The eradication of rabbits, rats and mice from Macquarie Island was declared successful in April 2014. Reports from staff working on Macquarie Island are posted below.
September 2015 – Ranger-in-Charge Andrea Turbett
The megaherb Pleurophyllum on the west coast near Bauer Bay
I first visited Macquarie Island in 2010, when I assisted with planning work in preparation for the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project (MIPEP). Aerial baiting followed in 2011 and then the island was searched by hunters and their dogs for nearly three years. The eradication of rabbits, rats and mice was declared successful in April 2014.
I am very fortunate to have been involved in the eradication project, seen the rabbits and the degradation, and to now be back here five years later to witness the island flourish.
The natural revegetation is prolific. Beautiful silver clumps of the megaherb Pleurophyllum emerge during the summer months and delicate tiny fungi pop up everywhere. Thick swaths of lush green Poa tussock grasses cover the hillsides. In some places the tall tussock grasses are making walking along the coastline more difficult – some are taller than me!
Can you spot the four rockhopper penguins hiding in the cabbage?
Many animals are better off too. One of my favourite things I saw soon after returning to the island were curious little rockhopper penguins hiding in lush patches of Stilbocarpa, another megaherb and known as the Macquarie Island cabbage, which was previously heavily grazed by rabbits.
Even in winter we are seeing good outcomes of MIPEP. A couple of months ago Anna (the wildlife ranger) and I were excited to find downy grey petrel chicks in burrows on the west coast at some places that have had no sign of breeding for about 10 years! These sites suffered major degradation in the years prior to MIPEP due to the combination of rabbit burrowing destabilising sites and high grazing pressure removing vegetation cover. At one of the nest sites there are now healthy clumps of tussock grass on slopes that were almost bare in 2012.
December 2013 - Field assistant Lachlan Francis
As a returning hunter, it has been almost two years between MIPEP (Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project) stints. The change in Macquarie should be most noticeable to me, and it has not let me down. Some parts of Macquarie have not changed, the station is the same, Lionel is still saving fuel, the hills are still as steep, and the mud still as thick! However, there have been more subtle changes on the island. The grass is longer, there is tussock and cabbage growing where it hasn’t for a long time, and most pleasing is the sound of the burrowing birdlife which echoes around the hills. There is noticeably many more smaller birds around the island, who have obviously benefited from the project. It is really comforting to know that such an effect has already began to happen on Macca, and to think what it will be like in 10 years is a real benefit of the project.
After landing on the island, we did some search and rescue training, and then straight out into the field. It was pleasing to see some familiar landmarks as we headed down field. It was good to be back at Green Gorge for my first night in the field on my way down to the southern end. The next day was on to Windy Ridge hut, a plateau water tank hut. The reality quickly set in being back in the water tank, where the condensation quickly forms on the hut walls and nothing ever really dries.
The first week has turned up some really good weather, with plenty of sunshine with the odd day of rain and wind. Hopefully the summer delivers more good weather like this and we find no rabbits or rodents, and before too long we are back with our loved ones!
July 2013 – Hunters Mike Fawcett and Tom Clarke
Well it’s been four months since the departure from Hobart on the Aurora Australis. Morale is strong as the team focus on the monitoring phase of the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Program. It has been almost two years since the last sighting of a live rabbit and we’re carrying on the work done by previous MIPEP teams. What seemed a daunting task to undertake in the rugged environment of Macquarie Island is now an achievable goal in everyone’s mind. Since the monitoring work has started this year we have found mummified remains and skeletons but no fresh sign to date.
Another addition to the project is the post-eradication rodent detection program. Leona and Angela have come from New Zealand with three detection dogs; Cody, Chase and Bail. This team of dogs and humans are putting in a massive effort to cover coastal areas where wildlife have left the island for winter.
Last month we had our midwinter celebrations, which were enjoyed by all. Chef Tony put in a herculean effort to create a culinary feast to feed a small country. Festivities included Tug-o-war (Kiwi vs OZ), haggis throwing with a real kilted Scotsman running the event and fake haggis. The annual dog racing event saw Ash the springer spaniel lose his crown, however controversy remains as to which dog actually won. The main feature of the day was Cinderella, the production. The storyline was tweaked and perverted for Macca Island entertainment involving shoe fetishes, going to ground early, Star Wars and government bureaucracy. We all made presents for each other, some put more effort in than others and it was duly noted.
During the winter months the MIPEP team have been utilizing the longer nights and focusing on spotlighting as another tool for monitoring. In the hours of darkness MIPEP hunters roam the island in search of eye shine from any elusive rabbit evading their inevitable demise. In the wee small hours many of the world’s philosophical questions are raised but few are answered.
The next few months we will continue to spotlight before the long summer days return, concentrate on coastal areas before the wildlife comes back to breed and revisit areas of post-baiting rabbit sign. Eyes on the ground! Stay strong! Be good to your mother! Take care of your feet! Chew your food more and stretch!
November 2012 – Dog handler Stephen Horn
Today is a Saturday and the day of return to the field for MIPEP(Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project) hunters and dogs. We awoke to an early November morning with snow blanketing the ground four or five inches deep. After a warmish August (everything is relative!) those who made the call that the freeze had finished for the year have been reminded of the whimsical and unpredictable nature of sub-Antarctic weather during the month of October. Weather dominates our lives to a large degree, whilst hunting in the field. The wind direction dictates which side of the island it is more suitable to hunt on a given day so the forecast on the radio sched each evening is followed closely.
Often a day is interspersed with glimpses of sun accompanied by soon-to-follow cloud, mist, hail and or snow showers, often calling for a brief spell sheltering behind a rock for five minutes to avoid the worst of a blast, before awaiting the sun again. Feature-wise it paints a new landscape on a daily and often hourly basis. We had a couple of memorable days in October where the snow would fall, turning the island white within 30 minutes, only to see it appear green again a similar time later with the whole process repeating itself over and over during the afternoon. It is telling when you look at photos taken at different times during a single hunt that the scene portrayed suggests different seasons not different phases of the same day.
Much has happened since the last blog. The eradication effort is looking very positive. We still find the occasional mummified rabbit carcass or some historic sign as well as scattered bones over much of the island but we have located zero fresh sign of rabbits or rodents to date during 2012. Winter hours have also left us and the wildlife has returned. Daylight now arrives with keenness in the early hours, around 4.30 in the morning and departs closer to 8.30pm compared with approximately 8.00am until 4.30pm mid-winter.
We celebrated mid-winter with a bash fit for royalty and food to match. Fun was had with a mid-winter swim and subsequent spa. In September the MIPEP team helped ranger Richard Dakin to conduct a census on northern giant petrels, as the petrels started their nesting phase that month. After kelp gulls, northern giant petrels were the main species affected by baiting during the eradication so there is interest in their population numbers and post-baiting breeding success.
Of huge excitement at the end of last month was the brief visit by the French vessel L’Astrolabe, which called by to drop of six new expeditioners and return one winterer back to Australia. The new faces have provided a buzz for everyone on station, as this has been our first physical contact with the outside world for seven months. Excitement also surrounded the arrival of the mailbags and a small amount of fresh mangoes and oranges. Mangoes were coveted to the point that people put their name on one in the fruit bowl so they wouldn’t miss out.
The spring period now provides a lot of new feed for any bunnies that may be left, especially on the coast and escarpment zones, areas that have in many places suffered significant damage in the past. These areas also provide some rich experiences observing the extent of the Macquarie Island wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of royal penguins have moved back into rookeries dotted around the island, both coastal and at locations surprisingly far inland. Grand and graceful albatross have returned to breed including the black browed, grey headed and light-mantled albatross. Elephant seals have pupped and many are now weaned. Rotund and satisfied looking pups are scattered everywhere, sleeping, playing and blocking entrances to outer station buildings with their gatherings. Rockhopper penguins returned just at the end of last month to start breeding at the same time as gentoo penguins are busy feeding their chicks. Many of the king penguin chicks are moulting to fledge after 18months of being fed and head out to fend for themselves. Something which I am about to do today, head out and fend for myself for the rest of the month, after our monthly break on station enjoying the culinary delights of the wonderful chef Maria and the sample of fresh fruit that accompanied the L’Astrolabe.
June 2012 – Hunters Lauren Koehler and Kelly Smith - Hunters
So here we are, we survived our first month on Macquarie Island- enjoyed our five days of well-earned rest and about to head off for our second months adventure.
It has been a long process to get this to point. Our training started in Hobart in late March and involved everything from search and rescue (cliff faces predominantly) to working safely as a slushy (kitchen apprentice) and hunting techniques for rabbits.
After what seemed like ‘forever’ we finally boarded the Aurora Australis and headed south for Macquarie Island. After three days of fairly pleasant Southern Ocean conditions we arrived at our home for the next twelve months. And what a home it was to be.
For the hunters the re-supply was a hectic process and we tried to help out where we could. For the dog handlers, re-supply allowed time to meet their new dogs and receive handy tips from last year’s crew.
Icy conditions at the end of our first month
The ship sailed and then it was straight into field training. Our team leader took groups of three out for hut familiarisation and a taste of the island. From then on we joined up with the hunters from last year and dispersed over the island to our hunting blocks.
Hut life has been a treat with lots of creative cooking and a healthy competition for best baking. A loaf of freshly baked bread, topped with tinned butter, does not last long after an evening spotlighting session.
Hunters and dogs heading out for the day
The wildlife so far has been incredible, although we are told we have the best still to come.
The work has been physically demanding and has taken a bit of time to get used to. But we are looking forward to our second month armed with better knowledge of the island and stronger legs. No rabbits or rabbit sign as yet; the tally for 2012 still stands at zero. Our eyes are keen and enthusiasm high, so beware bunnies.
Time to get back out there. We are both headed to the south of the island. When we return it will be time for the mid-winter celebrations; but we’ve got a few kilometres to cover before then.
April 2012 – Dana Boyte - Hunter
It’s amazing how time flies . . .
It doesn’t seem that long ago when the MIPEP team were raring to head out into the field for the first time and explore the island and get those bunnies! Now 9 months on we have reached the last stint out in the field before the ship comes in for resupply and takes everyone back to the real world away from all the seals and penguins and back to the traffic and crowds.
Photo by Dana Boyte, 2012
The only exceptions are the four of us who have signed on for another year – Pete K will be our new team leader and Jack, Jane and I will be dog handlers. So we still have a little while yet before we go back to the real world and I for one am quite excited at spending another year on this amazing island and continuing this project.
Every month down here seems to bring something new and there is never a dull moment on Macquarie. We were lucky enough to do another circumnavigation of the island recently with stunning weather (for the morning at least), we had an art show on station with a lot of talented work from many people, the wildlife is continually changing its habits with the seasons. The penguin colonies are filling up again for moulting and the adult elephant seals have also been back in for their annual moult. The Wandering Albatross now have chicks and the Sooty Albatross chicks are growing rapidly and will soon start to lose their baby fluff, and the King penguin chicks seem to get bigger every time you see them.
