Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Macquarie Island: subantarctic tundra and a research station lost in the Pacific Ocean

Macquarie Island is an australian sub-antarctic territory in the southwest Pacific Ocean, about half-way between New Zealand and Antarctica.

Discovered accidentally in 1810, it first became british posession and part of the New South Wales colony. Macquarie Island became a Tasmanian Reserve in 1978, and a World Heritage Site in 1997.

The small island is about 34 km long and  5 km wide, in two main pieces of plateau joined by a narrow isthmus close to sea level.

Tundra covers most of the island, there is also some exclusive grass vegetation on the coastal cliffs and sandy areas.

Mt. Fletcher, at 428 m, is the highest point.

View as arriving from north.

Coordinates: 54° 30′ S, 158° 57′ E
( ~ same as Ushuaia, or Grytviken )

Population: no native inhabitants; Macquarie Island Station is a permanent research base, home to about 40 over summer, with about 16 over winter.

'Macca' entrance gate.

The station, friendly known as Macca, opened in 1911 to establish radio contact from Antarctica to Hobart; from 1948, it was enlarged to allow for research under Australian administration.

It is built on a narrow isthmus at the northern end of the island, and consists of more than 30 separate buildings. The sleeping quarters, mess, surgery, stores and powerhouse buildings are located at the northern end of the isthmus.

Most of the scientific buildings, including geophysics, biology, upper atmosphere physics and meteorology, are housed on the isthmus. The station’s communications centre and garage are also in this vicinity.

The station's 'main square':
Cumpton's and Hasselborough houses in the foreground.

Accommodation buildings are located within the station compound at the northern end of the isthmus.

Cumpston's Cottage is a two storey timber house erected during the 1995-96 summer. It has four rooms, including the station governor's room and office as well as the doctor's rooms. It is the most modern building at the station.

Hasselborough House contains 11 rooms, laundry, drying room, toilets and showers. The windows that are fixed shut.

Winter snow at the isthmus, among cabins from Macca.

South of the Station.

The climate is mainly mild but windy and rainy, similar to the Faröe Islands in Europe; temperature has few oscillations from 0 (winter - May and June) to + 5 degrees (summer - December to January). Negative temperatures are uncommon. The sea, though, is often tempestuous and with violent swell.

Green Gorge and the Hut.

On the east coast, 15 km south of the station, Green Gorge is a large inlet that became a basin by the beach as the island rose, with a small lake and surrounded by mountains.

The Hut is a comfortable 1977 Canadian log cabin, improved with insulation and a veranda in 1995.

It is the favourite field hut for visitors and researchers as a sheltered place to enjoy an overnight break on a journey from one end of the island to the other.

Rough swell at Green Gorge.

Macquarie Island is right in the middle of a violent mass of weather and waves, a tiny speck of solid land directly in the path of fierce storms and some of the worst sea conditions anywhere on the planet.

Around the Island

Macquarie Island offers some fantastic landscapes in a number of spots - bays, caps, cliffs, hills, small lakes, waterfalls...

'Aurora Point', on the mid-western coast, about the other side across the island from Green Gorge.

'Caroline Cove', on the southwestern tip.

Tiobunga Lake, the water tank, on the inland plateau.

'Whisky Creek', a steep valley cutting through the eastern escarpment into the Waterfall Lake.

A garden park, Macquarie syle, on the plateau uplands.

Snow blowing from the top of Mt Elder
(~ 385 m).

Macquarie Island's Nature Reserve is now World Heritage Site, home to thousands of king penguins, royal penguins, elephant seals, fur seals, and several birds.

Azorella macquariensis (Macquarie Cushion) is endemic to Macquarie Island. The species is presently endangered from unknown causes, suffering a severe decline.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

St. Paul and St. George,
on the sub-arctic Pribilof Islands, in the Bering sea

The Pribilofs were named after the Russian navigator Gavriil Pribylov, who first visited these remote islands in 1786.

Russian fur hunters were searching for the breeding grounds of the northern fur seal when fleet master Gavriil Pribylov found the islands. He named St. George Island for his ship.

In 1867, when the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia, the federal government took over the Pribilof Islands, but it was not until 1983 that the local people were given full control of their islands.

These are two really tiny islands in the middle of the immense and tempestuous Bering sea. I had never heard of them until I recently saw St. Paul's harbour in an episode of the Deadliest Catch.

The Pribilofs have a rocky coast, some sand dunes and a treeless tundra low inland.

St. Paul island is a low, rolling plateau, with extinct volcanic peaks scattered over its surface. Bogoslof Hill, 590 feet high, a conical crater near the center of the island, and Polovina Hill, are the most relevant geographic features.

'Little Polovina', one of many small volcano craters, now filled with water.

It seems that a tundra covered rock with an harbour can be of great help for fishing boats in distress, especially if they are far away far from Dutch Harbour, Unalaska.

As I searched, I discovered two of the islands are inhabited, each has its own settlement from remote russian-siberian occupation, and of course its own wooden orthodox church !

Several small craters are visible in this satellite image.

Saint Paul, island and harbour town

St. Paul is the largest of five islands in the Pribilofs, 240 miles north of the Aleutian Islands, 300 miles west of the Alaskan coast.

Coordinates: 57° 07′ N, 170° 17′ W
Population: ~ 600

St. Paul village and harbour are located on a narrow peninsula on the southern tip the Island.

Off-loading snow crab, St. Paul harbour

The island's economy is heavily dependent on the annual taking of the snow king crab and on subsistence and commercial halibut harvests.

Support services to commercial fleets fishing on waters of the Bering Sea also contribute to the economy.

The community is served by basic facilities - community hall, a small new hospital, a school, library and museum, as well as the government´s local administration.

The orthodox church and the old Clinic are the main historic buildings in town.

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul is almost too magnificent and rich for the small hamlet. The shinning onion dome can be seen from miles away.

Built in 1907, it was then "one of the most ambitiously designed and effectively executed small churches of the Byzantine tradition in Alaska."

The King Eider Hotel:

Built in 1923 as the 'Company House', the main lobby was then a library.

A typical wooden house in St. Paul.

The Old Clinic and doctor's residence, from 1925 - served later as Hospital.

The Webster House orthodox shrine, at the northeastern extreme of the island, overlooking the Bering Sea.

Saint George, island and harbour town

Coordinates: 56° 33′ N, 169° 33′ W
Population: ~160

St. George island lies 47 miles south of St. Paul Island. The main settlement is also called St. George, and it's really quite small and lacking some of the basic services. Still there is a small clinic and a basic school.

In contrast, still richer than its St. Paul sister is the St. George the Great Martyr Church, built much later, in 1935

A Nature Preserve Site

The Pribilof Islands are better known for the wildlife they preserve.

Wooly Lousewort (Pedicularis dasyantha)

Nootka Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)

Nootka Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)

Snowy Owl on St. Paul's dunes

Lapland Longspur

And the unique blue Pribilof fox, small and endemic, a must:

Alopex lagopus pribilofensis