If you visit Macquarie Island, you’ll be hard put to not find yourself surrounded by Royal Penguins. Well, that’s probably one of the main reasons why you would visit anyway!
The Royal Penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) are endemic to only Macquarie Island, where they are the most common penguin species. Part of the ‘crested penguin’ group, they apparently are related fairly closely to the Macaroni Penguins, which differ in having black faces. They spend most of their lives at sea, but breed in huge colonies at Nuggets Point, Sandy Bay, Hurd Point and Bauer Bay, plus smaller ones wherever there is space! Sometimes these colonies can be quite a way inland and involve the nesting penguins scrambling up creeks or hillsides.
Two eggs are laid in September and the chicks are ready to go to sea by about new year. How the penguins manage to find and identify each other in these crowded, noisy and smelly colonies is beyond me!
Royals are the most ‘outgoing’ of Macquarie Island’s penguins. Although they often squabble among themselves, they seem driven by endless curiousity and can be quite comical in their behaviour. Tourists (see later tip) are just something new to learn about! I’ve also added a ‘Travelogue’ about a particular Royal Penguin to my home page… :-)
Main photo: Royal Penguin – too close for comfort, I thought it was about to peck the lens!
Second photo: Two Royals, hopping across degraded tussocks
Third photo: Royal and two rapidly growing chicks close behind.
Not quite as large as the Emperor Penguin, to which they are closely related, for my money the King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) qualify as the most visually impressive penguins. What they give away in size to the Emperors, the Kings make up for with more highly saturated and defined colours in their markings. So, if you’re a penguin enthusiast and unable to join the few to get deep enough into the Antarctic to see Emperors, all is far from lost! King penguins are found on all the sub-Antarctic islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula.
The breeding cycle of Kings is an extended process, so at any time you will find both chicks and adults in the colony. By the time the chicks have their adult plumage they are almost adult sized.
King penguins form quite large colonies at Macquarie Island, the main one being at Lusitania Bay (see separate tip), but smaller colonies are found on several beaches, including at Sandy Bay. Tourists are able to land at Sandy Bay, where most of these photos were taken, and also are able to see Kings in the station area (though they do not breed there). You will find the Kings inquisitive, but not as much so as the Royals, and with a degree of dignity the Royals sadly lack!
Main photo: As I was saying about colours!
Second photo: King penguins near the station
Third photo: Penguins lean aside for the Marina Svetaeva!
Third photo: It’s hard to believe those strange brown creatures mature into King penguins!
Apart from the immediate station area, the Tasmanian Parks Department, which now administers Macquarie Island, allows visitors only to visit Sandy Bay, where there is a colony of King Penguins and a colony of Royal Penguins (plus assorted other penguins and seals). Fortunately this gives the chance for close views of the main forms of penguins on the island. There is a walkway to the Royal Penguin colony, which avoids any chance of disturbing the penguins and also is somewhat cleaner than using the small stream the penguins use as their access.
Update In 2007, it was reported that rabbits have undermined the staircase from the beach to the walkway to such an extent that there has been a landslip and the walkway is no longer usable - which means the penguin colony is considered 'out of reach' to tourists at present.
These gulls are common around the coasts of the island. If there is a dead seal or penguin, they are soon there, but may be pushed aside because they are lower down the 'pecking order' than the larger and more dominant Giant Petrels and Sub-Antarctic Skua Gulls. Dominican Gulls also are known (depending on where you come from, and your bird guide book) as Black Backed Gulls or Kelp Gulls - at least scientifically they always are Larus dominicanus.
The second photo shows a group of Dominican gulls on a beach - note the young one, looking almost like a skua with its mottled brown plumage.
These gulls are also found around the southern coasts of Australia, New Zealand, and the Auckland and Campbell Islands.
Elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) have a circumpolar distribution, mainly on the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-antarctic islands, though they sometimes visit the coastline of greater Antarctica. (They are a different species from the Northern Elephant Seal, of the north Pacific ocean.) In earlier times, they were often known as Sea Elephants – though the only similarity to land elephants is that the large males develop a large hanging snout.
When Macquarie Island was found in the early 1800s, after killing the fur seal population, the attention of sealers turned to the elephant seals for their blubber, which made oil. Despite the predations of the sealers in the 1800s, elephant seals now are found in considerable numbers around the coastline.
Almost from weaning, young elephant seal bull calves practice fighting, which consists of rearing up and smashing into each other: they will need those skills later! Mature bulls, which can be up to 5M length and 5 tonnes, arrive first in the calving and mating season and take over beach areas. Later, as females land, the bulls herd them into harems. Huge battles ensue between harem owners (known as Beachmasters) and bulls who see themselves as ‘better qualified’! These battles can last for long periods and the bulls rake their teeth across each other, drawing copious amounts of blood and often fraying those long snouts.