Photo by Dana Boyte, 2012
The rabbit story so far: 13 dead rabbits since start of hunting phase. No rabbits have been sighted or caught since November and no fresh rabbit sign or grazing has been found since November either. So things are looking very promising, but there isn’t an option to take it easy in the rabbit searching because there are still a few areas where we had found fresh rabbit sign but haven’t been able to catch up with the culprit thus far. So it is uncertain whether these last few rabbits are excellent at hiding from our watchful eyes and the dog’s noses or if they have perhaps died on their own accord or been picked off by Skua. I guess only time will tell.
In other good news there has also been no sign of rats or mice present on the island since the baiting and the island and wildlife is already positively responding to the lack of rodents and rabbits.
The Antarctic terns are now nesting not just on offshore rock stacks but in higher numbers on the main island due to the lack of predation from rats. The vegetation around the island is rapidly growing; the tussocks are growing very quickly making walking through them difficult and slow going as in some places it’s head height. Almost everywhere you walk you notice small cabbage plants starting to grow, where there were none at all when the rabbits were around to keep them down. And in areas where there was heavy rabbit grazing and damage and it was brown and barren the tussocks and other plants are growing back.
The station is in for a busy month with everyone packing up their gear ready to head back to Hobart and having a general big sort out and clean up of virtually everything ready for the new crew coming down. We also have to cater for a large number of round trippers coming down over the resupply period – doing various jobs; from scientific studies to building new sections of boardwalk. I think over the resupply period there will be around 100 people coming and going on the island and ship so it will be quite hectic and hopefully the weather will co-operate and the resupply to the field huts and station will run smoothly.
So as end of the month approaches there is lots of things to look forward to: a leaving dinner and a last big catch up for everyone on station, then resupply, meeting new people and introducing them to the island, a welcoming dinner, mail from friends and family back home and also something that most people are craving down here – fresh fruit!
3 February 2012 – Claudia Babirat – hunter
I still can’t quite believe it. Today is my first official day of being a hunter, woohoo!
I’m in a bit of an unusual situation in that I’m joining the MIPEP team six months into the first year of hunting. That’s because one of our most awesome hunters, rockstar Dean-o, will be leaving in a couple of weeks, after working on Macquarie Island for over 15 months. That’s a pretty long stint.
I’m no stranger to the MIPEP project though. I’ve been
shooting since July last year – with a camera, that is, making a documentary about the eradication. For four months I was out busting the berms with the rest of the crew.
So what’s it like, living thousands of miles from the nearest traffic jam?
Pretty great, I’d have to say. Macca (that’s what we ‘locals’ call the island) is amazing. Now that summer is in full swing, we’re surrounded by wildlife on a daily basis. The elephant seal weaners have been my favourites – fat, flippered sausages that deserve a gold star for ultimate cuteness.
If you sit real still on the beach they sometimes crawl all over you. The royal, king and gentoo penguins also waddle over to peck at your boots.
What makes this place special, though, is our team. We’re all Aussies and Kiwis, from a variety of backgrounds. Our youngest hunter is 26, and the oldest 58 (?). Some of us have hunted professionally for a good part of our lives, others are active recreational hunters. The job is not so much about doing lots of shooting though (there’s hardly any rabbits left to point a gun at), but more about strengthof character and keeping up motivation to look for sign on rough terrain in even rougher weather.
For eight of us, life is made that little bit easier by having our partners here. Dana and Jack are a young hunter/dog handler couple who usually work for Department of Conservation in Southland (NZ), as do Pete K (aka “The Captain”) and Jane. Both pairs will be staying on for Year Two. Ben and Melissa met each other on the icebreaker Aurora Australis coming down, and have since hooked up. As for me, my partner Pete P (aka “Stumpy”) is this year’s eradication team leader, which also now makes him my boss. Still not sure how I feel about that!
The camaraderie in the team is amazing. You get to know your hut partners pretty well, since you live in close quarters together for a month. Before being employed as hunters, most of us had to go through a three-day interview process as well as a psych test, both of which assessed how well you get on with other people. I think they got the mix pretty right. Although we have unique and strong personalities, there have been no major fights. Instead, everyone works for the good of the team and the community.
Well, I’m about to pack my hunting gear now, and sight in my rifle. I’ll start off at the Brothers Point/Bauer Bay block with Gary, who I’ll be working with for the first two weeks. Like everyone else, I dream of casually walking back into station with a rabbit slung over my shoulder. For the island’s sake though, I hope there’s none left. After all, that’s what we’re here for - to make sure those cute waddly penguins and sub-Antarctic friends are rid of introduced pests once and for all.
5 December 2011 – Peter Preston – Eradication Team Leader
Well, almost two months have passed since the last entry to this blog, so where are we at?
The guys and girls have just returned to the field after their break at the end of a month living and working from the huts scattered from one end of the island to the other.
As usual, when the hunters get back to base after a month in the field the priorities revolve around having a good long shower, getting into clean clothes and sorting out a month’s worth of washing.
After that, the hunters head for the mess for good food cooked by someone else, in this case, chef extraordinaire, Danny. Fresh fruit, steak and green vegetables rank high on the list of desirables.
Of course the evenings are filled with tall tales at the bar and as the night goes on the tales get taller. Hunters compare blocks, events and sign seen from the past month and plan the downfall of the next rabbit. The theories are as individual as their owners and everyone has a different idea on what will work best. The hunters have one thing in common, they’re all keen to get back out and get the remaining rabbits by any method applicable.
Catching up on sleep is also a popular activity and no-one expects hunters to be on deck early. Of course there are exceptions and some such as Gary Bowcock will be down giving the dogs a run in the early dawn, regardless of how late the previous night was.
There are a number of organized events during each break for all staff, including the tradies, hunters, scientists and meteorology wizards to get together.
There is a formal dinner during each break and this month we had a medieval theme. The range of costumes was wide and demonstrated individual ingenuity. Tom Ralph had cake tins and serving platters for armour and the girls looked suitably delightful in flowing dresses. Entertainment came courtesy of Jane Tansell and Ashleigh Wilson on their guitars. Two roast pigs took centre place and with hands for eating and flat breads for plates the scene was set.
But all good things must come to an end so on Saturday the hunters headed back into the field loaded with clean clothes and a belly full of good food to continue the hunt.
Four months hunting has been completed and the rabbit tally currently sits at 13. The last two months have been more productive from a rabbit tally point of view with two rabbits in October and six in November.
Where have they come from? Why did we see so little sign in August and September? The answers are not immediately obvious. Despite the intensive ongoing work across the whole island, all of a sudden, rabbits are popping up. Rigorous work, day and night, over a period of weeks is required to get some individual rabbits, while others are caught in a couple of days.
A new benchmark was set this month with three rabbits killed in one day. Following on from Melissa (assisted by others) getting a female rabbit that showed signs of having dropped a litter, Sandy did some detailed searching in the area. She found four small rabbits, known as runners, in three burrows over two days, in an area about 300m from Melissa’s rabbit.
In these situations, when a hunter announces that they have found fresh sign or a rabbit over the VHF radio, they will be swamped with offers of assistance from other hunters in adjacent blocks, keen for a taste of the action and reflected glory that comes from a successful result.
This event, which involved around half of the team at some stage, was great for team morale but brought with it the realisation that several females dropping litters could rapidly undo much of our good work. The sex ratio is still heavily weighted towards males, which is of great assistance to an eradication project such as this.
Hunters are continuing to find further sign at low levels across the island so there is still a long way to go yet and no place for complacency.
And so, as the hunters trudge up the escarpment, cursing their heavy packs, the important questions remain uppermost in their minds. What will the month bring? Will I get the next rabbit? Did I bring enough clean underwear? And are there any Mars bars left at the hut?
Jane Tansell – Dog Handler - 8 October 2011
Chef Danny on a nice day at Lusitania Bay
They say no news is good news and that is true for the MIPEP project. Since the start of the ground hunting phase a couple of months ago the team has been head down scouring the island and so far there has been very little evidence of surviving rabbits and we have been quite successful in eradicating those that have turned up. There has been no confirmed rodent sign. Each hunter or dog handler has typically covered approximately 200km a week up hill and down dale in the search for rabbits or sign. The search has gone on despite snow, hail, rain and high winds.
Lately the team has been given the run around by a couple of elusive bunnies that have left sign but been difficult to locate. So we were stoked to catch a bunny in a trap at Unity Point recently and it was promptly dispatched, bringing the total number of rabbits killed since the end of the aerial poisoning to 6. The area is still receiving a lot of attention as it appears that there may be another bunny somewhere in the vicinity. In the meantime more sign has been found in several locations further down the island and the team is hard at work trying to catch the bunnies responsible. As Keith Broome quoted in an earlier blog “…it doesn’t matter about the ones you get – it’s the ones you leave behind that count…” so we will not be resting for the entire time we are here as we can’t afford to leave behind a single bunny.
Elephant seal pup taking a drink
The work has been made easier in the last few weeks by improved weather and we have even had a whole day where the sun put in an appearance and it was possible to work without a rain jacket. Life is good when the sun shines on Macquarie. The improved weather marks the start of spring and the start of the breeding season for the islands many inhabitants.
The newly arrived elephant seal pups have been entertaining us and the rabbit hunting dogs are quite fascinated with them. Perhaps their yapping makes the dogs think they have happened upon a beach full of long lost cousins. The skua take full advantage of the free meal of seal pup afterbirths and seem interested in whether the dogs are also worth a free meal. The skua like to follow them around whilst swooping low over them. Some of the dogs are not too sure if they like this attention bordering on harassment.
Flax uses Colin as a pillow during a pause in the days work
The dogs have great personalities and it has been interesting watching them become acquainted with the island’s wildlife and vice versa. The springer spaniels are typically high in energy while the labs are much more laid back about life in general. I feel privileged to have the dogs adding to my day but they don’t talk much so it is nice to share a hut with a hunter for some company in the evening.
At the end of the day the dog handlers and hunters stagger back to our respective huts and bivs for a well earned rest or maybe just a quick bite before heading out spotlighting. The wee water tank bivs on the plateau are providing endless opportunities for gutter humour as we negotiate the trials of toileting in a talcum coated plastic bag for later disposal. The huts are definitely more salubrious than the water tanks and have the added benefit of being able to accommodate more people.
Hunter Lachlan at Caroline Cove water tank biv
We look forward to occasional visits at the huts from AAD staff mostly for their company but also for their kind delivery of fresh meat to supplement our diet of dried and canned food. At the end of each month in the field we are all more than ready for the gastronomic delights of VJM base and a catch up with our AAD colleagues.
While camped at Windy Ridge water tank biv with hunter Lachlan I discovered he was a fellow aspiring poet and we entertained ourselves with visits with the muse. I will leave you with a wee poem inspired by my time at Windy Ridge biv.
