Heard Island
Location and History
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The Islands

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Tristan da Cunha

Gough Island

Inaccessible Island

Bouvetoya

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Marion Island

Crozet Islands

Kerguelen

Amsterdam/St Paul

Heard Island

This site is run by Paul Carroll

I am not a resident of any of the Subantarctic Islands, though I have had a lifelong interest in these fascinating places. I actually live near Derby in the United Kingdom.

Welcome to my website, which is now several years old and growing!

If you have any questions about the islands, please feel free to contact me

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Location

Heard Island is situated in the extreme Southern Indian Ocean, on the Kerguelen Plateau, 4,100 km south-west of the Australian continent and 1,500 km north of Antarctica. Heard and McDonald Islands lie 40 km apart, the McDonald Islands to the west of Heard Island. Heard Island is located at 53°06'S, 73°30'E, and the McDonald Islands at 53°03'S, 72°36'E.

Heard Island has an area of 368 sq km. It is uninhabited and the closest land to Heard Island are the Kerguelen Islands, 440 kilometres to the North and some five times larger. The Kerguelen Island group has a permanent community of approximately 100 scientists in summer. The next nearest human population centre from Heard Island, is Perth, Western Australia.

Heard Island, situated in the Sub-Antarctic region of the globe, is a very special place, highly valued by anyone who has taken the time to look further than identifying it on a map of the world. Academics have stated that

all Sub-Antarctic islands are unique because they are surrounded by vast regions of ocean, have small land areas and highly distinct biodiversity of flora and fauna

However, Heard Island is arguably the "most unique" of all the Sub-Antarctic islands.

Discovery

Heard Island did not have visitors until 1833. It is probable that no human had ever seen the Island until this time. Peter Kemp, A British sealer, was the first person thought to have seen the island on the 27th of November 1833 from the brig Magnet during a voyage from Kerguelen to the Antarctic, and was believed to have entered the island in his 1833 chart.

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In 1849, an American whaler, Thomas Long,

reported to the owners of his ship that he had seen land while whaling south of Kerguelen

Captain John Heard, an American sealer on the ship Oriental sighted the island on 25th November 1853 en route from Boston to Melbourne, officially reported the discovery on December 24th December and had the island named after him. Coincidentally, Captain William McDonald aboard the Samarang discovered the McDonald Islands close to Heard Island shortly afterwards on January 4th 1854.

No landing was made on the islands until sealers from the Corinthian led by Captain Erasmus Darwin Rogers in March 1855 went ashore. In the sealing period from 1855-1880, a number of American Sealers spent a year or more on the island, living in appalling conditions in dark smelly huts. By 1880, most of the seal population had been wiped out and the sealers left the island. In all, more than 100,000 barrels of Elephant Seal Oil was produced during this period.

History and Scientific Expeditions

Big Ben from a distance
Big Ben from the coastof Heard Island
(Photo by Bruce Hull, Australian Antarctic Division)

In 1874 Scientists from HMS Challenger took geological and botanical collections. Between 1900 and 1929, whaling operations were attempted several times, however, there was little success and the whalers left by 1929. In 1902, Baron Erich von Drygalski, leader of the German South Polar Expedition on the vessel Gauss, paid a brief call and provided the first comprehensive scientific information on the island's geology, flora and fauna.

In 1929 a French geologist, Aubert de la Rue carried out studies during a visit there via whaling ship and later in the year, Sir Douglas Mawson, leader of the British, Australian and New Zealand Expedition (BANZARE) visited Heard Island for a week en route to Antarctica. A hut was built by this expedition for use as a refuge for stranded sailors, the remains of which are still standing today.

The first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) set up a station at Atlas Cove at the western end of the island in December 1947. A total of 10-15 men worked year-round on the island conducting scientific research. The station closed in 1955. It had laboratories, a medical annex, power station, food store, mess, workshops, sleeping quarters, ablution area, and various store huts.

Research teams from the United States were stationed at Atlas Cove for a year from March 1969 and built huts in this location. More huts were erected in 1970-71 by Australian and French scientists. The last ANARE scientific expedition stayed a year and used a temporary base at Spit Bay.

Geography

Heard Island and the McDonald Islands are limestone and volcanic accumulations located on the Kerguelen Plateau, a submarine feature rising some 3,700m above the adjacent deep sea floor. The islands are two of three areas (with Kerguelen) which are the only places where the Kerguelen Plateau or the broader Gaussberg-Kerguelen Ridge reach sea level.

Geology

Heard Island is notable among oceanic islands because the basement of middle Eocene to early Oligocene limestones are below volcanic extrusions. The main body of Heard Island is roughly circular, with a diameter of about 25 km. Topography is dominated by Big Ben massif, with the volcanically active Mawson Peak (the only active volcano in Australian territory). The base of Big Ben is 20 km wide, and several teams of mountaineers have climbed Big Ben in the past two decades and found the climb very challenging.

The island possesses both karst and volcanic features. A mountainous headland, Laurens Peninsula, extends approximately 10 km to the north-west connected to the main island by a ridge less than 100m wide. in places. The peninsula is also volcanic in origin, and features extensive areas of lava tunnels. The highest point is Anzac Peak (715 m).

