Land of Storm and Mist

Some timeless observations of Macquarie Island's wildlife from Antarctic explorer George F. Ainsworth (1878 - 1950).

A pile of elephant seal pups on Macquarie's Sandy Bay.

The following descriptions of were taken from the Douglas Mawson’s firsthand account of the 1911 Australian Antarctic Expedition, The Home of the Blizzard. While Douglas Mawson and his team were fighting double-digit negative temperatures and hurricane-force winds on Antarctica, the head of the expedition’s meteorology team, George F. Ainsworth, was enjoying the comparatively mild climate and friendly wildlife on Macquarie Island some 1,600 kilometres to the north. Presented here are photos by yours truly accompanied by some of Ainsworth’s catty observations about the fauna.

Elephant Seal

“An unmistakable sign of the near approach of the breeding season was the presence of an enormous old bull, almost too fat to move, lying on the beach. Very few small ones were seen, as, on the arrival of the adult males and females for the breeding season, the young ones leave for a while, presumably in order to get fat for the moulting period, or because they are afraid of the bulls, who are particularly savage at this time. The full-grown bulls attain to a length of twenty feet, and have a fleshy proboscis about eight or ten inches in length hanging over the mouth, suggesting the trunk of an elephant. It is from this fact that they derive the name of sea elephant.

There is a considerable disparity in size between the adult male and female, the latter very rarely exceeding eleven feet, though we have seen a few twelve and thirteen feet long. The females have no snout development and some of them facially very much resemble a bull terrier. The adults are called bulls and cows, while, curiously enough, in the sealers’ phrase, the offspring are referred to as pups. The places where large numbers of them gather together during the breeding season are known as rookeries! “Rookery ” appears to me to be inapplicable to a herd of sea elephants, though “pup’ supplies a more apt description of the young.

The pups, born during September or early October, are covered with a long, black, wavy fur, which they lose when about two months old, and in its place comes a growth of silver-grey hair, which changes later into the ordinary brown colour of the full-grown animal.

The old males and females leave the island about the end of January, and are not seen again (except a few stray ones) till August in the case of the males, and until September in the case of the females.

The rookeries vary in size, containing from half a dozen to four or five hundred cows; in the last case, of course, being an aggregation of smaller rookeries, each with its proprietor, in the shape of an old bull, lying in or somewhere near the centre. The normal rookery, as far as I could judge, seemed to be one that contained about forty cows, but once the nucleus was formed, it was hard to say how many cows would be there before the season ended, as females keep arriving for a period of about three weeks.”

“The young vary in length from three and a half to four and a half feet, are born within a few days of arrival and suckled for about a month, becoming enormously fat. The cow, who has not eaten during the whole of this time and has become very thin, then leaves the pup, but remains in the rookery for about two days, after which she escapes to sea, remaining there till the beginning of January, when she returns to the island to moult. The pups when weaned get such rough usage in the rookery that they soon make off into the tussock and sleep for about a month, living on their fat and acquiring a new coat. The noise in one of the large rookeries is something to remember–the barking of the pups, the whimpering and yelping of the mothers and the roaring of the bulls.

Another feature in connexion with the rookery is the presence of what may be called unattached bulls, which lie around at a little distance from the cows, and well apart, forming a regular ring through which any cow wishing to desert her pup or leave the rookery before the proper time has very little chance of passing, as one of these grips her firmly with his powerful flipper and stays her progress. The lord of the harem, in the meantime, hastens to the scene of the disturbance, whereupon the other bull decamps.

I have never seen two bulls fight without first indulging in the usual preliminaries, that is, roaring and advancing a few yards and repeating the performance till within striking distance. Then both animals rear high up, supporting themselves on the lower part of the body, and lunge savagely with their whole weight each at his opponent’s head or neck, tearing the thick skin with their teeth and causing the blood to flow copiously. Several lunges of this kind generally finish the battle, whereupon the beaten one drops to his flippers and makes all haste towards the water, glancing fearfully behind him on the way. We have seen bulls with their snouts partly torn off and otherwise injured, but worse injuries must occur in the rare, desperate battles which sometimes take place between two very much enraged animals.”

Royal Penguin

“The Royal penguins were almost as petulant as the Adelie penguins which we were to meet further South. They surrounded us, pecked at our legs and chattered with an audacity which defies description. It was discovered that they resented any attempt to drive them into the sea, and it was only after long persuasion that a bevy took to the water. This was a sign of a general capitulation, and some hundreds immediately followed, jostling each other in their haste, squawking, whirring their flippers, splashing and churning the water, reminding one of a crowd of miniature surf-bathers. We followed the files of birds marching inland, along the course of a tumbling stream, until at an elevation of some five hundred feet, on a flattish piece of ground, a huge rookery opened out–acres and acres of birds and eggs.”

