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Special Report: Heard and McDonald Islands

This is our third significant destination and what was potentially going to be our most difficult task.

Heard Island is not Antarctica - it is classified as a subantarctic island but it is south of the Antarctic Convergence making it somewhat different from Macquarie Island. It is also somewhat lumpier.

Heard Island together with the adjoining McDonald Islands is an External Territory of Australia and has been legally since the late 1940s. The Territory is composed a remote group of islands lying close together in the southern Indian Ocean around 53 degrees 05 South, 73 degrees 30 East. The group lays in a remote and stormy part of the globe, near the conspicuous meeting point of Antarctic and temperate ocean waters. The islands were unknown until the 19th century and lie about 1500 kilometres north of Antarctica and 4000 kilometres south west of Australia.

Heard Island with an area of 368 square kilometres is the principal island - its major physical feature is Big Ben, whose summit, Mawson Peak, is 2745 metres above sea level. Big Ben is an intermittently active volcano with a roughly circular base some 20 kilometres in diameter which dominates the shape of the island. Its thick mantle of snow and glacial ice contrasts with black volcanic rocks in a startling array of forms and shapes. At the north east of the island is Laurens Peninsula, a subsidiary volcanic cone, the highest point of which is Anzac Peak at 715 metres. The remaining areas are mainly coastal flats at the western and eastern ends of the island and along a number of northern beaches. Over 80 percent of the island is covered by glacial ice. Coastal ice cliffs and exposed high energy rocky beaches around the island make access from the sea difficult and hazardous.

McDonald Island - with an area of about one square kilometre is the major island of the McDonalds group, lying about 43 kilometres west of Heard Island. The McDonalds group also includes Flat island and Meyer Rock - like Heard Island, these islands have cliff-lined coasts and rocky shoals which make access from the sea almost impossible. The highest point of McDonald Island is about 230 metres above sea level.

The Heard and McDonald Islands are on the submarine Kerguelen Plateau which rises roughly 3700 metres above the adjacent deep sea floor. They and the French Kerguelen Islands, about 500 kilometres to the north east, are the only exposed parts of the Plateau.

The Islands’ remoteness from major population centres and shipping routes, their inaccessibility and the harsh climatic conditions have served to keep their flora and fauna unaffected by introduced species and by human activity. The land is a striking monochrome - black rock and sand, white snow and ice, leaden grey seas and skies. When the sun does appear the islands light up in the clear air to a rare brilliance, verdant vegetation and multi coloured bird colonies in sharp relief against the dazzling white of the snow and ice and the grey black of volcanic rock. The elements - hurricane force winds, driving rain, vast amounts of snow, dense clouds and fogs - conspire with the land forms to create a world of high drama and savage beauty. The driving westerly winds above the Southern Ocean in these latitudes create unique weather patterns when they come up against the enormous bulk of Big Ben, including spectacular cloud formations (a lenticular cloud is particularly dramatic) around the summit and unbelievably rapid changes in winds, cloud cover and precipitation.

Historically the area was important for sealing and whaling - but in more recent times this has given way to research as the main human activity. It has a low level of tourism and recreational activity. The Islands were listed on the Register of the National Estate in 1983 and inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997.

The discovery of the Island was officially reported by Captain John Heard an American Sailing Captain in 1853 and while he is now acknowledged as the island’s discoverer there is a suggestion that a British sealer Peter Kemp may have incorporated knowledge of the island in his 1833 chart. The first recorded sealing expedition was in 1855 and the island became the focus of a major sealing industry until 1929. There are numerous stories of ships wrecked in the area, marooned sealers and horror stories of survival. There are many visible relics of the sealing era - barrel staves, trypots, graves, hut footings and ruins, flensing platforms and so on.

An ANARE station was set up on the island in December 1947 and ran continuously till it was shut in 1955. In the years since Australian expeditions have made occasional summer revisits, but also had an overwintering party there in 1992. A US Geodetic Survey expedition was also on the island in 1969 and a French expedition in 1971. There have now been three ascents of Big Ben, the first in 1965. There are many relics of the post sealing era scattered about – literally, given the very strong winds and storms which dominate the weather pattern here.

A bonus

So, as we came out of the ice after Mawson it was a run north toward Heard Island. On our way we received instructions to make a slight course alteration and sail as near as we could to McDonald Island and look for any signs of volcanic activity. This was a real bonus to the trip even if we were not going to attempt a landfall. What follows was a brief report by our Voyage Leader to the person who asked us to do the sail past:

I thought I’d give you the info about the McDonald Islands now. We sailed within 4 nm of the Island on 9 November 0231-0331UT. Visibility was excellent - no cloud around the Islands - wind was at 14.6kts at 283. We (Gordon Bain, I, Graeme Snow) took lots of photos with various sized lenses and I also drew a profile of the Island noting down what we saw (with the assistance of the Captain and the Officer of the Watch). It was quite clear so we didn’t need to use our imagination!!

We could see steam ‘pumping’ out of one area every few minutes - it seemed quite strong. There were three other areas out of which you could see steam puffing - one area seemed to have a few source points. Some areas are steep and black but we couldn’t tell whether they were fresh debris or not. The photos should allow comparisons!! It was all very exciting nonetheless.

The McDonald Islands are very dramatic - steep, rocky and obviously many thousands of birds in nesting colonies. The plumes of steam made it all very spooky. Let’s see how the photos turn out.

When we had done the sail past, we turned and cruised the remaining 20 or so nautical miles to Atlas Cove on Heard Island.



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