When you think of Australia (let alone one of its islands), warm water, scorching sand and a rustling undergrowth probably come to mind. Heard Island however, the land down under’s best kept secret, features none of the above (it does plays host to some strange noises, but you’ll have to trade the undergrowth for glaciers and crocs for seals).
A seven day boat trip from Fremantle, getting to Heard Island is a bumpy 4,000-kilometre journey that only fishermen, poachers, and small groups of research scientists dare to make. Aside from that, few Australians are aware this rugged island exists.
According to the CSIRO, an American sailor, John Heard, discovered Heard Island in 1853, “And promptly named it after himself…” Britain then formally claimed Heard Island in 1910, later transferring it to Australia in 1947. And apart from a brief stint in the 1880’s (when sealers almost wiped out Heard’s elephant seal population), Heard Island has been left to its own devices—and developed such biological purity it was named a World Heritage Site in 1997.
Heard Island is also Australia’s tallest mountain (measuring 2,745 meters at its peak—517 taller than Kosciuszko) and an ancient geological goldmine. But very few people have heard (heh) of it, let alone stopped by for a visit. This is down to a number of factors: Heard Island is shrouded in thick cloud for about 360 days per year. It also features an active Volcano, with molten rock gurgling up through its middle; spewing forth and (gradually) increasing the island’s size.
Most volcano’s are located on the boundary of two tectonic plates, where they rub (or smash against) each other. But Heard Island, like Hawaii, is part of the 5% of the world’s volcanoes that sit on “hotspots” in the middle of tectonic plates. As the ABC explains, “A hotspot is a place where an unusually high flow of convective heat, known as a mantle plume, rises from deep within the earth. The plume melts through the earth’s crust, forming a volcano.”
In other words: Heard Island is like a pimple, forcing its way through the earth’s crust.
If it wasn’t for the volcano there would be no way for such a rich variety of species to exist on Heard Island (and the surrounding waters). As research scientist Dr Trull recently told the ABC, “The island’s volcanic activity is a source of iron. Iron enters the water and fertilises phytoplankton productivity in the Southern Ocean… Phytoplankton are the plants of the sea.”
“Smaller animals, like krill, eat the phytoplankton. Crustaceans and fish then eat the krill. Birds and seals eat the fish,” (ABC).
Suffice to say, Heard Island is an interesting—if unaccessible—place to visit. Which is why it is so fascinating to listen to someone who has been there multiple times explain what this wildlife-rich, exposed outcrop is really like. Dr Doug Thost, a former glaciologist with the Australian Antarctic division is one such individual. Talking to the ABC, he describes it as a “danger and a privilege” and explains why he has mixed feelings about the place.
“Humanity deserves to know a bit more about this place; it is a jewel in the southern Indian Ocean. I’d hate to see it loved to death, but I’d love to see it on Australia’s list of things to do from a research perspective… Being in such a remote and wild place is pretty humbling. You have to be very aware of the potential danger you could be in and how unlikely it is that you could be rescued if something does go wrong, but it’s invigorating.”
In fact, 15 years ago, one of Dr Thost’s fellow glaciologists almost died exploring the island to study how fast one of its glaciers was melting: “We were at the top of the glacier and my co-researcher and I turned around to go back. We were roped up, thank God, because my colleague suddenly fell into a crevasse. He was a dead weight hanging down there for a bit,” Dr Thost told the ABC.
The weather can be just as nasty, with wind speeds at Heard averaging a cool 33 kilometres per hour, and maxing out at 200 kilometres per hour—something which Dr Thost had the misfortune to experience on top of a glacier, during an impromptu blizzard. So despite luxury cruise ships braving more dangerous destinations this year, don’t expect a tourism boon here.
Having said that, if tourism could ever be implemented sustainably, it would be a remarkable trip for nature lovers. According to the ABC, “Three species of seal live on and around the islands. There are also two endemic bird species, the Heard Island sheathbill and Heard Island cormorant. Fifteen species of flying birds breed there as well as four species of penguin.” And that’s not to mention the Antarctic cod and icefish, or the human-sized Patagonian toothfish (and rare lantern fish).
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Like the Galapagos, Heard Island was granted UNESCO World Heritage status due to its biological purity (“Heard is the only subantarctic island virtually free of introduced species,” ABC). And as Dr Trull saw for himself—that purity is reflected in the behaviour of its wildlife.
“The penguins are so curious,” Dr Trull told the ABC, “They aren’t fearful of humans, so they come up to the boat and get so excited that they get silly. They dive and jump like dolphins, trying to get a look at the boat, and they just look stunned.”
“The entire place is stunning, and it’s ours. It’s our volcano and glaciers and animals,” he continued. “It startles me that Australians think of their beaches and red deserts, but they don’t know about this other part of their landscape.”