In most of the maps which I have seen, an island named “Emerald” is put down in latitude 57°, a long way to the south of Macquarie Island. This, is, however, now generally regarded as mythical, for its supposed site was sailed over by the American Transit of Venus Expedition and no land was observed. In all probability its discoverers mistook an iceberg for snow-covered land, a not unlikely mistake in misty weather.
We may therefore safely consider that Macquarie Island is the most southerly island of the outlying members of the New Zealand group, indeed,
with the exception of some of the islands in the neighbourhood of Cape Horn, it is the nearest point of land to the great Antarctic Continent. It lies considerably to the south of Kerguelen Land, or the Crozets.
On this account then considerable interest attaches to it. I therefore availed myself of the opportunity offered me by Messrs. Elder and Nichols, in the latter end of 1880, for a trip down to it in the “Jessie Niccol” schooner. It is the results of this excursion that I propose to give in this paper.
The changes which the New Zealand flora undergoes in the Auckland and Campbell Islands have been often noted, but almost nothing was known of its characters in Macquarie Island. I wished to notice how many plants survived in that high latitude, and what changes in appearance and habit these had undergone in suiting themselves to the rigorous climate; whether our New Zealand alpine forms were to be found there at the sea level, and whether there were to be found any new forms unrepresented even in the highest and most remote parts of New Zealand.
Four or five of the Macquarie Island plants had been sent to the Hooker Herbarium by Mr. Fraser, of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, about fifty years ago. I cannot, however, make out whether he had visited the island himself, or whether one of the sealers had brought the plants to him.
I was also anxious to see and study, so far as practicable, the sea elephants, which make it their summer resort. They never, so far as I know, come as far north as either Campbell Island or the Auckland group, so in this part of the world Macquarie Island is the only place where they can be observed.
Macquarie Island lies about 600 miles to the south-west of New Zealand, more than twice as far away as the Auckland group, and is separated from that group and from Campbell Island by very much deeper water than that which lies between them and New Zealand. There is a great valley 3,000 fathoms deep between Macquarie Island and the Auckland and Campbell Islands, while the sea between them and New Zealand is not 1,000 fathoms deep.
It is wrongly put down on all the charts. For the following correct position I am indebted to Captain Cowper, who, in the “Jessie Niccol,” has made a number of trips to the island:—
Latitude, north end, 54° 26′ South.
Latitude, south end, 54° 44′ South.
Longitude, north end, east side, 159° 5′ 45″ East.
Longitude, south end, east side, 159° 1′ 45″ East.
It is about 18 miles long and 5 miles broad, its east side lying N. ½ W. and S. ½ E. magnetic.
It is a solitary island, but it has two outlying rocks. One called the “Bishop and Clerk” lies 30 miles to the south of the south end; the other called the “Judge and Clerk” is 7 miles to the north of the North Head.
It is exceedingly hilly. The hills, however, are of no great height, not more than 600 or 700 feet I should think. They rise as a rule almost directly from the sea, leaving but a narrow interval of shingly beach, while occasional spurs run out from wide open bays which afford no shelter to vessels. Towards the north end of the west coast there is a greater extent of flat land between the hills and the sea. Between the steeper part of the hill-side and the shingle, there is always a more gently sloping belt of extremely swampy land. And here the tussock grass grows in “Maori heads” above the soft treacherous mud. At both ends of the island, however, the land rises in cliffs abruptly from the sea; and the North Head forms a bluff distinct from the rest of the island, and only connected with it by a narrow neck of sand, through which the sea in stormy weather has been known to break.
The west coast is, as might be expected, more cut into by the sea than the east, but there are no bays suitable for harbours. At the south-west corner of the island, there is, indeed, a beautiful deep bay called “Caroline Cove,” completely sheltered from every side except the south-west. It is completely open to that quarter however, and as the prevailing wind blows from the south-west, and therefore straight into the bay, it would rather prove a trap than a shelter to any vessel that anchored in it. There are still visible on the beach the remains of a vessel which was wrecked in this manner. The sealing vessels always lie some distance off the coast ready to slip and go to sea at any moment. The oil in large casks is floated out to them.
The Caroline Cove wreck is not the only vessel that has gone ashore on Macquarie Island; and there are still to be seen the graves of some of the shipwrecked seamen. On the bit of plank which served as headstone for one of them I was able to decipher the name, John Bilsham, but the date was illegible.
The interior of the island shows the rocky tops of the hills blown perfectly bare by the wind, and fissured by the frosts; and in the hollows of the uplands lie a number of little lakes, which empty themselves by streams. These either make valleys for themselves down to the sea, or tumble down the steep hill-sides in miniature cascades.
The general appearance of a Macquarie Island landscape is barren in the extreme. There is not a tree or shrub on the island, and what vegetation there is has a great deal of sameness, long stretches of yellowish tussock, with occasional great patches of the bright-green Stilbocarpa polaris, or of the peculiar sage-green Pleurophyllum. These, with the rich brown
mosses near the hill-tops, are all that strike the eye in looking at the island from the sea. This paucity of species is, as we shall see again, one of the characteristics of the flora of antarctic islands.
The rocks of the island belong to the older crystallines, greenstones. They have occasionally an amygdaloidal structure, the amygdules sometimes containing zeolites. Mesotype, with concentric radiated fibrous structure, occurs in one of my specimens; and in another, what is probably analcime, is to be seen. The rocks are sometimes veined with quartz.