A balletic co-ordination of choreography
Makes living in this palace a great experience for you and me
As you sashay to the right I’ll shimmy to the left
And the footwork that’s involved is really rather deft
While it’s unfortunately unavoidable having the occasional tootsie tangle
Dog handler Gary (left) and chef Danny rest at Waterfall Bay googie hut
That’s probably the lesser evil compared to the stinky socks that dangle
Over the heater where they’ll fester In terms of friendship they’re a tester
But at least they’re getting dry which is more than can be said for the walls
When in your sleep you hug their wetness the whole experience slightly palls
Then you wake in the morning and surprise – it’s quiet – there’s no wind outside
For once your talcum will stay in the bag though it still won’t stick to the side
But while the talcum won’t adhere your daily offering most surely will
So be sure to aim most carefully when your daily bag you fill.
Tom Ralph - hunter - 31 July 2011
After a fairly quick trip from Hobart down to Macquarie Island on board the Aurora Australis, the new team of dog handlers and hunters were raring to go – but - so close yet so far!
We had to spent an extra day or so eating far too much as the Aurora steamed up and down the island, waiting for a window in the weather to go ashore. In a way, I was glad to have the time to appreciate a good view of the eastern side of the island, or at the very least it put the job into perspective. The whole island was blanketed in snow down to sea level and it was blowing over 50 knots – not the most ideal hunting conditions ever, but no doubt a fair standard to expect for the next few months. The anticipation and excitement was building none the less. The dog handlers were all keen to re -acquaint themselves with their dogs, and as a first timer to the island, I was just eager to get ashore.
The next day dawned on a calmer ocean, and we all made ready to jump in the chopper. With three choppers relaying gear and people, the crew on board the ship and the island were both bustling, making the most of the window in the weather. When the chopper dropped us off at the station, we jumped out only a couple of metres away from a pile of young elephant seals, which didn't bat an eyelid at our arrival. At this point, it really sunk in that we were finally here.
There was only time for a brief catch up and cup of tea with the outgoing team, who were all a lot hairier than when we last saw them. After plenty of congratulations on a job well done, they were whisked away in the chopper to start the journey back to family and friends.
Those of the initial team who were staying on quickly filled us in – the baiting phase had been so successful that the number of rabbits found since then is small enough that any remainders would probably be few and far between.
Now all we have to do is complete a week’s worth of induction and field training before we head out to the field huts where we’ll be working in pairs of one dog handler and one hunter for the next month or so.
If I were a bunny, I’d be cutting a very low profile indeed.
13 JULY 2011
FROM KEITH BROOME, OPERATIONS ADVISOR
The JCB loader edged forward over the stainless steel bait sowing bucket and Mike gently opened the gate to let the rush of green pellets flow. Four seconds later he was reversing clear and the clatter of rotors increased in pitch as Bryan took up the slack in the strong lines connecting 'Romeo Bravo' to the bucket. It was early afternoon, unusually calm with a promise of maybe a little weak sunshine filtering through the clouds. Bryan smoothly lifted off the isthmus loading site and climbed out to the southwest. Just another load? No this was the final load of bait for Macquarie.
That elusive final load we had been chasing since May 3rd when the very first load for 2011 left the ground. I decided the occasion warranted a little unnecessary radio chatter and keyed my lapel 'mike' “ Romeo Bravo have fun with that one Bryan it looks like the last load”. “We sure will thanks Keith” came the reply as the red and white Squirrel rapidly receded to a dark insect against the bright skyline.
May 3rd to July 9th - 68 days with aerial baiting permissible on 23 of them and all four aircraft operational on 22 of those 23 days, testament to the skill and dedication of the Helicopter Resources team. Over 500 loads and 12,000 individual bags of bait with no incidents on the loading sites (apart from the desecration of Mr P's chair but that's another story!) - testament to the professionalism of the loading teams. That we all actually got here on time with the resources to do this job – testament to the dogged determination, patience and project management skills of our leader Keith Springer.
After the agonising birth of this project, the voluminous planning documents produced and requirements met over four challenging years followed by the bitter disappointment of last winter – this was a moment that some doubted we would ever see. Now, finally we can say we’ve done all we can, all that’s humanly possible to make Macquarie rat and mouse free with the best available technology worldwide.
Most people think of this as just a rabbit eradication project because the damage caused by rabbits to the vegetation here is so obvious. Without doubt rabbit impacts are dramatic, but less obvious but equally important are the impacts of the rodents, especially the rats. The big changes in birdlife caused by ship rats would have happened soon after they arrived here maybe 120 years ago. Small species of burrowing petrel, the now extinct Macquarie Island parakeet and rail, and many of the prion family have been driven off the island by constant depredation of their eggs and young chicks. Take away the rodents and in time we can expect some of these species to return to a safer Macquarie Island to raise chicks.
So now to the rabbits, the ‘unfinished business’ of the Macquarie project. As I prepare to go back home my friends staying on here have before them the toughest challenge of all. There’s an old saying in the pest control profession that “…it doesn’t matter about the ones you get – it’s the ones you leave behind that count…” and this is so true for those last surviving rabbits. Each and every one of them will have to be found and dealt with. To make things even harder, there’s a time limit.
The massive reduction in rabbit numbers means the vegetation on the island is growing back, giving both food and cover to the survivors. The coming 12 months is where we have to fight to keep the momentum of the rabbit eradication and not allow the survivors a chance to breed. The two years after that will be harder still as the hunting teams maintain the physical struggle through growing tussocks and the mental struggle to believe in what they’re doing and believe there may still be rabbits out there to find. Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning (you got it Winston!).
22 JUNE 2011
FROM LACHLAN FRANCIS, BAIT LOADER
Since Fletcher Anderson’s posting in May, baiting progress has continued at the same exceptional rate. By Sunday 19 June, the baiting progress reached 199.99% - nearly two whole-island drops complete!
As pilot Bryan Patterson was on the very last load the cloud descended and put a halt to the baiting for the day, leaving us an agonising 6 ha short of completing the second bait drop (of the island’s total 12 800ha)!! The pilots have done an excellent job getting the bait out, giving us bait loaders no time for rest on the ground feeding the big steel bait buckets.
The helicopter engineering team have also done an excellent job (between planking on the fuel drums), in keeping the machines in good order and in the air, and the bait buckets fine-tuned and reliable. They are the first out and last in, making sure that the equipment vital to the project’s success is ready for the next day.
In between progressing the baiting, we have been kept very busy with dismantling the bait pods for return to Tasmania, and since we have now finished baiting from the Hurd Point and Green Gorge baiting depots, the sites will be cleaned up and all unused materials flown back to the station during the next clear weather. This involves burning the spoilt bait and dismantling bait pods.
Other works being completed in preparation for the hunting phase is the commissioning of the hunters’ huts, and the resupply of the established huts. The hunters’ huts are a cosy water tank, converted to a hut with essential amenities for field life. These are placed throughout the island, and will be the home for the hunting team for their time in the field.
The Non-Target Mitigation Team has also been kept very busy. Their objective is to remove all poisoned carcasses from the food chain, thus reducing scavenging bird deaths. With the island totally baited, the whole island needs to be regularly scoured for carcasses. The baiting teams have been rotating into field life too, and when the weather does not allow baiting, the teams are off on the mitigation work as well.
The mitigation work also allows us to get an idea of what surviving rabbits are out there. The sightings of live rabbits are very few and far between, and these sightings have been in areas which have since been baited again. Hopefully by the time that the hunting phase of the project begins, there will either be none, or only a handful of surviving rabbits.
28 MAY 2011
FROM FLETCHER ANDERSON, HELICOPTER PILOT - A VIEW FROM THE TOP
It has been a long, difficult journey, but as of 26th May 2011 we have finally achieved 100% bait coverage of Macquarie. Being part of the team last year, it is a huge boost to the morale to get to this point. After personally investing much time and effort last year to no avail, it is fantastic to know that this job has a chance of being successful.
Macquarie Island is a unique place to fly helicopters. While being a relatively small island, it has plenty of scenery and wildlife that keeps you interested. While I have been doing my job here I have been able to see penguins playing in the bow thrusters of the Aurora Australis while unloading bait pods to Hurd Point. When unloading fuel drums to the station from the ship, I got to see a pod of orcas surface near the zodiac dinghies carrying out the station refuelling. These are pretty special experiences for a lad from New Zealand’s South Island.
While Macquarie can offer these unique sights, it can also deal us some interesting flying conditions. For such a small island with relatively low topography, it is incredible how turbulent it can get. With the predominant westerly winds, the eastern coast is often not a fun place to be for a helicopter. The wind rolls over the small hills and rotors over the lee side creating unstable air. There is no time for complacency here, especially when flying with a bucket with 650kg of bait underneath the helicopter.
The weather can also change incredibly quickly, for better or worse. One minute you are in sunshine flying north on a sowing run and when you turn around cloud has formed on the hills behind you making it impossible to continue baiting. This year however has been much more favourable with more clear days on the plateau making our job that much easier. While there are some similarities to flying at home in New Zealand, Macquarie has the weather cranked up to 11!
I have been very impressed with the loading crew’s enthusiasm for the job. While it is hard work for us to fly in some unfavourable conditions, the guys and girls on the ground work harder to keep us in the air. Each load requires 26 bags that each weigh 25 kilos. With some days of 60 loads, that is a lot of bags to open and lift. Some of the loading teams have never had experience doing this type of work and it is great to see how well they are going. Without their hard work in freezing conditions we could not achieve this great result. They also make some tasty sandwiches for us pilots and crew!
Also on the ground keeping us going are our two engineers Jeremy and Wayne. These two lads have a job that involves long periods of waiting while we are flying, then intense work while the machines are on the ground. The helicopters have to be pre- and post-flight inspected each day of flying. When not flying, cleaning needs to be kept up to keep the corrosion from the ever present salt at bay. Larger inspections are also carried out when required.
The AAD station crew are right behind us too which is a great help. Met reports, workshop repairs, fantastic food from chef Danny and entertainment from Wayne the plumber are some of the contributions from the “locals”.
To sum up, this job is a huge team effort, and it is really satisfying to see everyone pitching in and paddling the canoe in the same direction to achieve the goal of eradication on Macca.
13 MAY 2011
FROM GRANT HARPER OF THE BAIT LOADING TEAM
Well, it is less than a fortnight since we farewelled the ‘Aurora Australis’, and we have not let the Stilbocarpa
grow beneath our feet. The eradication team swung into action immediately and have already surpassed expectations for the poison bait drop. By Thursday 12 May, 72% of the island had been covered with bait for the first of two drops.
The weather has been kind and the team has managed to work most days, even if it is for only a few hours, when the mist has cleared or the wind has dropped.
We started at Hurd Point, at the southern end of the island. Here the only flat land for operating the baiting operation from is also favoured by royal penguins for breeding during the brief subantarctic summer. Therefore we spent several days slushing around ankle deep in penguin poo, which was aromatic to say the least. Needless to say, the team was happy to move onto Green Gorge, halfway up the east coast, for the baiting of the middle portion of the island.
