Homeward bound

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…

Three days of entries from Mary’s diary:

Monday 28th Dec 1959:

A calm sea, an unheard of easterly in the westerly belt flattening the usual swell. The captain said it must be due to the women on board but, whatever the cause, one of the effects was that we had few bird followers. It was likely that the albatrosses had not yet sighted us thro’ the thick fog but, in any case, birds which sail on the wings of the wind cannot be expected to be so numerous when the wings of the wind are folded.

A few black-browed albatrosses appeared later in the day but there was little else.

 Tuesday 29th Dec 1959:

Still amazingly calm & mild & once again we spent a considerable part of the day sitting on the deck reading. There were a few wandering albatrosses and mutton birds about today and several times the sun managed to struggle through the mist.


Saw one of the tall-masted yachts engaged in the Sydney – Hobart sailing race  –  the only vessel sighted since we left the heads a fortnight before.

We had Captain Hans. Chris. Pat. and the two O.I.Cs. into sherry before dinner and after dinner attended an unsubtitled Danish peasant film and amused ourselves trying to work out the plot.

 Wednesday 30th Dec 1959:

Another calm untroubled day of reading on deck and writing in the cabin when driven below by drizzle. The radio brought the news that a hurricane at Mawson had destroyed the two aircraft there so the two which were to go on the Magga Dan to Wilkes to do some coastal exploration would now have to be diverted to Mawson to replace them.

If, as you’ve read your way through Mary Gillham’s diary entries for her time on Macquarie Island, you’ve noticed her frequent references to Prions”, “Stinkers” and “Wekas” and wondered what on earth these are then wonder no longer.

A prion is a small petrel sometimes known (for whatever reason) as a “whalebird”. It “hydroplanes” for food, skimming the surface of the water with its bill in the water.

Stinker” is the name given to the giant petrel.

Wekas are flightless birds of the rail family and are endemic to New Zealand. They are sturdy, brown birds (about the size of a chicken) and are omnivores. Wekas were introduced to Macquarie Island by sealers in the 19th.century and were eradicated there under the same programme that rid the island of feral cats.

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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