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History of sealing at Macquarie Island

The Lapse of Sealing

Stripping blubber from an elephant seal

Stripping blubber from an elephant seal
(Australian Antarctic Division)

By 1830 elephant seal numbers at Macquarie Island had been reduced by approximately 70%, making the operations of the sealing gangs no longer profitable. The decline in the seal population led to a "lapse" period when only three vessels were recorded as visiting the island between 1830 and 1874 including a sealing party in 1851/1852. After 1874 there was a revival of interest in elephant seal oil production by New Zealand entrepreneurs Nichol and Tucker, and Cormack, Elder and Co. Although their activities were largely concentrated at the northern end of the island between the Isthmus and Sandy Bay, the sealing gangs made use of existing facilities along the eastern coast.

Captain Donald Sinclair was in charge of one of these sealing parties, and he left a detailed account of operations between December 1877 and January 1878. The party was working late in the season and it is clear that the killing and processing of the seasons 274 elephant seals was an arduous task:

Sealer's hut at Hurd Point

Sealer's hut at Hurd Point,
1880 (J. Scott, Australian
Antarctic Division)

After shooting the animals, the blubber is cut off and placed in bags which hold about one hundredweight ... Sometimes the elephants are shot about eight miles away and the blubber, dripping with blood - which fills the boots and saturates the clothing - has to be carried that distance in the snow, the man picking his way over bogs, around precipices and among boulders as best he may

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Cormack, Elder and Co. gradually extended their operations over a decade to include Lusitania Bay and Hurd Point before finally abandoning the island in December 1884. During this period the first small scale scientific studies of Macquarie Island were made by visitors accompanying the sealing gangs. In later years a number of polar expeditions also briefly stopped at Macquarie Island including Borchgrevink in 1898, Scott in 1901, and Shackleton in 1909.