At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. The likelihood of females joining future research trips would depend on the success of these ground-breaking women. We’re retelling Mary’s tale and talking more about Macquarie Island where this was all to take place…

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.

After more than a century or more of this abuse of the island’s ecology and despite the fact that much has been done in more recent  –  and more enlightened times  –  to combat that abuse, best estimates insist that total recovery of Macquarie Island’s natural ecosystem processes as a result of these management programmes may still take centuries.

Man gave Macquarie: rabbits, feral cats, wekas, rats and mice (these latter two inadvertently, it must be said, as they escaped from sealing and other ships over many decades) and unwanted “rubbish” of various types (see below).

In return, man took from the island the lives of sea creatures and birds in their countless thousands!

Derelict boilers abandoned by the sealers stand as a grim memorial to the past

The uninhabited Macquarie Islands were ‘discovered’ (accidentally) by Sydney sealer Frederick Hasselborough on 11 July 1810 while he was searching for new sealing grounds – though, from his recording of seeing a wreck “of ancient design” on the island, he may well have been preceded by Polynesian or earlier visitors. Hasselborough claimed Macquarie Island for Britain and annexed it to the colony New South Wales.

The immediate commercial response to Hasselburgh’s discovery was so effective and devastating that during the first 18 months of operations at least 120,000 fur seals were killed for their skins. Barely a decade later Macquarie’s fur seal population was almost wiped out! Indeed, despite the fact that this happened nearly two hundred years ago, so few animals survived that even today we can not be sure of the species of fur seal involved.

The near eradication of the fur seal population left insufficient of these animals alive to support the skin industry. This being the case (and man being ever resourceful), the focus of commercial activity  switched to elephant seals whose blubber contained oil that had wide-spread commercial use. However, exploitation was such that by the mid-1840s the number of elephant seal population of Macquarie had been reduced by 70 percent.

Exploitation of the island’s natural resources then turned to its penguin population: a population that was, to say the least, prolific.

Although not as valuable as seal oil, penguin oil was relatively easy to obtain. Therefore when the king penguin colony at Lusitania Bay was almost wiped out from the activity, attention turned to other penguins; the royal penguins at The Nuggets.

Each of these penguins were capable of producing around half a litre of oil, and at the peak of industry activity in 1905, around 2000 birds were being processed at one time at The Nuggets.

Hunting of animals for their oil continued off and on until well into the 20th. Century but in 1933 licences for further hunting were terminated and the island, now a part of Tasmania, proclaimed a wildlife sanctuary.

Despite the end of hunting, man continued to have an unplanned but extremely negative effect on the island ecosystem because of (as is mentioned above) the rabbits and cats that had been deliberately introduced by sealers (the former in the 1870s to provide the human inhabitants with fresh meat) and because of the rats and mice that had escaped from ships calling at Macquarie.

These creatures by turn, ate vegetation (Mary Gillham writes, “Macquarie is the World’s most southerly oceanic island to bear a fairly complete plant cover, but even this does not escape rabbit damage”), eggs and young birds and, in the case of the rabbits, undermined areas of land so badly that many collapsed into the sea.

Look out for future posts for more on the “pest” issue and man’s efforts to combat it.

Read on tomorrow!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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