Heard Island

Photo: E. Woehler via heardisland.antarctica.gov.au
Photo: E. Woehler via heardisland.antarctica.gov.au

You have a lot of time to kill en route to Antarctica. For days, you’ve seen nothing but deep gray water and white-cresting waves on the horizon. Then icebergs—first small ones, followed by much larger ones—came into view. They soon became commonplace, as well. The only thing that excites you right now is land. But land masses are few and far between. So the sight of Heard Island ahead seems truly spectacular right now.

The Australian Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands sits more than 4,000 kilometers southwest of Perth in the southern Indian Ocean. The volcanic islands are one of the most remote places on Earth. They’re barren, with no permanent inhabitants. Snow covers them all year round. They’re now a nature reserve, since seabirds, penguins, and seals breed here. Wrecks, mostly from sealers, surround the islands. Plus Australia’s only two active volcanoes are found here.

Heard Island, the largest of the islands, is mountainous. Mawson Peak, a complex volcano, is higher than any mountain on the Australian mainland. Big Ben, a large massif, last erupted in 1992. Both peaks, as well as 80 percent of the circular island, is covered with glacial ice. Only along the rocky shore can you find wetlands, lagoons with sandy beaches, running lakes, and freshwater pools.

The other things you’ll find: those seabirds, penguins, and seals. Eastern rockhopper penguins, with their long yellow plumes, jump over rocks in Stephenson Lagoon. Long-tailed gentoo penguins nest in tufts of grass on the Azorella Peninsula. And majestic king penguins fish in Brown Lagoon. Dark brown Antarctic fur seals forage along Laurens Peninsula. Leopard seals visit the island during the winter. While crabeater seals hang out on icebergs in between feeding times. Lots of albatrosses—from black-browed to light-mantled to wandering—dive into the water around them. And colonies of Heard Island shags live among the tussock grass in the Sooty Valley.

All the animals have been a welcome diversion. Your excitement is building for what’s to come. On to Antarctica!

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