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Creature comforts on Macquarie Island
King penguin fledgling, Aptenodytes patagonicus, at Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island, Australia. Picture: Philip Game

Macquarie Island offers a dazzling range of flora and fauna, finds traveller-scientist Philip Game.

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Greetings, Earthlings. They're not another species, they're just little people, friendly but with rather stiff manners.

Or so you begin to think while getting to know the massed penguins of Macquarie Island's vast rookeries, their populations counted in hundreds of thousands.

Wading ashore on to a windswept beach at Sandy Bay on the east coast of this craggy subantarctic island, we become alien invaders, inspected and quizzed by curious creatures which waddle up to greet us when not preoccupied with their own courtship and nesting rituals. Amid these thousands of webbed feet lie the corpulent elephant seals, strewn about like sacks of wadding, stretching and yawning as they shed their fur and their skin in the annual moulting.

Halfway between Australia and the Antarctic continent lies the only island on earth formed by rocks forced up from the ocean's floor, an undersea ridge thrust up through the waves, far from any other landmass and less than a million years ago - almost yesterday, in geological terms. Quite apart from the abundance of the animal kingdom, the unique origins of this storm-tossed subpolar island, just 34km long, earn Macquarie its World Heritage status.

Such origins also set it apart from its nearest neighbours, New Zealand's five subantarctic island groups scattered across the Southern Ocean, roughly halfway back to the South Island. Equally rich in natural values, these islands also number among the world's wildest places.

King penguins and elephant seals at Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island. Picture: Philip Game

As visitors to Macquarie Island, our movements are confined to two or three designated locations.

At Sandy Bay, Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife rangers and their colleagues from the island's Australian Antarctic Division research base keep our party within limits but these encompass two big schools of king penguins (black and white, with canary-yellow bibs) and another, just inland, of the spiky-topped royal penguins.

Macquarie boasts an abundance of other native bird and animal life, including two further penguin species, seals and albatrosses.

Male elephant seal on Macquarie Island, Australia. Picture: Philip Game

There are no native terrestrial mammals, reptiles or amphibians, nor woody plants, though vascular plants, mosses and lichens flourish. Distinctive subantarctic flowering "megaherbs" include oddities like the yellow-flowering Macquarie Island cabbage, Stilbocarpa polaris, whose platter-sized leaves once helped half-starved sealers stave off scurvy. These are the world's southernmost plants, the evolutionary process pushed to its physiological limits in this punishing environment, says Justine Shaw, a research botanist returning south with us to her "second home".

Dr Shaw's partner, Dr Aleks Terauds, devotes much of his own career to studying the life cycle of the Southern Ocean albatrosses. Of the many seabirds frequenting Macquarie, these are the most endangered. Like the penguins, albatrosses are ocean-going birds which return to land at long intervals - and always within a metre or two of their birthplace - to mate and breed.

With only one chick hatched by each breeding pair at two-year intervals, the albatross life cycle resembles ours, but the rate of reproduction is even lower. Survival of the world's albatrosses is threatened by long-line fishing, a danger which can largely be neutralised by educating fishermen to modify their work practices.

To the east or west, the nearest landfall lies more than 11,000km distant, and the island's west coast wears the scars of constant battering by the uninterrupted westerlies of the Southern Ocean. Throughout the year, the eerie, shimmering curtains of the aurora australis flicker across the evening skies, triggered by solar activity.

This is not the dry, icy expanse of the Antarctic - officially, it is Tasmanian territory - but it is a remote, inhospitable outpost. For the ordinary traveller, and sometimes even those on official business, access to Macquarie Island requires booking a berth aboard an expedition cruise.

Down here in the Furious Fifties, a one-handed shower becomes a tricky exercise in a bathroom heaving and pitching as loose shoes, clothes, books and chairs fly wildly across the cabin. Seasickness becomes a problem for many on board, if not all.

In stiff winds, steady rain and fog - typical weather for more than 300 days a year, with an average temperature of just 4.4C - we anchor off the northern tip of the island, where the research station occupies a narrow, stony isthmus at the foot of a bluff.

Elephant seals drape themselves around this sliver of land, sprawling below the signpost at the landing, across the vehicular tracks and even on the doorstep of the weather observer's cabin.

Each summer, as many as 40 researchers and tradespeople settle into the base, and evidently most relish living and working in this challenging environment. Many hike long distances, sometimes daily, to reach the outlying field station huts scattered across the island because there are no roads beyond the isthmus.

The expeditioners enjoy satellite telecommunications links with the rest of the world - but salivate over the fresh fruit set out in our shipboard dining room, since many varieties can't be stocked on the island, for quarantine and logistical reasons. On shore, we line up in the base mess hall to buy and mail postcards which won't leave the island's shores until the next supply ship visits in four months.

Macquarie Island was discovered in 1810 by sealing captain Frederick Hasselborough (various spellings of his name exist), who promptly set ashore a gang of workers to exploit this golden opportunity. Three exploitative industries sprang up in succession, as each was exhausted in turn: first the fur seals slaughtered for their pelts, then the elephant seals taken for their blubber and their oil, then finally the king penguins boiled down for their oil.

The rusting iron boilers still stand on some of the island beaches, surrounded now by the carefree descendants of the hapless creatures which once fed them.

Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's dedicated team of five landed in 1911 and camped for three years on the island he called "one of the wonder spots of the world". In 1933 the State of Tasmania declared its most remote outlier a wildlife reserve, officially ending 110 years of unrestrained exploitation. Unfortunately this idyll has suffered catastrophic damage from introduced pests, especially rabbits.

FACT FILE

• The Australian Antarctic Division is at www.antarctica.gov.au/living-and-working/stations/macquarie-island

• For Heritage Expeditions, go to heritage-expeditions.com

• Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service is at parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=394

• The UNESCO World Heritage site is at whc.unesco.org/en/list/629

Philip Game travelled as a guest of Heritage Expeditions, which operates expedition cruises to the subantarctic and Antarctic regions, departing from Australian and New Zealand ports during the summer months (November-January).