ACT News


Isolated in the albatross abyss

Island life is not as romantic as it sounds when it involves the study of animals in cold conditions, writes PHILLIP THOMSON

THE ICEBREAKER is called L'Astrolabe and is renowned for making people seasick. As the 2100-tonne ship approaches Macquarie Island, Canberra's Anna Lashko sits eating her meals in the fresh air of the helicopter deck, trying to keep the food down with the help of seasick medication and remembering her desire to break away from her office job.

In the distance she can see a speck, a rock, in the Southern Ocean, the first piece of land seen for three days since leaving Tasmania.

''It really hits home how you are in the middle of the ocean and a long way from anywhere,'' she says.

Macquarie Island, roughly half way between New Zealand and Antarctica, is to be her home for five months, including the entire summer.

December is the hottest month of summer on the island but even then Lashko's Australian Christmas is not expected to exceed 15 degrees.

''I was a bit intimidated by it at first - the wind that sometimes makes you struggle to walk in a straight line, the sleet and snow and hail,'' Lashko says.


''It can change from sunshine to blizzard in under an hour.''

Lashko, who celebrates her 35th birthday on the island in February, is one of a large cohort of Canberrans who will spend Christmas in some far-flung corner of the earth.

Many of them are researchers from institutions such as the Australian National University (ANU) or the University of Canberra.

Lashko, who graduated with an honours degree in science from ANU, has taken up her job as seabird researcher with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

There are two seabird researchers on Macquarie Island each summer, studying the albatross and giant petrels to determine breeding success, survival and population trends.

''It involves lots of walking up and down steep hills, the albatross's preferred habitat,'' she says.

What she sees during her research is a magnificent love story that triumphs despite the harshness of the landscape.

When the bird makes its first flight it won't return for at least three years and won't breed for at least another seven years. But when it does, it will return to Macquarie Island and find a mate, to whom it will remain faithful until one of them dies.

Longline fishing in past years has lowered the numbers of wandering albatross.

Four species of albatross populate the island and have been studied on the island for more than 20 years. There are fifteen breeding pairs of wandering albatross compared with 50 breeding pairs of black-browed albatross, 100 breeding pairs of grey-headed albatross and 1500 to 2700 breeding pairs of light-mantled albatross.

''When a population is so small, we'd like to see every breeding adult able to pair up and raise a chick to give the population the best chance of increasing, but at the moment that's not happening.''

Canberrans continue to be vital to the island.

At the start of 2012, the Sunday Canberra Times profiled Trish Macdonald, a Canberran leading the eradication of mice, rats and rabbits on the island.

Helicopters had criss-crossed the 130 square kilometre outpost and laid bait on every square metre of the island - twice.

The once 150,000-strong rabbit population had been reduced to fewer than 30 - great news for the abundant native animals.

In Macdonald's words, it was like living in a wildlife documentary.

Thousands of elephant seals come to give birth to their pups, breed and moult. Hundreds of thousands of penguins breed on the island, including the endemic royal penguin.

Lashko, a resident of North Lyneham, was schooled in the ACT - at Macquarie Primary School, Canberra High School and Lake Ginninderra College - and since getting her science degree has been studying birds.

On the island, her life is a combination of long treks and a scarcity of homely resources, according to her own written account of an average day: ''When we're in the field, we wake up in the field hut, have a big breakfast to fuel up for the day, pack all our field gear and survival gear and food for the day.

''We take a shovel and the beach jacket - a warm coat with toilet paper permanently in pocket - to the beach for our morning toilet, dodging grumpy moulting elephant seals and royal penguins coming and going from the sea to the breeding colony near the hut.

''We start our commute with a half-hour climb up a steep hill, pausing for a couple of breathers and to admire the view along the way, and then walk between another 45 minutes and two hours to one of our field sites, where by now we have identified all the nests.

''The colony can span several hundred metres of escarpment, so it takes us a while to observe all the nests, to see if any have failed and identify individuals.

''At some point, we'll find a sheltered spot out of the wind to have lunch. At the end of the day, we make the trip back to the hut where, if the conditions are right, we can run down a slope in about five minutes or we walk back down the steep hill we started our day with.

''If we're lucky some of our fellow hut residents, usually hunters and dog handlers involved with the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project, will already be home and will have the kettle on waiting for us.

''We'll have a hot drink to warm up, boil another kettle for hot water for a bucket shower or bird bath, which is a quick and bracing affair in the wind and sometimes snow.

''Then we'll hang up any wet gear to dry overnight. At 7pm we have a radio 'sked' with the station, when we receive the weather forecast and let them know where we'll be working the next day. .

''It's also a good time for people in different huts to exchange news. Dinner is a shared meal, with everyone taking turns cooking. Then we enjoy a game of cards, cribbage and 500 are popular, and hop into bed to rejuvenate for the next day.''

''There is a real sense of community both on the station and in the field and I think that makes the isolation less of an issue,'' she says.

She returns home in March.