By now, the two bait loading teams are working well and have become very used to shifting tonnes of 25kg bait bags out of, and onto, bait pods before feeding the insatiable maws of the bait buckets slung under the helicopters. There seems to be an endless circuit of helicopters swooping in, having their bait buckets loaded, before swinging away to spread lines of bait across the countryside.
So progress has surpassed expectations and we are hoping for a continuing run of portions of suitable weather so we can finish the first run of bait spreading.
4 MAY 2011
FROM PROJECT MANAGER, KEITH SPRINGER - BAITING BEGINS ON MACQUARIE ISLAND
Nine months after leaving Macquarie Island with the aerial baiting phase uncompleted, the Macquarie Island pest eradication team has returned to the island for a further attempt. A major difference this year was that the RSV Aurora Australis was available at a more suitable timeframe to travel to the island. Despite the Aurora being stuck in the ice off Davis Station in late March, our departure was delayed only two days, and the team left Hobart on 19 April with a fairly full ship of Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) expeditioners and round-trip passengers.
We arrived at Macquarie Island on a wet, windy and foggy morning with a strong northerly wind and swell. As unloading wasn’t possible we sat off Buckles Bay and during the afternoon the cloud lifted to reveal the plateau and coastal slopes bathed in sunshine – a welcome view and one we hoped would become a frequent sight over the coming months!
The next morning our dog handlers together with dog trainers Steve Austin and Guus Knopers went ashore, with the 12 dogs lowered over the side of the ship to be placed in the LARC waiting alongside. LARCs are an amphibious vehicle operated by AAD at Macquarie Island and were used to transport cargo ashore, with most passengers disembarking into zodiacs before transferring to the LARCs for the ride through the surf to Landing Beach. Many familiar faces awaited us, as the team who we spent last winter with were in their final week of their year-long stay. Because room on station was at a premium, a dozen of the eradication team stayed on board the ship for the following week. Unloading the bait and helicopter fuel was conducted when the weather allowed, on Wednesday 27 April at Hurd Point, Friday 29 April at the station and 2 May 2 at Green Gorge. The helicopter pilots and the ship’s crew did a great job in getting the cargo off and in place smoothly, with voyage leader Robb Clifton and his team coordinating the operation from on board the ship.
Meanwhile the dog handlers were out every day with Steve and Guus and their charges. The trainers have been working hard on training the dogs for over two and a half years and this was the culmination of all their hard work, which they were passing on to the handlers before leaving behind the dogs that have been such a big part of their lives.
One of the most striking things about returning to the island this year was the dramatic success in reducing rabbit numbers by releasing the rabbit calici virus in February this year. The virus was intended as a measure to try to reduce the incidence of non-target mortality sustained by scavenging birds when they ate toxic carcasses or rabbits and rodents. Very few rabbits are now to be seen on the island and as well as hopefully reducing the deaths of native bird species after baiting, the reduction has also meant fewer rabbits to poison in the aerial baiting operation. Although viruses such as the calici virus are rarely an eradication method on their own (young rabbits are not susceptible to the virus) their use can be an important component of an eradication campaign, especially when used for a specific purpose as in this instance.
After successfully unloading all our bait and equipment, the Aurora Australis left for Hobart late on Monday afternoon, to the waves of the team left behind on the island – there will be 40 people here this winter, possibly the highest number to winter since AAD established the station in 1948. That night there was a spectacular sight in the heavens. Over several hours, moving arches and bands of light shimmered and pulsed in the clear skies as the (other) aurora australis put on a magnificent show.
The next day a bait loading station was set up on the Isthmus and the four helicopter pilots and two loading teams went through their paces; testing equipment and procedures and baiting the northern tip of the island in the process – the program has begun. The station team are a great crew and really supportive, and we’re getting settled in now. We’re just waiting for the weather to improve so we can move all the baiting equipment down to Hurd Point at the southern end of the island. We are set up and ready to go a month earlier than at the same stage last year so we’re hoping that will give us the window for the suitable weather that we need.
8 AUGUST 2010
FROM PROJECT MANAGER, KEITH SPRINGER
It’s been quite awhile since the last posting. The main reason for this was that we were waiting for a spell of weather good enough to get some baiting under way so there was something to write about. And there we were since late June – waiting...and waiting... and waiting. We did get a couple of short opportunities in late June and worked out of the Hurd Point bait depot, spreading bait on the coastal areas up the east and west coasts. Unfortunately a cap of cloud on the plateau prevented us getting up there to bait, so we had to work around the edges where we had reasonable visibility. Even then, occasional showers and squalls would halt operations until they had passed through.
On the east coast, we needed to monitor the effect of helicopters spreading bait over the large king penguin colony at Lusitania Bay. Some over-flight trials had been undertaken in previous years so we were confident that by increasing altitude over the colony the impacts would be reduced to an acceptable level. Increasing altitude meant that we needed lower wind speeds to bait that area, because of the risk of the bait pattern being blown off course by the wind when spread from a greater height. Wildlife ranger Nick was stationed above the colony where he had a good vantage point of the aircraft and the penguins, and he filmed the colony as the helicopters progressed on their flight paths across the colony. Filming the response of the birds was a very valuable way of recording the impacts because we could not only ascertain the level of response, but the information would also be of critical interest to other eradication operations undertaking baiting over or near penguin colonies. Nick was in touch with the pilots so he could relay information on the bird’s behaviour to them, and ask them to defer a line or increase altitude if necessary. There was a widespread response amongst the penguins as the helicopter approached and flew overhead, with many of the adult birds on the move. Importantly, they moved at walking speed and were not observed to run or stampede. The crèches of chicks remained in place and appeared to take little notice of the passing helicopters.
However after those short periods in late June we waited in vain for a break in the weather to allow us to finish baiting the southern end of the island and move up to the next loading depot at Green Gorge. On several days the forecast was for either wind to drop or cloud to lift and so we were on ‘weather standby’ – but each time the forecast clearance didn’t materialise in time for us to be able to start baiting before approaching darkness.
There were a number of jobs that we could do to help out the Antarctic Division team; so several people formed a painting crew and got stuck into a full repaint of the interior of a couple of the accommodation blocks. Others helped renovating the hydroponics unit and assisted with the construction of the new powerhouse. Meanwhile other members of the team have been constructing dog runs to house the dogs on station when they eventually arrive, and helping with building boardwalks around the station area and on North Head and the Island Lake Track.
By mid-July the lack of completed baiting forced us to consider whether we were likely to have sufficient time left to complete the baiting programme. Given that after seven weeks on the island we had had only four days we could fly and spread bait, and had spread only 8% of the bait – this looked increasingly unlikely. We calculated that we needed another 20 days of flying in the following 40 days, which looked an impossible ask given the wind and cloud that had prevented us flying during June and the first part of July. Of course there were signifacnt implications to ceasing the baiting operation in winter 2010, however the project steering committee was advised of the situation and the risks of eradication failure if we proceeded to bait but did not have time to complete the job before the commencement of pest species breeding and the return of the many native species to the island in spring. The decision was therefore made on July 21st to defer the aerial baiting phase of the project. This was of course hugely disappointing to the team on the island, as well as the people supporting the project elsewhere and the hunting team who were preparing to travel to the island for the next eight months to hunt surviving rabbits.
More recently we have had some flyable weather – not enough to have got all the baiting done – but we have been able to get some other tasks underway. Field huts have been put into the field at Mt Eitel, Lake Tiobunga, Davis Point, Caroline Cove and Windy Ridge – all on or near the site of previous field huts that supported the cat eradication project from 1998 to 2003. We also had to shift a number of bait pods. Those remaining at Hurd Point were in two lines and there was an unknown potential that these could impact penguins by forming a barrier to penguins in their path. To reduce this possibility two pods were removed from the line every fourth pod along each line, and offset a couple of metres away from the original line. Broken up this way, the pods should enable penguins to circulate around them.
At Green Gorge pods had been landed from the ship in two locations. One location on a terrace above the coast proved to be too wet to leave the pods there until next winter without a high risk of ruining the bait. All of these pods were shifted to a firmer site and the wetter pods checked for dampness.
The Aurora Australis arrived on Saturday 7th August and after unloading some cargo is set to take the aerial baiting team away until hopefully returning next year, with fingers crossed for better weather.
[Postcript – the team arrived back in Hobart on August 11.]
26 JUNE 2010
FROM BAIT LOADER, IOANE VAKACI - SUCCESSFUL BAITING AT NORTH HEAD
The weather on Macquarie Island continues to challenge our attempts to bait the remainder of the island. However, after a successful baiting of North Head some weeks ago, the evidence of brodifacoum’s success was seen around the station and North Head. Of great interest were the dead rabbits that have been found in these areas and even better, autopsies revealed they had ingested the baits.
In the previous week weather prevented baiting of the island but other work continued around station as well as some flying down the island. Of note was the installation of the Mount Waite repeater antenna, done with the assistance of the eradication helicopters. This made the operation a very easy one for the communications technicians, even though they were working in cloud nearly the whole time they were there. Other work included the construction of field hut cold porches, the transport of some huts into the field and the establishment of bases from which to conduct baiting operations at Hurd Point and Green Gorge. Other members of the team assisted in general duties to improve the AAD station while still others assisted the Parks and Wildlife Service staff in other tasks.
This week, a small “weather window” appeared on Monday (mid-winter day) and baits were laid on the coastal regions near Hurd Point, before low cloud and rising winds prevented further progress.
The station celebration of the mid-winter solstice was spread over two days to compensate for time spent baiting the southern end of the island. This allowed the team to enjoy two banquets on two separate days as well as enjoying sporting activities such as an early morning swim and the trans-Tasman tug-of-war. The evening of entertainment featured members of the eradication team who demonstrated a great community minded enthusiasm to be involved with entertaining the station by music or verse.
The eradication team now eagerly awaits another break in the weather to resume and complete the next stage of bait coverage of the island.
15 JUNE 2010
FROM PROJECT MANAGER, KEITH SPRINGER - A SMALL START
After the departure of the Aurora Australis on June 2nd we had a couple of days of meetings and getting set up...briefings for the baiting teams and establishing an office in the bio lab. On Saturday 5th June the weather was suitable for the ‘shake-down’ baiting run, covering 90 hectares of North Head and the Isthmus. To ensure that everyone got a chance to practice their roles the helicopters each spread two loads of bait, with the two baiting teams alternating the bucket loading for the four helicopters. All went very well and by mid-afternoon just under three tonnes of bait had been spread, including over the station area. That night it rained, but having fulfilled the main objective of checking equipment and procedures we were comfortable that if the bait was affected it was a small area to re-do. The following day Pete McClelland lead a small team putting baits in, under and around all the station buildings – ensuring that rodents living in buildings had an opportunity to take baits without needing to forage outside for them. Jamie the doctor had a number of remote cameras set up, which relayed video footage of rats and rabbits eating bait within hours of the drop. Feeding activity continued for about 4 nights and dropped off significantly after Tuesday, with no bait take recorded in the cameras view after that. Plenty of green rat droppings were another encouraging sign that the baits were being eaten. The next few days brought a series of fronts meaning that conditions were unsuitable for flying – with strong winds, low cloud and rain showers.
