Have you ever had an obese, wild baby elephant seal drop its head in your lap and slobber nose love all over you? It melts a heart faster than a Snickers in a microwave, really.
Macquarie Island (pronounced mak-worry) is Australia’s southernmost point, a tiny spit of an island some 940 miles (1,500 km) southeast of Tasmania. For you mariners out there that’s a three-day sail from Hobart-past the roaring 40s and into the furious 50s. The island is only about twenty miles long and two miles across-a lonely scrap of sub-antarctic landscape consisting of pointed grassy slopes and rocky beaches where mist lingers all the day long.
Discovered in 1810 by wayward sealers, Macquarie was kept a secret in order that they get rich quick from the magnificent seal colonies living on the island. In 1811, the first ship to arrive in Sydney from Macquarie carried almost 57,000 seal skins. Today, the descendants of these piles of skins still tumble along the salt and pepper sand, bellowing out the unique throaty growl of the adult elephant seal. It’s quite a sight. Forget all your images of Australia’s man-eating crocodiles and creepy snakes and spiders. Here is a different kind of nature reserve where the local attraction grows to 20 feet long, weighs more than three tons, and spends most of the day sleeping on the beach.Macquarie is not your typical vacation destination–there is no permanent human population and there are no hotels or restaurants (though the chef at the Australian meteorological station bakes terrific scones). Also, it rains pretty much constantly and on most days, the wind blows hard enough to knock you down.
What Macquarie does have is wildlife and a lot of it. Thanks to extreme isolation, very little human contact and strict conservation rules, the animals on Macquarie harbor no fear of humans whatsoever. While guidelines instruct keeping at least 30 feet from any wild animal, the sheer abundance of living breathing cute cuddly things makes it impossible. You try hard not to touch or interfere, but if they come to you, then just let them. Sit down on the beach and the baby elephant seals will flop their way towards you, sniff you out, then curl up beside you begging to spoon. Likewise, brown fluffy balls of baby penguins come teetering up to check you out, then start screeching for mom and dad. The cuteness factor trumps a million sneezing panda vids.
Four kinds of penguin live on Macquarie. The largest and most vivid are the elegant King penguins who are the slightly smaller cousins to the iconic Emperor penguins (the ones you and your kids know and love from Happy Feet). As a self-certified, card-carrying member of the penguin craze, I went berserk on watching all the action that goes on in Macquarie’s penguin colony. Even more amusing were the royal penguins, who waddle to and from shore shaking their bushy yellow eyebrows. The species is only found on this island and number well over a million pairs.
We later traveled to Lusitania Bay, Australia’s largest protected penguin rookery. From out of the white fog, the shore appeared like a dream sequence. At first I saw nothing except a buzzing black and white screen beyond the mist. Suddenly our little boat lurched forward and the beach came into focus: not hundreds, not thousands, but a hundred thousand or more penguins. An unreal sight and an unreal sound, that of an infinite chorus of nasally seabirds calling out in almost-unison. Penguins were diving and swimming all around us as well, bulleting through the golden ripples of waves. I’ve never felt so outnumbered in my life.
In the distance, a pair of old-fashioned rusty steam cookers sat on the beach as an eerie reminder of the island’s exploitative past. Once upon a time, men gathered up penguins and threw them in the pot to boil up some penguin oil, used to make rope and twine back in the day. The penguins triumphed, thank goodness, and today the island is a vital breeding spot.
I sailed to Macquarie on the MV Orion, an Australian expedition ship which–in the spirit of Gadling’s motto, goes there–or in other words, goes to the places where few ships ever go. (If you’re going to travel to one of the least habitable islands in the world, it helps to be traveling on one of the world’s most habitable ships.) As tourist interest broadens, the government still limits visits to under twelve ships a year. Extraordinary bird life attracts all the gung ho bird nuts out there, while map nuts like me are eager to get to such a remote place and see what we can see.
I feel immensely lucky to have traveled to this forgotten map crumb of Australia. I loved the penguins and friendly elephant seals and the giant killer whales swimming in the shallows. The brown-green kelp and chunks of ice on the beach added an extra twinge of exoticism, however it was the island itself that attracted me-a rare and lonely place at the bottom of the world that few know and even fewer ever visit.%Gallery-79934%