JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH TROY HENDERSON FROM MACQUARIE ISLAND, SUBANTARCTIC !
Troy Henderson, a 32 year old from Newcastle, Australia is currently living in Macquarie Island in Antarctica. It has always been his dream to live and work on every continent in the world. So far he has been lucky enough to live and work in multiple cities throughout Australia, Auckland (New Zealand), Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a year at Casey Research Station, Antarctica as well as multiple spots throughout the Middle East.
Macquarie Island (Or ‘Macca’ as it’s known to the locals) is a Unesco World Heritage site about 1,500 kilometres to the southeast of Tasmania, about half-way between Australia and Antarctica. Its roughly 35kms long and 5 kms wide at the broadest part.
The island was discovered by Captain Frederick Hasselborough on the 11th July 1810. Hasselborough then named the place after the then Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.
Over the last 70 odd years the scientific research conducted here has contributed to global understanding in many fields including climate change, marine biology, atmosphere physics, geoscience and meteorology.
Please tell us something about Macquarie Island.
Macca is extremely unique as it is the only place on earth where rocks from the earth’s mantle are actively exposed above sea level, the birdlife here is also extraordinary. The breeding populations of penguins, albatrosses, petrels and prions are recognised as one of the greatest concentrations of seabirds in the world.
Sir Douglas Mawson established the first scientific party here during his Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–14, setting up a wireless relay station for the first two-way communications with the Antarctic continent, but the main station facility ran by the Australian Antarctic Division was set up in 1948. This station is still operating today and is currently my home.
What brings you to Macquarie Island? How did you reach there?
I’ve been quite lucky and picked up my dream job working for the Australian Antarctic Division a few years ago. This year I was given the option to return to Antarctica or to try something new and spend a year in the Sub Antarctic on Macquarie Island. As much as I love Antarctica, with the vast amount of wildlife and the dramatic landscapes here on Macca it made it a pretty easy call.
The only way to reach the island is via ship. I arrived on The Aurora Australis’s very last journey south before it was decommissioned earlier on this year. The ship has been dropping expeditioners on Macquarie Island and the Antarctic continent since 1989.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the island?
Sadly, Macca has quite a dark history. In the early days, the main interest in the Island was the enormous numbers of seals down here — especially fur seals, estimated at the time to number between 200,000 and 400,000. The commercial reaction to this discovery was immediate and during the next ten years the population was almost wiped out.
With the fur seal population unable to support the skin industry, the focus of commercial activity turned to the elephant seals whose blubber contained oil that then had widespread commercial use. By the mid-1840s numbers of elephant seals had been reduced by 70 percent. Commercial exploitation then turned to the island’s prolific penguin population.
Macquarie Island was used for sealing and oil production between 1810 and 1919 with various buildings and items from sealing era still visible on parts of the island.
Luckily Maccas history has changed quite significantly in more recent times, Macquarie Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 and was added to the World Heritage List in 1997 in recognition of its outstanding natural values including its unique and delicate flora and fauna and unique geology.
How many of you are living there currently? How is life on a remote island?
We have 19 of us this year from Holland, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, which may not sound like much but is actually quite a big number for ‘Macca’.
The lifestyle is great, you turn into a great big family with something social always going on. From different social events, competitions like darts and pool both internal and with the other Antarctic research stations, and (sadly, lots of) karaoke.
With such a diversity of backgrounds in our group there is quite a bit of knowledge sharing as well, anything from language courses, metalwork and woodwork from some of our tradesmen, and, as we have a brand new father as of this week, lots of fatherly advice passed down!
Can you walk us through your day at the island?
Our days here vary so much depending on weather conditions, our individual works program and what’s happening throughout the community.
A typical day for me normally starts with walking from my bedroom at the northern section of the station, past a few very vocal elephant seals, stopping for a quick chat with the local gentoo penguins (and occasional king penguins) that hang out in front of my office.
My role here is the technical officer looking after the electronics and communications equipment, it’s a great job that includes being responsible for a lot of the long term science projects ran by various universities and government departments. This can be anything from measuring the magnetic field variations, seismic monitoring, tide and UV data collecting, sampling our air and checking for nuclear particles in the atmosphere. Most mornings for me include some science support work followed by any communications related maintenance that has popped up.
If the weather is nice that might mean a hike to inspect some communications equipment further down the island or, if you are lucky you might get to assist the wildlife rangers with some wildlife health checks or survey work that they need to complete.
Most days you might hear a radio call where one of our crew has spotted something rare like a leopard seal, a pod or orcas, maybe a Hooker Sea Lion and in this case, most of us will stop work and run to view whatever animal or event is going on.
I like to take a bit of time out each day to sit and watch the wildlife on the beach and really appreciate where I get to live and, if the weather is nice we might finish the night off by grabbing a beer and sitting outside to watch the Southern Lights dance overhead.
I am curious, what is the local produce of the island ? With high cost involved in delivering fresh edibles to the island, how’s the food on your plate?
We are very lucky that we have an amazing chef Arvid who keeps us really well fed 3 times a day with a huge variety of foods from around the world. Just this week alone he has created dishes from Iran, France, Russia and Morocco. We often say the big battle on station is between the doctor and the chef. The doctor is trying to get us to lose weight while the chef is trying to fatten us up!