The weather cleared on Thursday 10th June and we were able to deploy boardwalks and temporary huts to Hurd Point to establish the infrastructure we needed to operate from the bait depot there. On Friday 11th a small team flew to Green Gorge and two further huts were established to form an operations base there, while the four baiting buckets were flown to Hurd Point in readiness for baiting operations to commence. While the decision had been made (based on weather forecasts) not to spread bait on these days, the opportunity to transport huts and equipment meant that we are now ready to get straight into baiting when the weather clears. By the time the team returned to station on Friday afternoon frequent snow showers were sweeping across the island, and snowfalls continued over Friday night and Saturday morning, covering the ground to sea level.
Meanwhile the first dead rodents and rabbits have been found around the station and on North Head. Most of the rodents have been found in or under buildings, and all have shown symptoms of brodifacoum poisoning. While several rabbits have been found dead, including down burrows while Helen Achurch was checking burrows for grey petrel chicks on North Head, rabbit tracks in the snow indicate that there is still rabbit activity in the treated area. The toxin is likely to be still to manifest in some rabbits, so after the second bait drop it will be a matter of extreme interest to us to see how much rabbit activity is still evident.
So now it is a waiting game with the weather. The forecast for the next few days is dominated by low cloud/fog, showers and rain – so we can but wait. The first bait drop is the most critical, so we need to wait till conditions forecast for the 3-4 day period after baiting are reasonable before we start. While we wait, the team have been busy maintaining the helicopters and helping out with other jobs around station.
3 JUNE 2010
FROM PROJECT MANAGER, KEITH SPRINGER - THE WEATHER...THE FICKLE WEATHER
Since the last posting, the eradication team have had a mixed bag of weather to contend with, but the gales and low cloud have relented enough to allow the completion of the ship offloading. After a really successful day at Hurd Point last Tuesday, establishing the bait depot there – the following day was spent at sea off the east coast of Macquarie Island. Visibility was very restricted by low cloud and the winds were gusting over 45 knots, meaning it was too windy for either boat or helicopter operations. The wind dropped after dark though, leading to hopes for better weather on the morrow. Alas, while the visibility improved, the wind did not, leaving us steaming up and down the each coast again. Friday 28th May brought moist nor-west conditions, with fog to sea level. The Aurora Australis was able to get in to Buckles Bay and the boating teams from the Australian Antarctic Division station and the ship were able to attach lines, test the fuel hose, and then monitor the line as 226,000 litres of fuel was pumped ashore – a vital replenishment to the station supplies. In the afternoon one of the two LARCs (an amphibious vehicle) was able to ferry 19 bait pods ashore, making a start on the bait depot for the northern end of the island. Darkness came early with the fog having obscured the ship all day; while the umbilical cord of the fuel line was attached, it was about the only evidence there was a ship in the bay.
The following day the weather rapidly improved, allowing both B2 helicopters to be airborne by 10am and unloading bait pods from ship to shore. Both LARCs also joined in and between the LARCs and helicopters 140 bait pods were ashore by 4.30pm, allowing a flight down to Green Gorge to check for a suitable site there before dark. The following two days again brought gale force winds and rain and kept us at sea, before another break allowed us to offload 168 bait pods and about 90 drums of fuel at the Green Gorge depot. The ship was positioned really well - allowing short turn-arounds and the helicopters were bringing in loads every three and a half minutes or less. Meanwhile, Fletcher and Bryan were flying bridge materials onto the plateau and retrieving caches of marine debris from the west coast of the island. Expeditioners over the years collect rubbish that washes up on the western shore; mostly plastic bottles, polystyrene pieces, fishing nets and rope, and carry it to central points from where it can eventually be retrieved by helicopter. With bad weather forecast for the next few days, the decision was made to keep all helicopters on shore that night, in case a further opportunity to disembark the two from the ship didn’t present. As it happened, after a morning of strong wind, the wind abated and the final loads of bait and fuel was flown ashore. Some waste material and rubbish was returned to the ship, followed by the last of the Hobart-bound expeditioners, and the ship departed at 7pm for Hobart – to a hearty farewell of flares. Andy and Graeme had done a great job of coordinating the off-load, and the ship’s crew had likewise really made the most of the opportunities to move cargo and did a great job in supporting us – a big thanks to them and the pilots.
Finally, after several years in the planning, the eradication project was at Macquarie Island with all the materials, equipment and the team to carry out the aerial baiting phase of the project. There are other projects also running on station, with a new powerhouse being built, meteorological observations, maintenance programs, wildlife monitoring and the staff to support all of these. Today the wind was back to 35 knots and we are unpacking, checking and preparing equipment. Soon we will be ready to watch the weather forecast closely for the first opportunity to commence baiting.
26 MAY 2010
FROM PROJECT MANAGER, KEITH SPRINGER
Since the last posting, a further day brought us to Macqaurie Island, where we arrived in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Dawn revealed fog and wind, with the station buildings and the resupply vessel L'Astrolabe visibly dimly through the murk.
By late morning inflatable boats from the station had come out to the ship and whisked people to shore, where the usually mix of station inhabitants, sonumbulent seals and curious penguins were waiting.
Within an hour, two helicopters were in the air ferrying loads of cargo ashore from the Aurora Australis. By 4 o'clock the first three 20' containers of cargo were ashore, including helicopter spares, five baiting buckets and all of our field equipment, baiting equipment and personal effects. Most of the team had a chance to find their accommodation and figure out how to drive the coffee machine in the mess. Some then returned to the ship, while others stayed ashore, ready to head out on field training.
The L'Astrolabe arrived a couple of days before the Aurora Australis, and has been using two LARC amphibious vehiclers to discharge cargo and bring out materials to return to Australia. It is certainly a very rare event to have such a fleet in the bay at Macquarie Island, with two ships, two LARCs and four helicopters.
The ship and station have advanced to 2 hours ahead of Australian Eastern Standard Time (= New Zealand Standard Time) and will continue that for the coming days to get the most of the daylight hours during the working says for the ships crew and those on station.
During the night, the Auroa Australis moved to Hurd Point at the south end of the island, and we woke this morning to a light southerly wind, low swell and mostly clear skies. Before long a team was ashore to finalise the site for bait pods and fuel to be placed, ready for baiting operations. The weather stayed kind all day, which was a great boon as normal conditions at Hurd Point feature strong turbulent winds and a great sou-west swell rolling around the point, neither of which are conducive to offloading cargo by helicopter. The site is in the middle of a royal penguin colony, which is empty at this time of year as they leave the island from April to September and go to sea. However their tenure of the large flat area at Hurd Point is impossible to forget and the shore team spent the day working ankle deep in a mixture of penguin guano, moulted penguin feathers and mud. Highly aromatic, to be sure, but not to humans.
Those left on the ship working the heli deck had to deal with the slings coming back for another helicopter load to be attached, covered in penguin goop.
The bait pods and fuel drums were all offloaded by dark. Having completed the establishment of the bait depot at Hurd Point, we are now steaming north overnight to Green Gorge, although the weather forecast is far less inviting for tomorrow. Nevertheless, we will see what the day brings tomorrow and what we can achieve with the weather.
SUNDAY, 23 MAY, 2010
CRUISING THE OCEAN BLUE
Now two days steaming southeast of Hobart, we are not entirely convinced we are pointing in the right direction. Expecting increasingly intemperate weather conditions as we venture into the Southern Ocean winter, we have instead found the weather has improved markedly since leaving Hobart on Saturday morning with a white eyebrow of snow on Mt Wellington and a chilly nip in the southerly breeze. The temperature has increased, the sun is shining and it feels more like we are heading north into the Pacific. Hang on – let’s check the compass! Now at 48 degrees south, the wind speed has been less than 5 knots most of the day; the sea is really been behaving itself with a low swell and no sea – barely a white horse to be seen...just a few albatross and petrels. Consequently, the team is pretty perky and not feeling diminished by sea sickness. Of course, we would really like to be having this weather at Macquarie Island after we arrive and need good conditions to offload our four helicopters, 436 bait pods, helicopter fuel and cargo. We have however, had our dramas. After a week’s delay to our departure date, we were delayed overnight on Friday due to a faulty crane. It was vital that it be fixed before we departed as the crane is integral in lifting the bait pods out of the hold ready to be flown ashore.
Shortly after leaving, and while still in sight of Hobart, we suffered engine problems and, a little while later, a fire alarm sounded. However, we are now making a steady 12 knots toward Macquarie Island, and a number of planning meetings have been held in anticipation of our arrival on Monday evening. Helicopters will need to be bladed up and flown ashore, passengers disembarked and crews tasked for managing cargo operations, both on the ship and on shore.
Given good weather conditions, we are keen to get stuck into the task of offloading the ship and establishing bait depots ashore. The L’Astrolabe has arrived at Macquarie Island this afternoon and commenced unloading cargo; she should be well into operations by the time we arrive tomorrow night. For now, we can thank our stars for the balmy conditions giving us an easy passage, and hope our weather luck lasts once we arrive.
SUNDAY, 25 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY ELEVEN - LAST DAY AT SEA
Today was a dedicated cleaning day. With a cabin inspection imminent, a queue formed for the vacuum cleaner, buckets and mops. Unfortunately it was the end of the crop circle but not before Sprunky and others had photographed the supernatural, super-saline scene. The air had a sinus-tingling “Spray and Wipe” tang as surfaces were scrubbed and buffed. B Bathrooms too were given a thorough cleansing by an enthusiastic clean team who could sense the final run home was imminent.
Expedition gear was laid out, sorted and packed. With all recently-laundered and sterilised Antarctic-issue clothing to be returned, we wended our way to the rather obscure collection area, “‘Tween Decks”. It conjured up images from the film Being John Malkovich which featured low ceilinged offices on the 7 1/2 floor. Nevertheless we grabbed our big, red survival bags and dutifully followed an intriguing path: down a flight of stairs to E (eating) deck, through the mess, into the galley and through a bulkhead door into the hold ‘tween decks.
This being our last evening at sea called for a special presentation from the canine passengers, Ash and Gus. Still looking like movie star material thanks to the salon treatment a few days earlier, the pair paid special tribute to Suzie and the wonderful galley staff who have provided a multitude of treats throughout the voyage. Dog trainer Steve doubts the two dogs will ever forget their prime cut steak, chicken and lamb dinners. After dinner tonight mild-mannered Ash presented Suzie with a certificate of appreciation, beautifully encased in a scroll fashioned from toilet rolls and tied with lurid pink surveyor’s tape. He executed the role of page boy beautifully as we all knew he would.
