A glimpse into the past: the penguin oil industry

The sun sat high in the sky, the waves were calm but the atmosphere of the Spirit of Enderby was anything but calm – we were all excited to get ashore to Macquarie Island.  And what an absolutely stunning day for it.  The beach was a sea of black and white, with thousands of penguins taking up almost every inch of sand – the rest was occupied by Southern Elephant Seals.  My entire day involved simply sitting on the warm black sand, admiring the penguins as they went about their daily business.  It almost didn’t feel real.  Since I was a young child, I have dreamt about visiting the Subantarctic Islands but I never imagined that it would be a dream come true.  The Subantarctic Islands are an incredibly special place, of which less than 1,000 people annually are allowed to visit, by permit only.  These secluded, oftentimes completely unknown islands in the Southern Ocean have an astounding array of wildlife, and history just as remarkable.

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Southern Elephant Seal weaner pup and King Penguins

By 1854, the entirety of the Subantarctic Islands and Antarctica had been definitively located.  These islands, now known to merchants and businessmen of the Commonwealth, became a hunting ground for seals, whales and even penguins.  The mid-to-late 1800s saw an insatiable demand for oil from these species, in order to power boats, machinery and even the humble bedside lamp.  Therefore, as demand increased, the oil collectors methodically penetrated every corner of the Southern Ocean in their search for more.

New Zealand politician and blubber merchant, Joseph Hatch, and his team were involved in extensive hunting of pinnipeds on the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands of Campbell and Auckland.  However, in 1885, the New Zealand government declared seasonal hunting bans as a direct result of dwindling seal and sea lion numbers.  Hatch, unwilling to give up his trade, set his sights on Australia’s Macquarie Island as it had plentiful seals, loose restrictions and a complete lack of patrol in the area.  Hatch set up his sealing gangs on Macquarie Island in 1886.  Unbelievably, within four years of their arrival, they had near wiped out all the seals (in fact, fossil records suggest that a species of fur seal was hunted to extinction on Macquarie Island).  Hatch had to find another way to make money.  In 1870, Hatch was issued a licence by the Tasmanian government to produce oil from King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and the endemic Royal Penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli).

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An incredibly curious Royal Penguin – we couldn’t keep our eyes off each other

Hatch and his team set up five sites across the island at Lusitania Bay, Hasselborough Bay, The Nuggets, Hurd Point and the Isthmus.  At these sites, penguins were boiled down in trypots and simple digester systems.  The majority of digester sites targeted Royal Penguins, however, at Lusitania Bay the main target was King Penguins.  At this time approximately 2,000 penguins per day were rendered into oil.  As technology advanced, the digester systems on the island were upgraded, and in 1899 a new digester works was set up at Lusitania Bay.  This new technology allowed the penguins to be steamed whole.  Digesters worked essentially like oversized pressure cookers – extracting fats from the penguin’s body, including from within the bones, in a high pressure, hot steam environment. Under the heat of the steam, their bodies disintegrated – the oil rose to the top and the remnants (bones, beaks, feet, feathers etc) sank to the bottom. The oil was then run off into storage barrels, and the gruesome byproducts discarded into the ocean.   By 1905, Hatch’s team were able to render 3,500 penguins on a daily basis.  A further 500 penguins were used daily just to keep the digester fires going.  In fact, an estimated 15,000 penguins were taken per hunting season, which began in October just as the penguins returned to land in preparation for breeding season.

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Rusting penguin digesters at the Isthmus

There were reports that penguins were herded along ramps, and once at the top, they would tumble into the digesters alive.  However, Hatch fiercely denied this claim.  Furthermore, an Otago Daily Times correspondent (name unknown) that visited the island stated men beat them to death, and “after the blood of the massacred cool[ed]” they were thrown into digesters[1].  Scientist Leslie Blake visited Macquarie Island in 1912 and gave an account of what he saw:

“birds are driven into a small wire-netted yard… men enter with sticks and pick out the [juveniles].  They give them a knock on the head.  When all the [fat penguins] have been picked out [they] are then packed in huge boilers called digesters and steam is turned on to the pressure of 30lb every square inch for 12 hours.  The oil is then run into settling tanks and subsequently barreled, while the refuse passes into chutes and into the sea.” [2] 

Penguins have a high fat content, owing to their Subantarctic habitat.  However, each penguin produced a measly 400 ml of oil.  That’s five penguin lives for just 2 litres!  Each digester could hold approximately 3,000-4,000 pounds of oil.  However, much of the oil produced was wasted, as penguin oil came with one major drawback – it was often contaminated with feathers, and thus was discarded because it was ‘not pure’.

For fifty years, Hatch and his team exploited Macquarie’s penguins.  However, as a direct result of bad publicity and campaigns by Sir David Mawson, academic and Antarctic explorer, to make Macquarie Island a nature reserve, Tasmania did not renew Hatch’s licence in 1920.  During the fifty years of penguin hunting, an estimated three million or more penguins were killed.  When the hunting finally stopped, there were just 4,000 individual King Penguins remaining.

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King Penguins, the most regal animal I have ever laid eyes on

To Hatch, nature was something to be conquered – something to be exploited at the every beck and call of humans.  Unfortunately, this attitude has not changed a lot.  We may no longer boil penguins down for oil, but we, as a human race, continue to exploit nature to it’s breaking point.  The world over we pollute our waterways, cut down our rainforests, poach animals for their body parts and generally treat our precious planet with disdain, all for the sake of monetary gain.  Macquarie Island’s history is a condensed version of a story that is ongoing, worldwide – the way humans make money may literally mean the difference between a species going extinct or remaining on this planet.

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King Penguins at Lusitania Bay, raising their babies right next to a device which killed their ancestors and almost obliterated their existence here

Thankfully since the cessation of hunting, Macquarie’s penguin numbers have inflated, with King Penguins now sitting at approximately 70,000+ breeding pairs, and increasing.  Throughout the world, the King Penguin population is estimated at 2.23 million pairs, and are considered of Least Concern by the IUCN.  Furthermore, Royal Penguins are currently sitting at a population of 850,000 pairs – however, being a species endemic to Macquarie Island, their population is vulnerable to many threats.  Hence, the IUCN considers Royal Penguins to be Near Threatened despite having a stable population.  Penguins the world over are now facing less direct threats, including commercial fisheries (both as competition for food, and due to bycatch), climate change which is substantially altering their habitat, human disturbance and pollution.

I found it extraordinarily sobering and emotional visiting Lusitania Bay.  800,000+ individual King Penguins congregated around the digesters, blissfully unaware that their ancestors had been boiled down in the large rusting devices.  It dawned on me that if the Tasmanian Government had continued to sell Hatch licences to kill, I would have been looking at an empty bay, completely void of penguins.  Macquarie Island could have become a desolate wasteland, rather than the stunning Nature Reserve and World Heritage Area that I was looking at.  Spending time at Macquarie Island, seeing animals numbering in the hundreds of thousands, really opened my eyes to the damage we have done as humans.  It also emphasised to me what our world could look like if we made a solid, determined, global effort to protect our one and only precious planet.

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Sandy Bay, Macquire Island.  What a sight.

 

[1] Parks.tas.gov.au. (1919). Sinking a Small Fortune: Joseph Hatch and the Oiling Industry. [online] Available at: https://www.parks.tas.gov.au/fahan_mi_shipwrecks/journals/Sealers/sshatch9.pdf

[2] Otago Daily Times Online News. (1913). Penguin oil factory fails to make ‘impression on their numbers’. [online] Available at: https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/100-years-ago/penguin-oil-factory-fails-make-
impression-their-numbers

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