King Penguin by Alasdair
THOUSANDS of kilometres from the nearest city traffic jam, the wild residents of Macquarie Island have a congestion problem of their own. The black and white birds pack the rocky shores and squawk to be heard above the rabble. It is breeding time on the 34km animal sanctuary in the Southern Ocean, and real estate is in short supply.
More than a million penguins march happily up and down the beaches busily preparing their young for the final dash to the sea. The inquisitive king penguins — the smaller cousin of the emperor penguins — are the friendliest birds on the island.
More than 950,00 birds pack the beach at Green Gorge, but despite the crowding they merrily waddle after any human visitor, trilling incessantly. “Macca”, as the island is commonly known, is a heritage-listed area 1500km southeast of Tasmania.
It remains one of Australia’s most remote and protected islands. To bird enthusiasts, also known as Twitchers, it is the penguin Mecca. Four different species breed throughout the year, including the shy gentoos and the yellow feather-headed royals and rockhoppers.
Any approach prompts an angry growl from the gnarled trunks of these huge beasts. But they are rarely disturbed — fewer than 1000 tourists make the trek across the Southern Ocean to visit the tiny island.
Tasmania Parks and Wildlife former ranger-in-charge Chris Howard says tourism is welcome, and he urged more adventurous Aussies to make the trip.
After living on the island for two years, patrolling solo and hosting intrepid travellers, Mr Howard says it remains a mysterious place. “Most people don’t know much about it. It might sound corny in a way to say it, but it is a privilege to work on the island,” he says. “People wait a lifetime to get to here.”
In 2007 Macca was teeming with more than 100,000 rabbits — originally introduced by seal hunters.
During their 100-year reign they devoured the native grasses, causing mass erosion.
That led to landslides, and tonnes of mud and rock poured on to the beaches killing scores of penguins and seals.
After covering 94,000km on foot, in 2014 the hunters finally declared the island to be pest-free. Last month, workers returned to remove the remote survival huts used in the project.
These days the only introduced species are 13 human expeditioners plucked from all over Australia.
The tight-knit crew will man the island for the next 12 months before the Aurora Australis arrives next year to take them home.
Alex White was in Macquarie Island as a media guest of Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Antarctic Division.