While the marine science continued their experiments, the rest of the expeditioners and off-duty crew enjoyed a final get together on the helideck as the sun set behind the Hazards on Freycinet. Some time in the late evening the Aurora headed for home.
We will be up early in the morning. All bags are to be packed and on deck by 7am with an anticipated arrival in Hobart at 8am for a quarantine and customs check.
SATURDAY, 24 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY TEN - TASMAN SEA, OFF FREYCINET PENINSULA
The marine science trials continued from dawn to well past dusk and, with freshening winds making recreation on deck a little too bracing, most expeditioners spent today on the bridge, in the library, in the laundry or making harmless mischief.
In “down times” like this you really appreciate the first-rate hospitality aboard the Aurora. The accommodation quarters on D Deck are great: comfortable innerspring mattresses and feather doonas. Three-berth cabins have two passengers, or in some cases just one. All have a porthole, a desk, wireless connection to the AAD email network (no internet), a powerboard for appliances, a wardrobe and an ensuite bathroom.
The mess has plenty of room for diners. Tables are bolted to the floor and chairs can be fastened in place by cable wire. It is not surprising that the tables are covered with non-slip matting and are equipped with a non-spill condiments keeper. Meals are served at “hospital hours” in buffet style, always offering a wide selection of food to cater for hearty appetites and light diets. There is no question that an over zealous expeditioner, unaffected by seasickness, could become seriously overweight on a long voyage. If the Aurora menus are indicative of shipboard life, it is obvious why the merchant navy, the military and the cruise industry attract such a following. All meals have been exceptional.
We have been well entertained in the evenings by a series of slideshows and talks by fellow expeditioners. Those unlikely to sail south again on work-based missions have been tempted to save for a commercial cruise after being won over by a presentation of the sights and sites of the Antarctic Archipelago, the Ross Sea, and Heard Island. It was a spectacular.
But it was tonight’s presentation by long-time Antarctic expeditioner Peter Sprunk that not only captured the collective imagination of the attentive crowd but lingered in the minds of some well into the wee hours. The irrepressible Sprunky is a veteran of numerous voyages south and he shares his interest in the fascinating and seemingly inexplicable phenomenon of crop circles where ever he goes.
So there was much anticipation when a notice advertising Sprunky’s talk appeared on the ship’s bulletin board today. The rec room was near to capacity when the bearded seadog took centre stage. Armed with a slide show of amazing examples of sections of cereal crops flattened in the most intricate patterns, Sprunky spoke enthusiastically of his unusual passion. He maintains an open mind about the origins of crop circles and he was in good company tonight. Most in his audience were scientists and extremely sceptical about the authenticity of Sprunky’s collection of aerial photos depicting perfectly engineered swathes through English wheat fields. All the photos were copyright, such is the seriousness of the topic among devotees. One photographer, Busty Thomas, had contributed quite a few images, greatly impressing one particular member of the audience. “Do you have a photo of Busty?” he inquired. It’s obviously been a long trip for some.
We retired for the night to ponder Sprunky’s presentation but the subject did not rest there. Next morning a perfectly-executed crop circle appeared on D Deck, artistically outlined in salt on the ship’s royal blue carpet. And the piece de résistance? At pride of place, in the centre, were the initials “BT”. Busty, where fore art though?
FRIDAY, 23 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY NINE - TASMAN SEA, OFF FREYCINET PENINSULA
The Aurora Australis is now bobbing gently on the calm and sparkling sea to the east of Freycinet Peninsula as the AAD continues its marine science trials. The Zodiac chained to the helicopter deck is doubling as a lounge area for weary expeditioners to bask in glorious sunshine and to keep an eye out for sea and birdlife. On one of his many outings on deck, Gus discovered that the padded seat of the helipad forklift truck is also a prime spot for watching the passing parade of pilot whales and seabirds. He and Ash continue to attract an audience of shutterbugs and their trip to the Aurora beauty salon today was no exception. Chief stylist Amanda, usually found in the galley, demonstrated great skills in canine shampooing in one of the ship's laboratory sinks. Her gentle caresses worked well on a subdued Ash but little Gus proved to be a lively client when Amanda tackled the remnants of his adventure in the Macquarie Island seal wallow left in his coat.
Now in mobile phone range of mainland Tasmania, many are catching upon news at home and work. And some have even taken calls from the media. DPIPWE botanist Jennie Whinam has been interviewed by the ABC's Louise Saunders who is following research on massive dieback in Macquarie Island's endemic cushion plant Azorella Macquariensis.It is the major flowering plant species on the island's plateau and it's estimated that in some areas up to 90 per cent of the Azorellais dead. The dieback is spreading quickly and if it continues at the current rate, it is anticipated that the species could become extinct within a few years.
Jennie and colleague Micah Visoiu spent their one and only day on the island on the plateau collecting samples of dead Azorella for pathology testing. In the few hours at their disposal, and with assistance from a ranger based on Macca, they gathered several samples. Horticultural botanist from the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens Natalie Tapson had a more positive task. She collected live samples.
Fortunately it was a good time to take samples as the Azorella was coming out of its winter dormancy. After a period in quarantine, the live, healthy samples will go to the Botanical Gardens to add to an insurance population of healthy plants. Seed will continue to be collected for the Tasmanian Seed Conservation Centre at the Gardens.The dead material will go to DPIPWE's New Town laboratories for detailed analysis. Jennie says she and other scientists have an open mind about the cause of the dieback. It could be a combination of factors or a fungus or bacteria triggered by environmental stress reducing the plant's resistance to disease. The tests will focus on environmental stress, climate change, rabbit grazing and the presence of pathogens.
Azorella has thrived at a 200 metres-plus altitude on Macca and has formed deep cushion holding together the plateau's sparse vegetation,including a layer of peat. If it is lost, Jennie fears a massive structural change in this fragile zone.Rangers based on Macquarie Island have been lending a hand with the project and it is a collaborative effort between those on the ground,ecologists and pathologists that will eventually solve the riddle.Given the ground stability issues associated with the Azorella dieback, Jennie and her colleagues are very keen for the pest eradication project to get underway. Factors such as climate change and rabbit damage cause environmental stresses that can make plants susceptible to pathogens.
The biosecurity issues associated with the dieback are taken extremely seriously on board the Aurora and on Macca. During their day on the island the botanists separated into two groups, so that those working with healthy plants did not risk contaminating their samples with disease. Jennie and Micah washed down their sampling trowels and knives between each investigation in the field. The plant specimens collected were all double-bagged and placed in sealed drums in the lab for the trip back to Tasmania. Returning to the ship from the island, the boots and gear of all expeditioners were soaked in the "kill-everything" VirkonS.
THURSDAY, 22 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY EIGHT - SOUTHERN OCEAN - TASMAN SEA (within coo-ee of Hobart)
At last we have sunshine and a gently rolling sea. Such simple pleasures allow a brief stroll on deck with the dogs, an opportunity to stand upright in the shower and confident almost hands-free passage along the ship's many corridors and in the stairwells. A positive turn in the weather also sees the emergence of fellow expeditioners hitherto confined to their cabins with the dreaded scourge of sea travel, mal-de-mer.
PWS maritime heritage officer Mike Nash has been laid low for a number of days and we were beginning to wonder if he'd been left behind on Macquarie Island. But this morning he appeared triumphantly at the breakfast buffet, happily back on deck.
Mike is not alone in succumbing to seasickness on the Aurora Australis. He has travelled on the "Orange Roughy" before and, like a few other expeditioners, falls victim to its peculiar motion every time.
It's great that he's up to talking about his Macquarie Island heritage interpretation project because many aspects border on nauseating: grimy sealing ships, mass penguin slaughters, stinking tripots and disgusting living conditions.Mike first visited Macca in 1997 and spent the summer trekking to the many sites around the island recording the relics of the sealing and penguin oil industries which operated spasmodically from the early1800s to 1919.
He also documented the field huts at Sandy Bay and Lusitania Bay and the wireless station associated with Sir Douglas Mawson's 1911expedition as well as more recent buildings including those constructed since 1948 when the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) station was established on the island isthmus. Information about the numerous shipwrecks around the island would add another dimension to the centre.
Ideally Mike would like to gather a representation of the artefacts to serve as an interpretation and resource centre for expeditioners and the increasing number of tourists visiting the island. It would represent the industrial age on the island which preceded scientific exploration.
Most of the heritage sites have been affected by irreversible natural processes like salt corrosion, landslips or storm damage. One hut at Hurd Point has been taken over by a penguin rookery. These areas would benefit from some archaeological work but it's not a particularly attractive proposition, even for an eager post-graduate student.
Mike is confident the station at the Isthmus is sitting on a heritage-rich layer of remnant buildings that were dismantled or destroyed by the harsh environmental elements.Fortunately there is an accurate pictorial record of development at the Isthmus and the Nuggets, further to the south, thanks to the intrepid Antarctic photographer Frank Hurley. Among the collection is an image of the flying fox used to transfer people and equipment up Wireless Hill to the wireless repeater station.
While the history of the island has been fairly well documented, Mike suspects there is more material to unearth from the island's discovery in 1810, by sealer Captain Frederick Hasselborough, to the1830s by which time fur seals were virtually wiped out and exploitation of elephant seals had begun.
It is amazing to consider that creaking wooden ships plied the unforgiving Southern Ocean to exploit fur seals for pelts and elephant seals and penguins for oil nearly 200 years ago. It was a dirty business - catching, killing and rendering for oil to lubricate the industries of Europe and light the streets of London. The hunters and marine creatures would have done it tough.
WEDNESDAY, 21 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY SEVEN - ANTICS ON THE OCEAN
No one is keen for a repeat of last night’s sea conditions. We pitched, rolled and wallowed in a 14 metre swell and more than a few were unwillingly thrust into round after round of bunk gymnastics. To avoid being tossed about his cabin, team member Graeme Beech headed from his midships sleeping quarters to the recreation room deep into the bowels of the Aurora where he figured ship movement would be minimised. Alas, he didn’t gain much at all. He forgot to take his ear plugs and the thud and whirring from the adjacent engine room and associated diesel fumes were not a particularly good trade off for a little more stability.
But being a veteran of several trips south and an eternal optimist, Graeme put on a brave face this morning and volunteered as galley help, enlisting a couple of us to lend a hand with veggie peeling. After working our way through a huge bag of carrots and another of parsnips, we were well into the swing of manipulating a peeler in tricky conditions so we offered to add a couple of 20kg sacks of potatoes to our tally.
Head chef Paul was impressed with our enthusiasm and noted our efforts would earn bonus points towards gaining our Polar Medal. His praise was most welcome but it was his sage advice about the location of the nearest grab rail and securing the knife locker that proved critical to our task. All was well until a big Southern Ocean blast hit the port bow near our workstation. Two large buckets brimming with perfectly peeled spuds went skidding across the galley floor, ricocheting off fridges, giant floor-based mix-masters and walls. Spuds spewed everywhere, lodging under, behind and between equipment. Retrieving them was akin to a game of hide-and-seek. One wit in the galley welcomed our initiation into the daredevil sport of extreme potato peeling.
