Op Ed: Protecting our rare and precious island gem

It takes an Australian four days to reach Macquarie Island, on the remote edge of the Southern Ocean. To put that in perspective, it took Neil Armstrong just over three days to reach the orbit of the moon.

To get there, you need to first make your way to Hobart, where you board a dedicated boat for the journey south. You then travel halfway to Antarctica, across the wildest patch of ocean in the world, before switching to a second boat, which ferries you to shore.

Few people ever get this privilege. Macquarie Island is a rare and precious gem, a place where penguins vastly outnumber people, and where life continues largely undisturbed by modern technology.

As Australians, we are lucky to count this extraordinary place as part of Tasmania and our national home. And while most of us will never get the chance to see it in person, we recognise the importance of preserving the site, as a slice of life that can never be replaced. 

The federal government understands this responsibility, which is why we have just announced our plan to strengthen national conservation of Macquarie Island, by placing all the Australian waters surrounding it under marine park protection.

This proposal will triple the size of the existing Macquarie Island Marine Park, adding a new area of highly protected ocean that is bigger than Germany. The total area under high protection will now be twice the size of Victoria. 

This announcement is part of our mission to conserve Australia’s special places, particularly those that are home to threatened species.

Macquarie Island is the only place on earth where royal penguins breed, with their distinctive yellow mohawk crests. It’s a place where endangered albatross come to rest their giant wings after foraging for food at sea.

It’s where rare fish spawn and repopulate. It’s where elephant seals sunbathe their massive husky bodies on the beach. And it’s where killer whales cruise along in their tight-knit pods, sleek and deadly beneath the icy water.

This pristine corner of the world is Australia’s answer to the Galapagos Islands. And in the same way that Charles Darwin sailed to the Galapagos to learn the secrets of evolution, modern scientists are using Macquarie as a tool to better understand our planet. 

Macquarie Island hosts a small band of scientists, supported by the Australian Antarctic Division. As an outpost of true wilderness, and the only place in the world where the earth’s mantle breaks through to the surface, the island is a haven for science.

Researchers travel there to study wildlife conservation, geology, earthquake activity, climate change, and the state of our oceans.

As one of the few places in the world largely untouched by humankind, Macquarie Island is a refuge for animals and scientists. But the truth is, that wasn’t always the case.

In the nineteenth century, Macquarie Island was a stopover for whalers, who introduced rats and goats and other invasive species. It took a massive conservation effort to eradicate these pests, and to return the island to its original state. 

This restoration work was a testament to our ability to heal the land from past errors. And it’s an inspiration to everyone who is seeking to revive damaged environments elsewhere.

Australians understand that the health of our nation is bound up with the health of our natural world. As Minister for the Environment, I am determined to protect more of what’s precious, to repair more of what’s damaged, and to manage nature better for the future. 

And that means conserving exceptional places like Macquarie Island, for our kids and for our grandkids.

Published in the Hobart Mercury