As far as local produce goes, we do have the Macquarie Island Cabbage, although I’m not aware of too many people eating it. We have a hydroponics building where we grow our own leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies and other herbs with the majority of our food coming from the freezer, which is stocked up once a year when the ship comes to drop off the expeditioners for the upcoming year.
We try to give our chef a day off every week or 2 where a couple of other members will spend the day in the kitchen cooking up their favourite meals.
How is your experience of living so close to sub Antarctic wildlife? What are the species of birds and animals that can be found there?
The wildlife for me was the major drawpoint for coming here. We have literally millions of penguins that also call this island home, as well as thousands of fur seals (Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic), Southern Elephant seals, 4 different species of albatross, including the wandering albatross, which can have a wingspan of around 3 metres wide!
The island is the only known breeding ground of the royal penguin, one of some 25 bird species that breed here (petrels/prions/redpolls, skuas, gulls, terns/sheerwaters). I’m sure I’ve forgotten many others.
We have strict safe distance rules that we keep to make sure that we don’t stress the wildlife out. Although if you stay still most of the animals will get very curious and will come up to check you out. If you leave a gate or a door open you may even have a young elephant seal or gentoo penguin that will pop his or her head in to see what you are up to.
Animal encounters are a given every day, just to get to my office I will normally walk past around 20 penguins and 30 odd seals. It’s something that will never get old!
In some parts of the island like Lusitania Bay and Herd Point there are breeding colonies of King and Royal penguins numbering in the hundreds of thousands of penguins, these are sights that you will never forget!
For most of us who haven’t seen penguins, can you tell us something about them? How friendly are they?
We have 4 different species of penguins on the island, the Kings, the Gentoo Penguins, Southern Rockhoppers and the Royal Penguins. The Gentoos and Kings are present on the island all year round with the Royals and Rockhoppers heading out to sea over the winter months.
For me, the Kings are my favourite and the prettiest of the penguins with a lovely golden yellow high on their chest and on the backs of their heads. They can be up to 1 metre tall and in my opinion they are the most curious. They show no fear and will come right up to you and closely check out your clothing and your camera if you have it out. If you walk slowly across the beach you might even get a bit of a conga line of Kings follow you.
The Gentoos have the least amount of numbers on the island but are our most seen penguin. These guys are a daily sight as they have nesting spots all around the station. These little cuties can grow to about 75 cms tall and seem to be the most chilled out penguins. If you sit still they are more than happy to come over for a chat and pose for photos.
The Southern Rockhoppers look like little rockstars with their crest of spiky yellow and black feathers but are a much smaller penguin so they get scared a lot easier. We have to give them a bit of distance to not upset them. We have a small colony over summer around 200 metres from the station so some mornings you can wake to their lovely vocal calls.
Macquarie Island is the only spot in the world where you can find breeding Royal penguins, so we are very lucky in that respect. These guys hang out in very large colonies down on the southern end of the island with the majority of them in a large colony (about 500,000 breeding pairs right near the Hurd Point field hut).
Do you have your favourite spots on the island that you would like to share with us?
Everywhere on the island is stunning and full of wildlife so you can’t really go wrong at any point on the island, although some of my favourite spots are:
The Green Gorge Field Hut as it has a breeding population of King Penguins right outside the front door. There are always some curious (and very vocal) baby penguins that want to come over and say hello.
Hurd Point and Lusitania Bay for their enormous penguin colonies!
Garden Cove, which has a colony of fur seals (my favourite animal on the island). It also happens to be a 2 minute walk from my bedroom.
My office is a pretty amazing spot as well, I have fantastic view over the water out to ‘The Nuggets’ a very distinct point on the island, most days I get a penguin or seal parade past my window as well as the occasional pod or orcas and a constant stream of seabirds playing in the wind and the waves. This time of year (June) when our days are very short and its dark by 3pm I can also see auroras from my desk at the end of the day.
Excuse my ignorance but is the island open for tourists? If yes, when is the best time to visit the island?
The Island is open to tourists with a few tour companies visiting over summer, which is generally a better time to visit anyway as the wildlife is much more abundant. These trips normally include visits to other Sub Antarctic Islands like the Snares, Auckland and Campbell Islands or maybe even down to Antarctica as well. Explore Macquarie Island with Oceanwide Expeditions and Heritage Expeditions.
When can you see Southern Lights from Macquarie Island? How similar or different are they from their northern cousins?
The Aurora Australis can be seen most days when we have a clear sky, but winter is the best (March through to September) though as there are a lot more hours of darkness.
There is no difference between the Northern and Southern lights apart from their names, In the North they are known as the aurora borealis and in the south they are called the aurora australis.
These dramatic and colorful lights are created when electrically charged particles from solar winds enter the Earth’s atmosphere and interact with different gases. The variations in colours are produced by the types of gasses with green produced by oxygen molecules located about 100kms above the earth. Red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen and nitrogen produces a blue or purple aurora.
Last but not the least, any secret of living in such extreme climatic conditions?
Always carry some extra warm clothing if you are going for a hike and learn how to read weather forecasts! Learn where all the safety and survival gear is kept and how to use it.
Don’t waste the good weather days as you might have to wait a few weeks before the next nice weather window appears. Even if it’s just a quick walk, make sure you enjoy the sunshine when it comes out!
Also, always carry a camera because you never know what you might run into throughout your day.
IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING TO MACQUARIE ISLAND OR WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT TROY’S TRAVEL EXPERIENCES THEN BE SURE TO FOLLOW HIM ON INSTAGRAM