Voyage leader Rob Bryson has confirmed our suspicions about the weather. He says the constant pounding we have endured since leaving Macquarie Island is making for one of the slowest passages back to Tasmania on record, or at least in recent memory. This is in direct contrast to our trip down which was probably one of the fastest on record. It is wonderful to hear that the winds have started to ease to around 15 knots and the barometric pressure is rising, indicating that the worst may be over. But quite large swells still persist and are now on the beam, causing some significant rolls between 30 and 40 degrees. We copped a beauty of 48 degrees the other night, still far short of the magic 67 degrees, the point of no return!
We hope summer rangers Alena Hrasky and Helen Achurch, who we dropped off on Macca, are appreciating our discomfort. “Newbie” Alena couldn’t believe her luck to have such a pleasant southbound journey but reality about the changeable weather set in on her first day when we bade her farewell in snow and sleet at the station.
Alena has been a ranger with the PWS for two years and never imagined being posted to Macca so early in her career. Nevertheless she is up for the challenge and is confident her fieldwork in various reserves and national parks around the state, coupled with the training she completed with the AAD before departure, was good preparation for the task ahead.
Like all expeditioners to Macca, Alena has packed her “dress ups” for the frequent celebrations on the island and Christmas presents and other items for the festive season.
Helen is an old hand and was keen to return. Despite being a long way from home and family, she says there is never time to become bored or lonely. The six-monthly turnover of staff provides great opportunities to work with enthusiastic new colleagues and forge great friendships.
Helen says she and Alena have the best jobs on Macquarie. They will be working in the field, becoming familiar with the wildlife and monitoring their numbers and behaviour. Their arrival coincided with the annual elephant seal census. Counting the seal harems is challenging enough but the rangers will have to have a sharp eye for the rabbit counts. They are held monthly in 15 different locations around the island.
TUESDAY, 20 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY SIX - AT SEA: REVIEWING THE RABBIT HUNT
Enjoying three wonderful meals a day, as well as non-stop coffee, tea and Tim Tams, gives Aurora Australis passengers plenty of time to reflect on their wonderful day on Macquarie Island.
Because our visit was so brief and busy, discussion among colleagues continues to highlight just how great a day it was. It would be hard to be more enthusiastic about our adventure than the dogs, but their owner and trainer, Steve Austin, runs a pretty close second.
He was rapt with the opportunity to see where his dogs will work from August next year for the five-year Macquarie Island pest eradication project. And he was over the moon with their performance in, and adaptability to, the real situation. That says a lot because Steve’s line of business has taken him to some wild and wonderful places to deal with some serious issues. However, none have been as isolated or as challenging as Macca.
Regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on dog training for police, military, search and rescue and biosecurity work, Steve has spent time in Nepal, Europe, the Pacific islands and the USA lecturing, training and advising about the use of dogs for hunting, quarantine and narcotics work and detecting truffles and explosives Gus, the 18-month-old liver and white springer spaniel, is his top dog. His shipboard buddy, Ash (2 1/2), is older but a newcomer to rabbiting work. But Steve thinks Ash will be a great dog because, like Gus, he has the drive and endurance to stay focussed on his task – finding the rabbits that survive the aerial bait drop on Macca next year.
Steve has been prepping Ash and Gus and five other springers at his Dural (NSW) training centre for 12 months. He was pretty confident he was on the right track with his training regime for the Macquarie Island project but, as he says, you never know 100 per cent until you put the dogs in the real situation.
He reckons that seeing is believing and the abundance of wildlife on Macca proved to him that all the dogs going south next winter must not only be trained to focus on bunnies only, but at all times to be under absolute control by their handlers, unreservedly obeying the commands for stop and come. In most cases there will be no second chances for enthusiastic dogs straying too close to a cliff edge, seal wallow or ravine. Gus’s close encounter with a seal wallow on the island proved that the distance between dog and handler should never become too great. Steve reckons that if he had not seen Gus disappear into the pit of sticky, stinking mud, he would have drowned. He dragged him out by the collar and made a note that not only are collars essential but a radio controlled model might not be a bad idea. He has some in his kit and will be putting them to the test soon.
Gus, Ash and their kennelmates have worked around poultry, pheasants and guinea fowl to prepare them for encounters with seabirds and penguins. But Steve now thinks he might introduce his dogs to roos, cattle and sheep to become familiar with the larger animals on Macca such as elephant and fur seals.
He estimates he has read just about every book on training dogs for different situations but there is nothing like the real thing. Gus and Ash went through their paces wearing thermal coats but now Steve is inclined to redesign the coats in a more body-hugging style and in fluoro colours for higher visibility. He is confident the dogs won’t get too knocked about by the physical work, but they will get wet and the icy wind-chill factor will come into play.
The next major phase in the training program will be introducing the dogs to their new handlers. They will need at least a fortnight to learn to work as a team.
Steve’s seven springer spaniels and the four labradors being trained in New Zealand will mostly live in kennels at the 10 field huts located around the island. Once a month they will have a brief rest back on station. They will need a comfortable, dry and warm place to recover from their strenuous hunting in the hills and two nourishing meals a day.
There won’t be a shortage of affection for the dog team on Macquarie Island. The pet-starved wintering expeditioners at Macca lined up the other day to give Gus and Ash a very warm welcome. They can be well assured of plenty of pats, cuddles and treats.
MONDAY, 19 OCTOBER,2009
DAY 5 - "HOVE TO" IN THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
In aeronautical terms we spent today in a holding pattern, tracking ever-so-slowly south east (yes, towards Antarctica rather than Tassie) riding out a nasty patch of big sea and high wind.
After a night of pitching and sudden rolling, interspersed with the shrieking of cables, shudders through the hull and violent hissing of water against portholes, it was pretty miraculous that any one surfaced for the famous Aurora breakfast buffet. But even before tucking into porridge, black pudding, sausages and croissants, the brave negotiated three flights of stairs from their cabins to the ship's bridge for the greatest show on earth.
The bridge is where the action is at on a day like today. There is nowhere better to appreciate, in full cinemascope, the might of the ocean (and to get reliable information about when a change for better weather can be expected).
The bridge crew take it all in their stride. It is us who gaze in a sweat the enormous 14 metre swell topped with breaking waves and billowing gushes of spray. Fortunately there are grab rails on the bridge but only one hand is free because the other is clutching a camera, with the shutter ready to capture that next rogue wave that crashes spectacularly over the bow.
Early birds on the bridge make a beeline for the sheepskin-covered visitor's chair, a comfortable reclining model perfect for drinking in the 180 degree view. John the chopper pilot has been appointed the team's video man and has captured some wave action for us to relive at our leisure. Only a moving picture can really illustrate how the bright orange bow of the ship approaches the oncoming waves and rises up to meet a wall of green fury. Teetering for a moment, the ship then crashes down into the swirling cauldron on the other side, exploding the angry mass into a fearsome froth that spews across the deck and over the vast windscreen of the bridge. The view is obliterated until the super efficient windscreen wipers unveil yet another mind-blowing spectacle. Get the picture? From the comfort and safety of the Aurora it is a fantastic, gob-smacking sight. In a smaller vessel, let alone an early polar exploration ship or a yacht, it would be utterly frightening.
Heading into the oncoming weather, regardless of the direction you want to travel, is the most comfortable way to ride out a big sea. To take it on the side would be just plain stupid - for the comfort of crew and passengers and the integrity of the ship. So we made little progress today and for the most part travelled at about four knots into the southerly buster.
When the seas abated a little later, the captain provided plenty of warning that he would be turning the ship. "Expect some rolling," he advised. "Make sure you have something to grab to steady yourself." Everyone took notice. We thought we had had plenty of practice of that procedure during the day. We really braced ourselves for the full Monty this time. However, Aurora turned without undue pain and suffering and we were back on track.
Because of the previous night's rough weather, passengers spent a lot of the day catching up on sleep aided in many cases by seasickness medication. The Aurora's DVD shop opened for a while offering movies for public screening in the ship's recreation room or for private showing on laptop computers.
For others the day provided an opportunity to make ship talk, catching up with experienced expeditioners and hearing their travel (and bad weather at sea) tales.
It was business as usual for the ship's crew. There was a blockage inthe vacuum-operated toilet system on D Deck (passenger cabins) and all loos had to be inspected. This apparently is not uncommon and is best attended to before the problem compounds.
Gus and Ash missed their walk on deck today. They had to be content with a constitutional around the containers in the helicopter hangar where their kennels are located. Steve continues to be amazed at how the dogs are handling the trip.
They are eating well and doing their "business" - sure signs that all is well with them. We are in for more nasty weather with another series of front expected to hit tomorrow. We are getting used to riding out the storm. Bring it on!
SUNDAY, 18 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY 4 - MACQUARIE ISLAND CRUISE
It almost sounds exotic, a cruise along the sheltered eastern coast of Macquarie Island. With a light sprinkling of snow on velvety peaks glistening in occasional rays of sunshine, the landscape looked enchanting. The sea, however, did not. Despite the deteriorating weather many of us remained optimistic of a second visit ashore and we were up bright and early to seize the opportunity if it arose. In the lee of the island the winds were not so ferocious and the swell was rising to only three metres. We headed south for Green Gorge, about half way down the coast, where pest eradication team member and helicopter pilot John Oakes hoped to go ashore to scout for a bait and fuel storage site for next year's baiting project.John and three pilot colleagues from Central South Island Helicopters Ltd in New Zealand are experienced aerial baiting fliers and will be central to the Macquarie Island project.
Today's visit to Macca provided John with an appreciation of the ground he will be covering and the seriousness of the rabbit plague. He took his GPS and was relieved to discover his overlays for baiting flight paths were accurate. John and his pilots will be using a relatively new navigation system with a light bar and screen to highlight their bait drop paths. The plan is to divide the island into blocks with the choppers sowing up and down 80-metre wide baiting lines, with each consecutive drop overlapping the previous run by 50 per cent to ensure total coverage.
The first wave of bait will be followed by a second drop a fortnight later and there will be a third application in high risk areas such as cliffs, penguin colonies, the coastline and areas of high rabbit density.
John is well aware there will be no room for error. As he puts it: "We will have to be deadly accurate." Deadly is right. The success of the project relies on the aerial bait drop to kill all of the rats and mice and most of the rabbits before Steve's dogs begin their work.
The topography is not a problem but the weather, especially during the winter, will seriously limit flying opportunities. John estimates it will take only three full days of dry, reasonably still conditions to complete each bait drop but it is Macquarie Island we are dealing with and 100 days have been allocated to complete the aerial mission. John was impressed with the setup at the island station where the pilots, ground crew and choppers will be based. And he had a chance to look at the engineering facilities to support helicopter maintenance. When his crew arrives next May the helipads will have been constructed, complete with tie-down points and seal-proof fencing. Massive elephant seals tend to throw their weight about and the fragile helicopters need protection from these lumbering lumps of lard.
