Shore things in the deep south

The locals are out in force to greet Maria Visconti at the sub-Antarctic outpost, Macquarie Island.

I feel like a paratrooper, my armour composed of layers of thermal underwear, fleece and Gore-Tex. The whole package (me) is neatly harnessed by a regulation skinny life vest. I'm jumping from a cruise ship, however, not a plane. In high seas.

To prepare for this, we passengers have shuffled softly in our garb through a "below the fancy decks" corridor to a changing and disinfecting chamber where rubber boots are stored.

Somehow we manage to put on the boots, balancing on one foot at a time as best we can. Climbing a few steel steps, we go through a sterilising boot bath so as not to carry disease to the land I can just distinguish on the horizon.

Normally, boarding a Zodiac is a doddle but at this latitude, and on this particular day, the boarding platform bobs next to the inflatable boat one moment, three metres above it the next. The swell is deep. And constant. Timing is of the essence. Somehow I make it and we head for land. Fast.

My destination is Macquarie Island, a world-heritage site 1546 kilometres south of Hobart and about half-way between New Zealand and Antarctica.

The locals are out in force. I can't see the landing beach for the sheer numbers that have turned up to greet us. They maintain a respectful distance, although one takes a fancy to me. He escorts me up the beach while shooing away others. I stop for a breather and sit on a rock to admire the setting. He pecks at my boots. I think he fancies them.

King penguins have restocked their rookeries on Macquarie Island despite grim reminders of the slaughtering that once took place here.

Three huge, rusting cauldrons mark the early site of a fat-rendering and processing plant where 4000 penguins a day were pressure-steamed - alive. Penguins weren't the only ones hunted. Seals and elephant seals were almost exterminated for their valuable fur and blubber. Between 1820 and 1830 their numbers were cut by 70 per cent.

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Today, penguins cruise freely among the rusting hulks and even use the ovens as refuge from the weather. Seals sun themselves and shed their moulting coats, unafraid of humans. We keep an eye on a leopard seal that pretends to be asleep.

As Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson once said: "This little island is one of the wonder spots of the world." Today, science and ecotourism highlight the true assets of this tiny place, the wildlife it sustains and the very rock that is its foundation.

Macquarie Island is different from any other. It was not built up from layers of volcanic lava spraying from underwater volcanoes; instead its mass was squeezed like toothpaste from the seabed, a bit of oceanic crust pushed up by colliding oceanic plates. The process is ongoing. Macquarie is regularly rocked by minor tremors and about once a year its surface is rearranged by a significant shake.

The place is wild, windy and wet, home to diverse colonies of about 4 million penguins and 100,000 seals. Albatrosses, petrels, skuas and Antarctic terns come to breed here despite introduced predators such as the cats sealers brought with them. Rats, rabbits and mice were also introduced and are still present, although skuas keep the numbers down.

The old boilers are not the only things rusting in the island. Old Nissan sheds, shelters from the past, have acquired a patina of antiquity, the original paint peeling in chunks.

The island's new scientific quarters, housing scientists and volunteers from the Australian Antarctic Division, are well maintained and cosy inside. We go to the cafeteria to meet some of the team. The blackboard lists very palatable choices and, while juggling a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a delicious, giant muffin, I talk to the chef who feeds a hungry mob of researchers. She relishes this place as an adventure posting.

Returning to board the Orion, we are warned to watch our step as the tall tussock grasslands around the area conceal a population of seals and their pups. The seals are everywhere, wet-eyed and moulting; they sleep across the footpath and some are so well camouflaged it's hard not to trip over them.

Macquarie Island cabbage (an attractive plant that supplemented the sealers' diet) covers the slopes. Down below, among

semi-submerged rocks, acres of black, shiny kelp (Durvillaea antarctica) grow like giant liquorice strands, making sinuous patterns on the surf and sheltering tiny invertebrates that would otherwise perish.

The beauty of "rubber duckies" is that you can land just about anywhere. That afternoon, we don the five layers of fleece and Gore-Tex again and go through the sterilising footbath for a second time, while the Orion changes anchorage so we can explore the other side of Macquarie Island.

This time, the attraction is both a giant rookery of riotous king penguins holding eggs between their feet and about 100 royal penguins descending a ridge to forage in the ocean.

These birds are exceptionally cute. They look like preoccupied, short-sighted professors with long yellow "eyebrows" protruding from their heads.

Their close relatives, the rockhoppers, also abound and can be seen hopping from rock to rock to reach the surf. They are so unafraid and inquisitive that they come very close to our cameras, making for foolproof shots.

That night, back on the Orion, Sir Guy Green, the former governor of Tasmania, beams with pride while seated at the ship's main dinner table. "This speck of land, just 34 kilometres long and five kilometres wide, is part of Tasmania," he says, pointing out that the Tasmanian government recognised Macquarie Island's importance as early as 1933, when it declared it a wildlife sanctuary.

In 1972, the island was designated a state reserve and in 1977 became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

There are two ways to experience Macquarie Island: as a resident member of a scientific team (paid or volunteer) or as a ecoexplorer aboard a cruise ship, keen on wildlife and photography. I know which I prefer.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Cruise companies include Macaquarie Island in their Antarctic journeys. See Aurora Expeditions (www.auroraexpeditions.com.au), Heritage Expeditions (http://heritage-expeditions.com) and Quark Expeditions (www.quarkexpeditions.com).

Orion Expedition cruises to Antarctica, including Macquarie island, from New Zealand. See orioncruises.com.au.

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