Looking back down Finch Creek. Photo - Mark Fountain
Winds blow at 100 km an hour and temperatures stay just above freezing, so penguins far outnumber tourists on Australia's Macquarie Island. A glimpse of the island's flora is more comfortably viewed in the sub-Antartic house at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart. Robin Powell took a tour with Macquarie Island visitor and Gardens deputy director, Mark Fountain.
Macquarie Island is no winner on the plant diversity list: if you don’t count the mosses and lichens, there are just 30 plants growing on this inhospitable slice of the earth’s crust. But the survivors on Macquarie Island impress for their adaptability to life on a freezing rock in the oceans between here and the Antarctic; a place where the winds blow at 100 kilometres an hour, and average temperatures hover around 5ºC.
If this sounds like your ideal travel destination, it’s just two and half days by ship from Hobart. Scientists are regular visitors, as are bird-watchers ticking penguins and seabirds from their lists, but the closest most of us will ever get to Macquarie Island’s unusual flora is the sub-Antarctic plant house at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart. To replicate the island’s challenging conditions, this unique glasshouse is kept distinctly chilly and freezing winds blast from fans. Murals on the walls depict the landscape and in front of them are the plants that have made the island their home, such as hardy Azorella macquariensis which grows in the most hostile conditions and is pulled underground by its roots when the weather turns really nasty; and pretty little Acaena magellanica, whose hooked seeds are carried incredible distances by wandering albatross. To add to the atmosphere, a soundscape, recorded on the island, projects the wails and grunts of elephant seals, the screeches of sea birds and the howl of the wind, so it’s hard to hear Mark Fountain, deputy director of the Tasmanian Botanic Gardens, as he tells the story of Macquarie Island.
Sealers discovered the island in July of 1810, when its population of fur seals is estimated to have been between 200,000 and 400,000. So quickly were the fur seal populations decimated that in the whole of 1821 sealers delivered just four skins. The sealers lived hard lives, supplementing a seafood diet with the rabbits they set loose, and the pleated hairy-heart-shaped leaves of Stilbocarpa pilaris, which provided enough vitamin C to keep scurvy at bay.
A seal sticks its nose through dense beds of kelp. Photo - Mark Fountain
When the fur seals were gone, the sealers turned their attention to elephant seals, and when the elephant seals became too hard to find, “penguins were marched up gangplanks and straight into boilers,” says Fountain. Sir Douglas Mawson visited Macquarie Island around this time and called it ‘one of the wonder spots of the world’. Though he campaigned to have it made a wildlife sanctuary, it was the wider availability of petroleum products following World War 1 that finally ended the wildlife massacres on Macquarie Island.
A penguin colony and elephant seals on Macquarie Island. Both animals were threatened by the activities of sealers in the early 19th century, but populations of both have recovered. Photo - Mark Fountain
“The island is a long thin edge of a tectonic plate which is being thrust upwards at the rate of 4mm a year,” explains Mark Fountain. “It’s a relatively young island: it appeared just 600,000 years ago, which is pretty much last weekend in geological terms.”
The islands jagged edges are an indicator of its geological youth. Photo - Mark Fountain
So how did plants arrive on this new spot of earth? “Mostly they are blow-ins from whatever land is to the west, the direction of the prevailing winds - the Furious 50s and Screaming 60s,” says Fountain. Gardeners know only too well that the seeds most likely to blow in and survive environmental hardship are the ones we call weeds. Sure enough, most of the plants on Macquarie Island come from what Mark Fountain calls ‘weedy families’. Some of these families have sent siblings and cousins round the world, always in a westerly direction, so that they encircle the earth.
The hairy, pleated leaves of vitamin C-rich Stilbocarpa. Photo - Mark Fountain
Beyond the origins of the plants, and the depredations of the sealers, the island also tells a modern story: climate change. “Already we have seen a massive dieback in Azorella over slightly more than a year. We have looked at what could have caused it and eliminated pest and diseases. It really it comes down to climatic events, probably a drying.” It seems Macquarie Island, and its outpost at the Hobart Botanic Gardens, still has much to tell about the interaction of humans and the natural environment.