John has been flying, mostly in New Zealand, for more than 20 years on search and rescue, agricultural, tourism and pest eradication projects. He says he's more than up for the challenge.
Unfortunately the sea became lumpier and wind strengthened on our cruise to Green Cove and John remained ship bound. However, he and the rest of the team studied the area and another likely bait and fuel depot at Hurd Point at the southern end of the island with their binoculars.
At the end of the day the question for voyage leader Rob Bryson was whether to continue cruising for a couple of days, in the hope that the weather would improve for more shore leave, or to "cut and run". Tuesday is our departure deadline from the island to provide sufficient time for AAD marine science trials on the way home. The decision was made to leave and we set off in anticipation (or awe) of 48 hours of roller coaster conditions on the high seas.
SATURDAY, 17 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY 3 - MACQUARIE ISLAND
There was no need for an alarm clock to wake the troops aboard Aurora Australis today. There was no holding anyone back. Outfitted like Michelin Men in multiple layers of thermal clothing and wet weather gear, we were prepared for any weather and any sea....well almost.Fortunately it was a beautiful morning (by Macquarie Island standards) when we dropped anchor in Buckles Bay on the sheltered side of the isle.
A slight breeze and intermittent sunshine was more than we could have hoped for and everyone - from the LARC and Zodiac drivers to the refuellers, day trippers and summer expeditioners - was eager to get on with business. But before anyone could leave the ship, attendance was required at a compulsory briefing on safety and environmental protocols.
The anticipation of an excursion ashore overcame any apprehension of disembarking the Aurora via a rope ladder on to the awaiting Zodiacs. Even the dogs could smell adventure (or rabbits) in the air and they were provided limousine service to the shore on a LARC.
Happy to be back on land, Gus and Ash were overwhelmed with excitement. They virtually ignored the welcome party of noisy elephant seals lolling around the boat landing area. Trained to target only bunnies, they took off for the rabbit infested hills with trainer Steve Austin and eradication project assistant manager Geoff Woodhouse for a day of sheer bliss.
With chopper pilot John and Yeutha already focussed on their projects, the rest of the eradication team were led by (head) island?ranger Dave Dowie to the shore of Hasselborough Bay, through the colonies of lounging elephant seals, past communities of little gentoo penguins and onto the famous Macquarie Island "featherbeds".These squelchy, mossy cushions of greenery are a trap for the unwary and ensured that we returned to the station with wet feet despite our boots, gaiters and wet weather trousers.
While the seascape and animal and bird life were stunning, the ravaged, eroded hills provided a stark reminder of why we were at Macca. Little white cottontails were bobbing about all over the slopes and floppy-eared heads were peeking out of what were once petrel burrows. The stubble of over-grazed tussocks now provide little cover for the rabbits let alone habitat for resident seabirds. We could see the brightly coloured jackets of Geoff and Steve on the slopes trying to keep up with the two dogs who were delirious with pleasure sniffing out their quarry.
Up on the plateau DPIPWE botanists were collecting live and dead specimens of Azorella macquariensis to assist their investigations into the cause of extensive die back of this endemic perennial cushion-forming herb.
Although brief, the visit enabled us to check out life at the station and see some of our travelling companions settling into to their summer regime. Many got down to work straight away helping count elephant seals for the annual census. The expeditioner assigned as the "slushy" was peeling potatoes within an hour of arriving.While we were off on our "jolly" the hard-working crew assigned torefuelling the island got down to work. The LARCs continued the shuttle service of cargo from the ship with all available personnel pitching into help. Resupply is a huge operation that seems to go like clockwork. Doctors and plumbers double as boat drivers,researchers multi-skill as landing parties and technical wizards show their practical side on deck.
Before returning to the ship we were treated to a feast of Macquarie Island's best weather. One moment sunshine and relative calm, then fierce winds, rain, sleet and snow... a bit like spring at home really only a lot more intense.With the weather forecast providing little optimism for improvement, we returned to the mothership, exhilarated by our day and hoping for an opportunity to do it all again tomorrow.
The dogs collapsed in their kennels after an extra large serving of dinner, augmented by fresh steak from the galley. No doubt they dreamed about chasing more Macca bunnies. Won't they have some tales to tell their mates back at Steve's training kennels!
FRIDAY, 16 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY 2 - THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
Excitement was building on the ship today as we powered towards our destination in the most glorious conditions. With hardly a ripple and a gentle swell, the sunnies and sunscreen were out for those grabbing an opportunity to soak up some vitamin D on deck.
But for the voyage leader, ship's master and those involved in tomorrow's transfer of personnel and cargo to the station on the Macca isthmus, it was reassessment time for the arrival and resupply plan. The weather forecast for the early part of the day: good. For the rest of the day and following 48 hours: very grim!
Plan A to spend three days on the island is now out of the question. The best that can be achieved is one day at the most. During that brief window of opportunity the ship-to-shore fuel line will be established and the LARCs and Zodiacs will ferry people and cargo ashore. That is the good news. The bad news is that it will be an early start, around 4.30am, and those returning to Hobart will need to be back on board by 4pm, and perhaps even earlier. The ship will then have to go to sea to ride out the storm for at least two days. If there is a break in the weather, the Aurora will attempt to return but this is in the lap of the weather gods.
It was sobering news but at least there is time to put ashore the summer personnel, including wildlife rangers and researchers, and to retrieve some of the wintering staff. For the pest eradication team it will be a very full-on visit. Instead of a series of leisurely walks, wildlife watching and base familiarisation, we will be separated into "interest" groups. Chopper pilot John will checking data in his GPS system. Geoff and Steve will take the dogs on a rabbiting mission. Yeutha has to ensure she gathers sufficient "mind pictures" of the station to address inquiries from field workers recruited to join the team for next year's baiting and follow-up eradication program. The steering committee and media contingent will be hosted on a walk by Macquarie Island's PWS resident ranger Dave Dowie. It will be a big day for all.
Canine megastars Gus and Ash were on parade today for all to see and quite an audience gathered in the sunshine to watch them go through their paces. The galley staff have been augmenting the dogs' diet with a few tasty leftovers, not that they need more protein. They seem to have boundless energy.
Preparations for our time ashore started this afternoon with an intensive "wash down" of gear being worn or taken ashore. All boots, coats, trousers and polar fleeces had to be thoroughly cleaned inside and out. Australian Antarctic Division environmental manager Leslie Frost set up a schedule for all expeditioners to clean their gear in the ship's wet laboratory.
Boots were scrubbed in a solution of Virkon S, a potent biocide-viricide-fungicide and anti-bacterial to combat pathogens that could be introduced to the island. Mini vacuum cleaners got into nooks and crannies of jackets, hats and other gear that could harbour seeds of any kind. We had been repeatedly warned that the risks of introducing pathogens to Macca are high and the task of washing down was taken extremely seriously. The island is close to Leslie's heart. She has visited six times and wrote the Macquarie Island Management Plan when she worked for the PWS.
The day wound up with a detailed safety briefing about getting ashore safely. With the Aurora anchored well off shore, safety is absolutely paramount. Round trippers (that's us) are to take a backpack with a survival kit, spare thermals and socks. We are to be kitted out for cold wet conditions: thermals, polar fleece pants and jacket, hat and/or balaclava, and waterproof pants and coat. And gloves for gripping the rope ladder when we make the hairy descent from the Aurora to the awaiting conveyance to take us to the shore. We can hardly wait.
THURSDAY, 15 OCTOBER, 2009
DAY 1 - THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
What better way to start the day than a brisk walk with the dogs followed by a hearty breakfast ....even on the ocean waves. In what is probably a world first, that's how we (the Parks and Wildlife Service pest eradication team) started our first day at sea on board the Aurora Australis.
Up bright and early after an unusually smooth night out of Hobart and into the Southern Ocean, we met on the ship's helicopter deck to exercise the mega stars of the voyage - Gus and Ash, the lead dogs in the Macquarie Island rabbit hunting team.
Like us, these lively little guys spent a comfortable night and were up for a spin around the deck. With a swell of less than a metre, the dogs were more than willing to chase their rabbit toy (a tight ball of rabbit fur) across the deck and everyone was quite chirpy.
The weather forecast is reasonably good so instead of heading for the continental shelf off Freycinet Peninsula for Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) equipment sea trials, we are heading straight for "Macca" to exploit the predicted window of opportunity. ETA is this Saturday between 6am and 9am.
The priorities for the voyage are to resupply the island with fuel and comestibles, train up the AAD ship-to-shore watercraft operators in LARCs (Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo) and complete the marine science equipment trials.
Our particular mission is further down the pecking order but we certainly hope to get ashore to pinpoint locations for helipads to be used next year by the bait-dropping choppers, design and plan for dog kennels and to put Gus and Ash to test in real conditions. Dog trainer and owner Steve Austin is looking forward to giving his charges a run just to make sure he is on the right track with his training regime. The dogs have yet to encounter a penguin or elephant seal so it will be interesting to see if their familiarity with chickens, pheasants and guinea fowl applies to the colonies of penguins in what will become the dogs' home for five years.
There is always a big focus on the weather and water conditions for southbound voyages so when a stiff breeze accompanied the Aurora when she left Hobart on Wednesday there was a rush to the mess for an early dinner before we hit the "real ocean" beyond Storm Bay.
It is a huge and pleasant surprise for all (including seasoned expeditioners) that we are still experiencing Derwent-like conditions. But we are under no illusions that it will last! As part of shipboard life it is essential we know the safety drills. All those on board have been issued with a bag crammed with thermal clothing to keep out the chills - immersion suit, polar fleeces,thick socks, gloves, boots, balaclava etc. This afternoon we presented ourselves at our mustering stations in full kit. And what a sight we were. We also peeked inside one of the ship's lifeboats - a very sobering moment.
We have all taken a "hit for the team" on Macca by being vaccinated against swine flu. The not so hard words were put on us at our pre-departure briefing yesterday to have a shot to protect the expeditioners who will come aboard for the return journey to Hobart. The medics on board advised that a few people wintering over on the island would be "clean", not having been exposed to swine flu virus. It would be wise not to expose them to anything calamitous. A makeshift clinic was set up in the ship's library.
The Pest Eradication Team is: project manager Keith Springer; assistant project manager Geoff Woodhouse; administrative officer Yeutha May; and project officer Graeme Beech.
Steering committee members are: Peter Mooney, general manager PWS; Veronica Blazely, director Natural Heritage East with the Australian Government; and Keith Broome, senior technical officer with the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC).
Dog training advisor Steve Austin, helicopter pilot John Oakes, DPIPWE communications officer Jane Lovibond and Australian Associated Press reporter Paul Carter complete the PWS contingent.