The Spit
The Spit, with Brown Lagoon in the foreground

To the east, a narrow sand and shingle spit extends approximately 10 km out into the southern ocean. This spit is now being broached. There are numerous outlying islets, rocks and reefs, the largest, Shag Island, lying some 10 km north of Heard Island.

Over 80 percent of Heard Island is permanently covered by ice, and twelve major glaciers descend from Big Ben. Some have a length of over 7 kilometres and an area of more than 10 square km. The ice is up to 150m deep and glaciers extending from the summit of Big Ben to to sea level. Ice cliffs form a high percentage of the coastline.

The glaciers appear to be fast-flowing as a result of the steep slopes and high precipitation and ara useful indicator of global warming and other climate trends. Glaciers that formerly terminated at sea level in 1947 now terminate hundreds of metres inland.

Big Ben from the Air
Mawson Peak Crater from the air (Photo by Bruce Hull, Australian Antarctic Division)

There is little soil, and ice-free areas are widely separated and mostly confined to low-lying coastal areas.

The remainder of the Island has narrow coastal flats at the western and eastern ends and along a number of northern beaches.

The McDonald Island group comprises McDonald Island (100 hectares), with several small rocky islets (Flat Island and Meyer Rock). The islands, all of which are ice-free, are composed of basaltic lava and tuffaceous material, resulting from eruptions of volcanic vents near sea level. These vents are often active.

Climate

Big Ben affects the weather conditions on Heard Island contributing to an already

harsh and variable climate with atmospheric turbulence and rapidly changing conditions. Consequently, the island has a reputation as one of the wildest places on earth according to ANARE. The temperature is not as cold as the Antarctic continent 1,500 kilometres further south, hence the opportunity for consistent research in various scientific fields has been possible.

Heard Island is one of the few sites in the sub Antarctic where continuous weather observations are possible. This is important for the long term monitoring of climate change

Temperatures at sea level show a seasonal variation of about 4°C with average winter temperatures at sea level close to freezing. The highest temperature on record for Atlas Cove is 14°C, and temperatures of 21°C have been recorded at Spit Bay. The lowest is minus 9°C. The average wind speed throughout the year is 26 km/h’ . Snowfall occurs throughout the year. The average annual rainfall at Atlas Cove is about 1350 mm. At Atlas Cove sunshine varies from an average of 2.4 hours per day in November to 0.8 hours per day in June.

Political Situation

Heard Island has been part of Australia’s territory since control of the Islands was transferred from the United Kingdom to the Australian Government in 1947. Australia’s Antarctic territory is the largest claim on the Antarctic continent and Heard Island is seen as an integral part of this Australian East Antarctic region. However, Heard Island is politically distinct from East Antarctica, because global and Australian legislation has resulted in different directions for the sub Antarctic region in comparison to the Antarctic.

Cultural Features

There are historic remains of built heritage in the form of several ruins and artefacts left behind by whalers, sealers and scientific expeditions over the last century. ANARE attaches great importance to the cultural and historic heritage of Heard Island. They express concern about potential tourism impacts and recognise that artefacts should not be moved, souvenired or relocated by tourists.

Visitors may feel compelled to "rescue" artefacts, especially those perceived to be in danger of being irretrievably lost, or to "clean up" remains of previous occupations

Remnants of the sealing era include stone platforms, hut ruins, occupied caves, gun parts, graves and working areas. Trypots (used to process seal blubber into oil), cooping iron, parts of barrels, clay bricks, wooden items and other tools and equipment. ANARE believes that the heritage value of the sealer’s sites is significant due to the undisturbed and well-preserved nature of items on Heard Island.

The sealers' sites are the least disturbed and among the best preserved in the subantarctic. Two objects of particular interest have been repatriated to Australia.

A blubber press and the carved basalt rock … the only known such carving from the Antarctic or subantarctic

ANARE is also very proud of the rubbish it left behind in 1955 after closing the research station. This rubbish is now heritage value, representing a history of Heard Island, adding cultural value to the destination. There remain numerous artefacts from this era, such as remains of the ANARE huts, radio masts, the remains of a pen for sledging dogs, geodetic survey markers, abandoned machinery, fuel and food supplies.

Features

Heard Island has special qualities that human visitation could change forever.

There are no introduced mammals or plants on the islands and their natural state contrasts markedly with most other Sub-Antarctic islands, in making them extremely important areas

Heard Island is home to many rare and endangered mammals and plants including 34 known bird species (mainly penguins), seven species of seals and seventeen Sub Antarctic plant species.

Heard Island is the least disturbed subantarctic environment on earth. The island’s animal and plant life in an undisturbed environment, its permanent glaciation, its unique geological forms and its history have been identified as significant values

As an island devoid of indigenous culture or population, it reveals natural resources without minimal human distractions. Heard Island's unique geophysical position and freedom from landmass atmospheric interference and pollution have made it a fascinating site for scientific researchers.