Opening image: The remote sub-Antarctic island affectionately known as ‘Macca’. Photo Nick Frayne

SAVING MACCA: Protection triples for the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean

On World Ocean Day, just a few weeks back, Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced a massive expansion of the Macquarie Island Marine Park. This included an area bigger than Japan to be placed in a marine sanctuary and fully protected from fishing, mining, and other extractive pursuits.


It was an historic day for the remote sub-Antarctic island affectionately known as ‘Macca’, for ocean conservation, and for the 3.5 million seabirds and thousands of marine mammals whose very existence depends on the health of these extraordinary marine ecosystems.



Fiona Maxwell, National Oceans Manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts, dubbed the decision as “world-leading protection for one of the most unique environments on the planet.

“By almost tripling the size of the marine park and making around 93 per cent of the park a fully protected marine sanctuary, Australia has given Macquarie’s wildlife the best possible chance to survive and thrive into the future.” The new additions to the marine park — which grew from 162,000 to a massive 475,465 square kilometres — and its protective zoning became official on July 1.

Talk to anyone who’s visited Macquarie Island and you’ll be hit with a swell of superlatives. Magnificent, remarkable, spectacular — an ecological wonderland at the very end of the earth. A geological anomaly — emerging from the great Southern Ocean at the place where the Indo-Australian tectonic plate meets the Pacific plate — it’s the epitome of elsewhere.

Tim Jarvis looks south from the bow on the journey down to Macquarie Island. Photo Nick Frayne

“It’s the only place in the world where the earth’s mantle is exposed at the surface, it just rises out of the ocean in the most spectacular way,” exclaims Tim Jarvis AM, adventurer, environmental scientist, and extreme trekker, who’s undertaken some seriously epic expeditions including retracing the polar journey of Sir Douglas Mawson using the same gear, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson did way back in 1913. “You get blown away by the abundance of wildlife. It’s like the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean. It’s this incredible outpost halfway between Tassie and Antarctica, so there's nothing else out there. But suddenly you're upon it, and the beaches are alive with penguins. There's albatross wheeling in the air, there’s seals and whales, and penguins porpoising in the water. The island and the ocean are just teeming with wildlife.”

Tim Jarvis AM, adventurer, environmental scientist, and extreme trekker. Photo Nick Frayne

Tim is part of a committed team of conservationists who, backed by tens of thousands of Australians, have spent years lobbying for the protection of the ocean ecosystems surrounding Macca. While the island itself was granted World Heritage status — recognised as a site of outstanding global geological and natural significance — back in 1997, the surrounding ocean remained largely unprotected.

These remote waters form part of the world’s largest ocean current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which links the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and is a major driver of our global climate systems. We know that the ocean acts as a giant salty regulator of our climate, keeping global temperatures on an even keel. In the past 50 years, it’s absorbed more than 90 per cent of the excess heat caused by carbon pollution. However, recent research has shown the Southern Ocean in particular, plays a critical role in slowing the pace of climate change by absorbing the vast majority of excess heat trapped in our planet's atmosphere.

A healthy Southern Ocean is crucial when it comes to protecting life on earth. At a more localised, sub-Antarctic level, back on Macca the ocean is the very centre of life itself. “All the wildlife — even the animals that live on land or breed on land or nest on land — they all get their sustenance from the ocean. They all eat from the ocean,” explains Tim.

And the wildlife on, and around Macca is something else entirely.

The shy albatross or shy mollymawk as it's also known, breeds on only three remote islands off the Tasmanian coast. Photo Marc Guyt

Wandering albatrosses circumnavigate the length of the island, high above the tarns and lake on Macca’s plateau, coasting along the edge of its jagged escarpments, and fanging down the wild wind currents of the Furious Fifties — their wings span up to 3.5 metres — while petrels, shearwaters, prions, kelp gulls, great skuas, terns, and endemic Macquarie Island cormorants carefully construct their nests on land. Orcas cruise just offshore, and out on the horizon, you can spot the great momentary displacement of ocean from breaching southern right, sperm, and longfin pilot whales.