“This species resembles the others in habits, and I shall not describe them at any length. They are of the same colour as the Victoria penguins, but have a more orderly crest. Their rookeries are always on or very close to a running stream which forms the highway along which they travel to and fro. There is no policeman on duty, but a well-ordered procession is somehow arranged whereby those going up keep to one side and those coming down keep to the other. Once they are in the rookery, however, different conditions obtain. Here are fights, squabbles and riots, arising from various causes, the chief of which appears to be a disposition on the part of some birds to loiter about. During the nesting time much disorder prevails, and fights, in which beaks and flippers are energetically used, may be seen in progress at various places throughout the rookery. The nests are made of small stones, and occasionally, a bone or two from the skeleton of some long-dead relative forms part of the bulwarks. The attempt on the part of some birds to steal stones from surrounding nests is about the most fruitful cause of a riot, and the thief generally gets soundly thrashed, besides which all have a peck at him as he makes his way with as much haste as possible from the danger-zone. As the season advances, these rookeries become covered with filthy slush, but it seems to make no difference to the eggs, as the chicks appear in due course. When the moulting process is in full swing the rookeries are very crowded, and feathers and slush then become mixed together, making the place anything but fragrant.”

King Penguin

“…King penguins [are] the largest of the four species which are to be found on the island. They are magnificently coloured birds, being bluish-grey on the back while the head is greenish- black and on each side of the neck there is a brilliant yellow band, shading to a greenish-yellow on the upper part of the breast, and gradually merging into the glossy white of the lower part of the body. They attain to a height of about three feet and weigh thirty pounds approximately. The site of their rookery is a stony flat about a hundred yards from the water, and here are collected between five and six thousand–all that remain on the island.

They make no nest, the single egg laid being supported on the feet, and kept in position and incubated in a kind of skin pouch which conceals it from view. One would never guess the egg was there, for, on being disturbed, the bird shuffles along, carrying it in the manner described. The egg is large, tapering very much at one end and resembling a pear in shape. They lay during December and January, and the young are hatched in about six weeks. A peculiar feature about the young birds is that the parents feed them for two seasons. They are covered with a coarse, greyish-brown furry growth, and a year-old chick looks bigger than the old bird. This furry growth is lost during the second year and the adult plumage replaces it. The young utter a peculiar sound, something between a squeak and a whistle. It is probable that the King penguins were never so numerous as the Royal or Victoria penguins, but the fact remains that they have not yet recovered from the wholesale slaughter to which they must have been subjected over sixteen years ago.”

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross

“We heard the discordant but mournful cry of a sooty albatross coming from the cliff-front, so Hamilton climbed up and, after scrambling about for a while, succeeded in finding a nest, which contained one egg. This led him to look along the cliffs fronting the east coast, and on the following morning he found several nests and caught two birds, both of which were taken by hand while on the nest. They had beautiful plumage and made very fine specimens.”

Giant Petrel

“These birds, properly called giant petrels, are usually known as “nellies” or “stinkers”; the latter title being thoroughly justified on account of the disagreeable smell which comes from them. As may be inferred from the name, they are the largest of all the petrels, and measure about seven feet from tip to tip when on the wing. The colour ranges through various shades from almost pure white to a dark greyish-brown; some even appearing almost black. Very large and ungainly when on the ground, they become most graceful when in the air, and soar about without the slightest effort even on the stormiest days. I have seen them flying into a forty-mile wind with absolute ease, never moving a wing, but occasionally adjusting their balance. They are gross scavengers, and eat apparently for the sake of eating. A carcase on the rocks or beach attracts them in large numbers, and very soon they can be seen pulling and tearing at it until thoroughly gorged, when they waddle away into the water and sit there wholly unable to rise till digestion takes place. If disturbed, they immediately disgorge and fly off. They nest on the ground and lay one large white egg. When sitting, they are reluctant to leave the nest and will squat there, vomiting evil-smelling, partly digested food and fluid at any intruder. The young, even in the downy stage, have the same habit.”

A baby giant petrel in its nest under the leaves of a pleurophyllum hookeri – one of many ‘megaherbs’ found in the subantarctic region.

“In one corner of the bay were nests of giant petrels in which sat huge downy young, about the size of a barn-door fowl, resembling the grotesque, fluffy toys which might be expected to hang on a Christmas-tree.”

Brown Skua

“The young grow rather quickly, and not much time elapses before they leave the nest to stagger round and hide amongst the vegetation. The parents fly down and disgorge food, which is immediately devoured by the young ones. The skuas are bare-faced robbers and most rapacious, harassing the penguins in particular. They steal the eggs and young of the latter and devour a great number of prions–small birds which live in holes in the ground. The skuas are web-footed, but are very rarely seen in the water.”

“We saw several dead [elephant seal pups] crushed out almost flat, and some skuas were busily engaged gorging themselves on the carcases. These birds are indeed professional plunderers, and will venture almost anywhere in pursuit of food.”

Editors Note: The Home of the Blizzard is available for free on the website for the Australian Antarctic Program and is well worth a read.

George Ainsworth

Born in in Sydney, New South Wales George F. Ainsworth led the meteorology team on Macquarie Island for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911 to 1914).

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