Mary’s Last Full Day on Maquarie Island

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…

The following are extracts from Mary’s diary for her party’s fourth and final full day on Macquarie this being one on which she waxes lyrical over Macquarie’s penguins and its weather and philosophises on great matters.

Saturday, 26th December 1959:

“John Warham, Susan & I had decided to go down the coast to the Nuggets about 3.5 miles. Each way today but the other 2 decided to go to the West coast so I had Chad Perry (New Guinea via Q.A. boy scout) as my companion instead.

 … we set off down the coast, over rocks & across the foot of gravel slides & tussock slopes. Sea elephants were strewn thickly on the beaches & we met several parties of king penguins.

 Until today I had seen only 1 bird, which march solemnly up the path to the camp past Ken Campbell & I on the first morning. Today we saw about 12 groups each of circa 12 birds. There were no chicks but many were moulting & looking exceedingly scruffy. Others were spruce as only a penguin can be, the golden patches on the cheeks paler in the juvenile birds.


 Kings bred only in Lusitania Bay in the S., the isthmus colony having been destroyed by sealers. Eggs were laid Nov. to Jan. & hatched Jan. – Mar. the parents feeding the young till the following summer & breeding only in alternate years. These handsomest & largest of the penguins were very tame if approached circumspectly & bore themselves with the dignity appropriate to kings.

But the big sight of the day was the royal penguins  –  the sight of many thousands of them on the beach as I rounded Nuggets Point taking ones breath away.. I was reminiscent of Margate beach on a bank holiday, the sand packed to capacity with bodies & the margin of the sea almost equally full of bathers being tumbled around by the surf. 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. We marched through the seething millions and made our way …… to the first of several rookeries which were planted in clearings on the hillside. It was unbelievably comic the way there were 2 traffic streams, & the way the 2 streams kept to the left. Only locally after minor disturbances, did the 2 streams get temporarily mixed, but they usually sorted themselves out again. Presumably it was easier for birds going in 1 direction to follow each other rather than run the gauntlet of peckings & sparrings of birds moving the opposite way, but we could think of no reason why the streams should keep to the left.

Many of the unfortunate birds had to travel as much as 2 miles to the rookery to feed their chicks. …… They scrabbled their way up rocks, often sliding back down again, and skated down the further sides till the rocks were polished &a grooved with the passing of myriads of clawed feet over the centuries. The old sealers had had a camp rt. at the mouth of this stream & had exploited the royals when the kings had ceased to be profitable. But even they, with their ruthless boiling down of the friendly feathered creatures, had failed to make any lasting impression on the hordes. And this was not the largest rookery  –  the one we had viewed from the boat at Hurd Point Covered 16 and a half acres & numbered about half million breeding birds.

In the rookery we found groups of small & half grown chicks huddled together, about 6-12 birds at a time apparently in the charge of a nursemaid although populations were so dense that it was difficult to separate one group from another. Apparently the returning adults could do not only this but recognise their own chick as well before delivering up the food.

The noise of the rookery was bedlam & one could scarcely here oneself think. All vegetation but a few marginal tussocks had been destroyed & most of these were in a fairly bad way & supported one or more penguins resting in slight isolation from the mob. Some of these were asleep, head tucked under the flipper, others were standing with 1 or both flippers outstretched as though directing the traffic.

It was a blazingly hot day, & that is no extravagance, although the screen thermometer registered only 49F this was a very long way off the sun temperature. We shed as many garments as possible, rolled our sleeves up, applied a generous layer of sun tan oil & lay back across the tops of conveniently placed marginal tussocks to eat our lunch. Below us the penguins panted & gasped with the unaccustomed heat & back at the settlement the ‘boys’ envied us the opportunity to wander round on this rarest of all days  –  a day when the sky remained cloudless from dawn to dusk & the eternal Macquarie mist seemed lost in eternity.

After lunch we retraced our steps to the beach, not having the courage of the penguins to follow the much-used highway on uphill to the 2 inner rookeries. On along the beach where kings, royals & elephants mingled in unorganised profusion & so to the further end of the mob.

Here I lay near the water’s edge to get to know adults & juveniles at play, as opposed to those at work & on their way to the rookeries. Chad went on along the beach for a spell. As soon as I had settled the birds gathered round pecking inquisitively at the soles of my boots & later at portions of my clothing. So unafraid were they that some went to sleep within reach of my hand.

There were sparring incidents when one bird, startled by another’s peck, would scuttle off & shower a stream of pebbles over me. Some got engaged in momentary fights, others were preening each other, yet others picked up a pebble & stood with it wondering what to do next. I threw a ball of paper at one and it picked it up and dropped it innumerable times before it finally lost interest.

 …… most entertaining were those in the water. Some were porpoising just offshore between 2 spurs of rock, some sitting on the surface or being swept on & off rocks by the surf. The bull kelp got the hopelessly entangled as it swung in & out in great cloying sweeps with each wave. No penguin could stand against it & they were bowled over & over, often disappearing beneath the overlapping fronds only to bob up again like corks perhaps with a frond trailing scarf-like round their neck. Before they had time to recover the next wave hit them & the fun began all over again. And one can only assume that it was fun from their point of view as, even after breaking free, they usually went back for more. There were, of course, the inevitable sea elephants billowing round among them & adding to the kaleidoscope of colour & interest.

Two sea elephants with the Thala Dan in the background

 I was fascinated by the back-turned, pale pink papillae on the roof of the mouth & upper surface of the tongue & decided that this must provide a much more efficient mechanism for holding fish that the serrated beak of the puffin. Tho’ the penguin did not retain its prey in its mouth as the puffin did so a less efficient mechanism was called for. I decided that 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 nos, 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?

 One could have lain for hours in the warm sunshine watching the gambolling mob but we had 3 1/2 miles of rough going between us & the camp so we turned homewards to the end of the last full day’s adventures on this magic subantarctic isle.”

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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