Each springtime, around 80,000 southern elephant seals roll onto the island, spending quality time on the beaches to breed, molt and engage in a bit of high intensity biffo. These unique beauties can grow to over four metres in length and weigh over three tonnes. Yep, 80,000 of them. All at once. Take a little moment. They share the beaches with a permanent population of fur seals, all three kinds. The island is visited regularly by leopard seals and Hooker's sea lions, while Weddell and crab-eater seals occasionally stop in.

Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) breed mainly at South Georgia, Macquarie Island and Kerguelen Island. Photos Nick Frayne

Macca also hosts one of the greatest concentrations of sea birds in the world. The breeding population of royal penguins — which spend over half the year on the island and are endemic to it — is estimated at over 850,000 pairs. They eat exclusively from the ocean — fishies, krill and squid. King penguins — the third largest colony in the world — live on Macca all year round, as do the only gentoo penguin population in the Pacific Ocean sector. Rockhoppers visit for a few months a year.

These vast populations of penguins and seals have come back now, but for a few decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were decimated. In their thousands they were clubbed to death by gangs of men and boiled down in terrible gigantic kettle things called ‘pressure digestors’ to extract their oil, which was flogged off for soap, lamp fuel, and rope making.

The royal penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli) in all their glory. Left: Photo Nick Frayne Right: Photo Marc Guyt

In 1919, what may be the first ever global wildlife conservation campaign — which brought together novelist HG Wells, explorer Douglas Mawson, scientific societies, politicians from across the world and local communities — forced an end to the killing of penguins and seals on Macca. By this time however, it’s estimated that over three million penguins had been killed, with just a single colony of 4,000 left alive on the island.

Today, millions of penguins sway, wobble, and flap around the ruins of rusted digestors that emerge from the sand like strange archaeological relics. And after this remarkable expansion of ocean protection by the Australian Government, the amazing array of wildlife on Macca can rest easy.

The king penguin is the largest of Macquarie Island’s four penguin species. (Aptenodytes patagonicus halli). Photo Marc Guyt

Royal penguins are the most populous penguin species living and breeding on Macquarie Island. Photo Marc Guyt

So, what’s next? The Australian Government now has to create a management plan for the new marine park. This will involve further consultation with scientists, community members and marine management experts, and once finalised it will need to be accepted by both houses of the Australian Parliament.

It’s been clear, throughout the campaign to save Macca’s seas and particularly in the leadup to Minister Plibersek’s announcement, that our local communities care deeply about the protection of this far-flung wonderland, even though most of us may never make the three-day voyage across those wild sub-Antarctic seas to visit it. Throughout the consultation process over the marine park expansion, over 14,700 submissions were received by the Minister, with an overwhelming 99 per cent in full support of the proposal.

Tim Jarvis is clear on what needs to happen next. “As a community, we need to make sure the management plan is properly resourced and set up to deliver on the vision. There's no reason to suggest it won't, but we still need everybody, when the time is right, to let the government know we're all watching. We’re all excited about this, but we expect this plan to be right for the job of administering this marine sanctuary properly.”

The science is also crystal clear. A healthy, thriving ocean requires a comprehensive network of marine protected areas. Protecting our special saltwater places means caring for the remarkable array of creatures and marine life, big and small, that live on, in and above the ocean. Marine protected areas are essential for growing healthy fisheries. Fully protecting the right areas means a healthy ocean, and a whole lot more fish.

“In terms of the big picture, we still need at least 30 per cent of the ocean fully protected,” says Tim Jarvis. “This is a great start. But right now, Minister Plibersek and the Australian Government have a unique opportunity to make a real legacy statement, to be remembered for having done something truly amazing. So, in that sense, this is only the beginning.”

Join the thousands of Australians who have already helped triple the size of the marine park around Macquarie Island. We now need your help to lock in this protection with the best possible management plan — and to strengthen protection for the waters off Heard and McDonald Islands. Join the campaign here.

Left: A huge royal penguin colony. In 1999, it was reported over 850,000 pairs could be found breeding on the island. Right: Gentoo penguins are the least abundant of the penguin species found on Macquarie. Photos Marc Guyt

Opening image: The remote sub-Antarctic island affectionately known as ‘Macca’. Photo Nick Frayne


God Creates Dinosaurs. God Destroys Dinosaurs. God Creates Man. Man Destroys God. We Create Roaring Journals.

Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories
Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories