Seen on Heard

Tarryn Lawrie
Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Among the routine scientific observations recorded by scientists during Antarctic expeditions there are unusually poetic descriptions that paint a vivid picture of subantarctic islands. One account was recorded in 1947, during the first journey of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition to Heard Island.

In the late 1940s, the Australian Government began work to establish research stations on subantarctic Heard and Macquarie Islands. Earlier successful British, Australian and New Zealand research expeditions to the Antarctic had encouraged Australia to found permanent stations. The first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) departed Fremantle in December 1947. The crew onboard the HMA Landing Ship Tank (LST) 3501, led by Captain Stuart Campbell, were tasked with establishing a station on Heard Island roughly 4,000 kilometres southwest of Australia.

First sightings of the summit

The LST 3501 battled through 13 days of heavy seas. The ship was reported as 'behaving like a caterpillar in motion – it rippled from stem to stern'. Finally, at 3am on 11 December, the snow-capped summit of Big Ben, the highest peak on Heard Island, became visible in the distance. This first sighting was reported by the ship’s crew:

For a few moments, like a shy maiden coyly peeping out, the summit blushed pale rose where the rays from the rising sun shone on the snow, before the veil of cloud dropped back to hide her face.

The ship headed towards Spit Bay on the east side of the island, the site of an old sealing settlement. The desolate landscapes were described in detail:

Mighty glaciers swept down to the ocean, their surfaces seamed and lined with numerous deep crevices, diffused with pale shades of green and lilac colouration. Where they approached close to the water they were worn and beaten into irregular shapes by the action of the wind and waves.

The LST 3501 was anchored off Atlas Cove and a smaller craft was lowered into the calm waters with an exploration party on board. David Eastman, the official expedition photographer, was the first onshore to capture the crew's arrival on the island. After a few hours, the team returned to the ship looking 'very cold and wet'. They were accompanied by a small penguin that Eastman released onboard and attempted to photograph. The penguin quickly waddled straight off the ship's side and swam back out to sea.

Christmas at the Cafe

Over the next few days, the crew began to set up a permanent camp including 'Café De Norman' named after the expedition's cook, Norman Jones. According to the report, Jones had a reputation for 'wielding a natty tin-opener.' Christmas festivities later that month were celebrated with typical Aussie reverence; the captain was forced to drink a glass of beer out of his boot for 'skulking amongst the sea elephants'.

The crew celebrated New Year's Eve at an old whaling station on Kerguelen Island on their way home to Australia. A large bonfire and barbeque were prepared to celebrate the coming of the new year. But just before midnight, a strong wind sent the crew retreating to their ship: 'Soon weird noises pierced the night and the fauna were awakened by the sound of men singing old langsyne [sic].'

There were many subsequent ANARE expeditions to subantarctic islands in the 1950s but only a few continued to Heard Island.

You can discover more stories about Australia's relationship with Antarctica as well as photographs of early 20th-century Antarctic exploration at Chilled: Antarctic life inside and out, showing at the Western Australian Office until 29 March 2024.