Australia is responsible for three World Heritage-listed islands in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica.

These Sub-Antarctic Islands – Macquarie, Heard and the McDonald Islands – are among the last truly wild places on the planet.

Teeming with spectacular and unique wildlife, they provide crucial breeding and feeding habitat for penguins, seals, sea lions, whales, fish and dozens of migratory birds, such as albatross. Some species, such as the royal penguin, are found nowhere else on Earth.

Macquarie Island lies 1,500 km off the coast of Tasmania, halfway to Antarctica. It’s a lush and windy wonderland that usually takes three days to reach by ship from Hobart. Macquarie is home to the royal penguin and the Macquarie Island imperial shag, both of which are found nowhere else on Earth. It’s a haven for a remarkable array of Antarctic wildlife, including 4 species of albatross, 4 species of penguins,  3 fur seals, elephant seals and 13 species of marine. It is the only place formed entirely of oceanic crust, where rocks from deep below the Earth’s surface have been thrust above sea level, creating an island with steep escarpments, lakes and Sub-Antarctic vegetation –- a jewel in the crown of the Southern Ocean.

Even more remote are Australia’s biologically pristine Heard and McDonald Islands, which lie 4,000 km southwest of Perth in Western Australia and just 1,700 km from the Antarctic continent. Lashed by gale-force winds and pounded by treacherous surf, they comprise the only Sub-Antarctic island group with an entirely intact ecosystem, free of any known species directly introduced by humans. This means that biological and evolutionary processes can occur naturally, making these islands a unique living test tube of life in the Southern Ocean and an important barometer of climate change. Heard Island is also home to Big Ben – an active volcano which, at 2,745 metres, is taller than mainland Australia’s largest mountain, Kosciuszko.

Despite the unique and rich conservation values of these globally recognised islands, only small sections of the waters surrounding Australia’s Sub-Antarctic territories are protected from harmful activity such as deep sea mining or industrial fishing. Climate Change, pollution and industrial fishing are already putting increasing pressure on marine life across the Southern Ocean. History shows that unless precious environments like this have strong protections in place, they fall victim to such threats.

An adult male Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina) on Macquarie Island

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are at the centre of international jostling  for power and influence. These tensions have stalled global progress on establishing a network of marine sanctuaries to protect the Antarctic and its incredible marine life. Now, more than ever, countries like Australia must take decisive action in their own Sub-Antarctic territories to strengthen marine protections.

A healthy Sub-Antarctic region is also vital for reducing the impacts of climate change. That’s because the Southern Ocean has enormous capacity to absorb carbon emissions and excess heat. 

We must learn from the past and protect these islands and oceans before it’s too late. Marine sanctuaries are crucial to ensure global ecosystems remain healthy. 

Top image credit: Jamie Van Jones

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