the Eat Sleep Freeze Repeat’s blog: Girl Power in Antarctica.

Mary Gillham and Isobel Bennett in Sydney in 1989, 29 years after their first expedition to Macquarie Island


A Modern Macquarie Island

(Macquarie Island Isthmus By Hullwarren - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The island, including the waters surrounding the island, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997 on the basis of its outstanding natural values. The island’s prolific plants and wildlife are a research paradise for botanists and biologists alike.

Macquarie continues to be an island brimming with unknowns at the edge of the world. A documentary by marine biologist Dean Miller, documenting his visit to Macquarie, can be found here: Edge of Nowhere. From this documentary, made in 2012, it can be seen that Macquarie is still a very familiar landscape 53 years later. The environment and the common wildlife are virtually identical to those Mary found, though there are some noticeable differences, especially concerning the rise of fur seal populations and the obvious presence of permanent female residents on the island, a Miss Tessa being his guide during a trek down the Hurd Point. This is quite a reversal of roles compared to Mary’s trip.

The modern day Macquarie has much more advanced technology, greater environmental protection, and the normalisation of all people to travel to the island.

A live stream from Macquarie station can be found here.


Other pages to explore:

Macquarie Island's remarkable environment.
The Fauna and Flora of Macquarie Island in December 1959Mary’s scientific purpose on Macquarie was to investigate vegetation on the island; see Mary’s lists of flora and fauna, along with her illustrations of the plants and animals on the island.
The Exploration of Macquarie IslandThe Australian-Briton Frederick Hasselborough "discovered" the uninhabited island accidentally on 11 July 1810 when looking for new sealing grounds. He claimed Macquarie Island for Britain and annexed it to the colony of New South Wales in 1810, and it was subsequently named after the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie. 
A Brief History of Exploitation of Macquarie Island:From almost the very beginning of mankind’s known relationship with Macquarie Island (i.e. from the early part of the 19th century), that relationship was, on mankind’s side at any rate, one of a systematic and prolonged exploitation of the island’s natural resources with little, if any, regard for its future well-being. 

Reference material and further reading: