Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island scene, 1911 (AOT, PH30/1/5639)

Macquarie Island was accidentally discovered in 1810 by Frederick Hasselburg, who recorded an earlier shipwreck. His discovery precipitated a rush for fur seal skins (193,000 in the first decade virtually exterminated the species) and elephant seal oil (8400 tonnes taken in approximately equal intervals, 181029 and 18751919). The earlier period was dominated by vessels from New South Wales, and the later by interests of the entrepreneurial Joseph Hatch of Invercargill, New Zealand.

In 1880 the island was included in Letters Patent establishing the office of Governor of Tasmania, but most early exploitation and scientific interest was by New Zealand, whose government attempted, unsuccessfully, to annex the island in 188990 through a request to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Annexation was agreed but when reminded of the existing status, Lord Knutsford rescinded the annexation and Macquarie Island remains Tasmanian.

Macquarie Island has attracted numerous famous transitting Antarctic adventurers including Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, Charles Wilkes, Robert F Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Douglas Mawson. The Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) established a continuously occupied year-round research station on the island in 1947 and it has been the subject of diverse scientific studies since. It remains an important observatory site.

On Douglas Mawson's persistence, the island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. In 1977, it was declared a Biosphere Reserve in the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme and, in 1997, was inscribed on the World Heritage List because of its unique uplifted 9 million-year-old ocean sea-floor. Many alien species have been introduced but most could not survive. Recent attempts have reduced dramatically the rabbit and cat populations and the native biota is recovering.

Further reading: M Banks & S Smith (eds), 'Papers presented at the Macquarie Island symposium', PPRST 122/1, 1987; JS Cumpston, Macquarie Island, Melbourne, 1968; P Selkirk et al, Subantarctic Macquarie Island, Cambridge, 1990.

Patrick Quilty