Tasmania's journal of discovery: Antarctica Bringing supplies ashore can be a daunting task

HEARD ISLAND EXPEDITION 2003-04

Icy secrets probed from land and sea

By HELEN COOK | The penguins, albatrosses and fur seals of Heard Island live at one of the world's remotest addresses. They do not expect guests. During the summer of 2003-4, however, they lived side-by-side with two groups of scientists when a unique joint land and sea-based Australian Antarctic expedition devoted 12 weeks to the study of this remarkable area.

Described as 'a living laboratory', the 65,000 square kilometre Heard Island and Macdonald Island Marine Reserve is situated in the southern Indian Ocean approximately 4500km south-west of Western Australia and about 1000km north of Antarctica. The landscape is one of glaciers and volcanoes, moulded by the harshest of climates.

This innovative project examined the interactions between key predators on Heard Island, their prey, the ocean environment and commercial fisheries, plus biological responses to climate change.

Aerial photographs of Heard Island show that in the past 50 years there has been dramatic shrinkage of the Brown Glacier to an area less than half its size in 1950

On land, meanwhile, glaciologists worked on measuring the retreat of Brown Glacier, an indicator of the impact of global warming. Aerial photographs of Heard Island show that in the past 50 years there has been dramatic shrinkage of the Brown Glacier to an area less than half its size in 1950. Smaller glaciers are also being studied.

While the shrinkage of the Heard Island glaciers will contribute only minimally to rising sea levels, this data provides a warning of changes that can be expected in Antarctica.

While the land-based scientists tagged penguins, albatross and seals on the island, another team on board the Australian Antarctic Division's icebreaker, Aurora Australis visited the feeding sites of these same seals and penguins, measuring the characteristics of these productive areas. The information will be used to develop sustainable fishing limits for fisheries of toothfish and icefish within the reserve.

the highlight was a photograph triggered when an inquisitive squid attacked the mechanism and capturned itself for posterity

State-of-the-art data collecting equipment included a specially-designed deepsea underwater camera.

The penguins being studied feed at depths of up to 200m. For the first time, these foraging areas could be photographed and studied with minimal disturbance to the ecosystem. Perhaps the highlight was a photograph triggered when an inquisitive squid attacked the mechanism and capturned itself for posterity [below].

Satellite tracking devices also told astonishing stories. For example, the light-mantled sooty albatross spends a week travelling the round trip of 4000km to rich Antarctic feeding waters and back. However, on arrival back home to feed its chicks on Heard Island, it does not rest for long. The chicks take only about 10 minutes to feed. The parent then takes off again, for another long flight to the faraway food store.

The success of this ambitious expedition is not only in the data collected but also in the superb images taken by the scientists, and shared in the accompanying portfolios.

These magnificent photographs bring a tantalising glimpse of something that is increasingly rare in our world — a wild, pristine place where nature plays out its drama to the full. ¶


The first adventure in Leatherwood Online's new section is to Heard Island, home of Australia's only live volcano, where earlier this year scientists carried out an unusual and very productive joint land and sea study.


HEARD ISLAND
PORTFOLIOS

Heard Island is home to large populations of mammals, especially elephant seals and fur seals

A fascinating variety of water birds call Heard Island home, including this pensive skua.

Mother love from a rockhopper penquin, one of the four species found on Heard Island.

Despite horrendous weather conditions, a suprisingly diverse range of plants populate isolated Heard Island.

Coming soon:

Portfolios profiling expedition logistics, blubbery mammals and camp capers.

Credits:

All expeditioneers contributed to this extensive coverage, and we'd like to especially thank expedition leader, biologist Dick Williams, Kate Keifer, Doug Thost, Roger Kirkwood and Simon Goldsworthy.