While very young, the seal pups are high on the ‘cuteness’ scale, with large limpid eyes. As they age, the seals become progressively less appealing, moulting and typically lying around in foetid wallows.
Main photo: Beachmaster, early in the season, with a cow behind (1968)
Second photo: Isn’t he cute? Elephant seal pup
Third photo: Not so cute – moulting yearling
Fourth photo: Young bulls practicing fighting, 1968
Fifth photo: Elephant seal wallow in rotting kelp, 1968.
The skuas seen at Macquarie Island are Sub-Antarctic Skuas, also known as Southern or Great Skuas. Scientifically they are Stercorarius skua. These are are slightly larger and darker than those in the Antarctic, though otherwise very similar. It is interesting to be walking along the plateau on Macquarie Island, alone and far from anywhere, with not another living thing in sight, then to realise there is a skua hovering in the wind just above and behind you as you walk. Even more interesting to think, at that stage, that it simply is waiting for you to fall over and die, so it first can pick out your eyes, then .....
They are common around the island, usually looking for an unguarded penguin chick, or for carrion. All this may seem unglamorous, but it is very necessary as part of "nature's housekeeping" - imagine what it would be like if dead seals and penguins were to accumulate! The second and third photos were taken at the station in 1968.
As do most sub-Antarctic islands, Macquarie Island has its own species of cormorants. They are commonly seen around the coast resting on rocks. Their flying abilities are not great and they have been seen flying backward in strong winds! Obviously they must have better aquatic abilities to survive.
The second photo, taken in 1968, shows an inquisitive group of cormorants on one of the island's stony pebble beaches.
You can be sure that you'll be made welcome by the people living there (see restaurants tip).
All the 'new' buildings are clad in rather dull looking treated pine. The climate is constantly moist and the air salty, so exposed untreated timber or metal needs ongoing maintenance and painting. The treated pine is a good solution to the maintenance problem.
The 'old' nissen huts, dating back over 50 years, and the original accommodation block (known in ANARE parlance as 'the dongas') apparently have been heritage listed. I do not know whether that has anything to do with them no longer being maintained, but shamefully that is the case - they are being allowed to simply rot away: the Australian Antarctic Division must be aware, so presumably is a matter of Government policy. See the old buildings while you can.
In early 2006, the Australian Antarctic Division announced that it proposed to close its operations at Macquarie Island, probably from 2007. That is likely to leave only a small group from the Weather Office and Tasmanian Parks.
As a tourist, you are not allowed to land at the main King Penguin colony, which spreads along the shore for several kilometres at Lusitania Bay. But you are allowed to cruise alongside the shore, only a metre or so from the beach, looking at the many hundreds of thousands of penguins.
In the middle of the colony you will see the rusting remains of old penguin digesters. Believe it or not, until stopped by public pressure early in the 20th century, the penguins were melted down for their fats. Times have indeed changed, when merely walking among them is forbidden!
Macquarie Island is surrounded by vast fields of thick bull kelp, anchored to rocks in the ocean (often at depths of over 20 metres) and waving slowly in the waves. It is impressive to view, but also is something of a hazard for the propellors of zodiacs and small boats.
This boxy looking building is just that: it started life as an aircraft engine packing crate in the early 1950s! The ANARE expeditions needed inexpensive field huts, so several of these were used as field huts around Macquarie Island, with a few simple add-ons such as windows and bunk beds. They are now heritage listed (otherwise they may have been scrapped, as has happened to the huts formerly on the plateau), but as with the 'old' station buildings it seems they are no longer being maintained. There is another at Lusitania Bay. See these pieces of history while you can.
Alongside the huts at the station, you can see some 'trypots', old cauldrons used in the 1800s to boil down elephant seals for their blubber. By the late 1800s, elephant seal numbers had dropped to the stage where an industry could not be sustained: at that stage, the animal oil industry's attention turned to penguins.
Here you will see the large radome for satellite communications to the world, the old ship's anchor (from one of the sealing ships lost in the 1800s), various penguins and seals. There are several commemorative plaques near the anchor. If you walk around the coast to the west, you also will see an old penguin digester.
The eco-tourism rule is that tourists must not approach closer than 5 metres to wildlife. But nobody has told the penguins, which don't understand metres in any case!
Adult penguins have no land-based predators to fear (seabirds can be a problem for chicks). So their natural curiousity takes over. Just stay still and they'll come right up and investigate you.