After our two-day sail south from Bluff in New Zealand, the low, grayish cloud that smothered the hilltops over Macquarie Island only added to its mystique.
Midway between Australia and Antarctica — and part of the Australian Commonwealth; Macquarie Island is more than 11,000 miles from Philadelphia — this is one of the most remote places on the planet. Only a few tourists are allowed to visit each year.
Our trip begins as we leave the comfort of our 5-star expedition cruise ship, Orion, and climb into a 12-person rubber zodiac raft. Orion felt stable, but now our raft rises and falls unsettlingly on the waves.
There are two main landing sites on "Macca," as it is affectionately known by the 60 or so scientists and rangers working at Australia's research station here. (One of them — in 1958 — was the much traveled Dr. Raymond Bayer, an Israeli surgeon with Jewish roots in Egypt, who, having moved to Adelaide, in Australia, took a job at the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition at Macquarie Island, where his adventures as "the first Jewish surgeon to the Antarctic" are detailed at the Adelaide Jewish Museum.)
Our landing is "wet" — meaning that the zodiac pulls up close to the shore, and we hop off into the water. The landing crew are waiting to help us ashore.
We visit the research base at the island's isthmus. Curious King penguins and lazing Elephant seals watch us warily.
King, Royal, Rockhopper and Gentoo penguins all live here, along with the seals and several species of sea birds. These native inhabitants have the right of way, even at the research station.
Our ranger and guide recalls that it took him a few weeks to get used to sleeping on the island, as the elephant seals would scrape their moulting bodies next to his quarters. The rasping sound of their scraping, coupled with their blubbery snorts, kept him awake many nights.
Our second landing point is at Sandy Bay. Again, the rangers accompany us. They escort all visitors. Here there's zero evidence of mankind — only the incredible sight of tens of thousands of penguins hopping up the steep 100- to 160-foot hillside to their breeding ground.
The air stays wet and damp all day, but in the afternoon, it begins to drizzle.
Underfoot, we see the little white bones of penguins, beside the larger bones of long-gone elephant seals. The Brown Skuas act as the island's cleaners, and we see them at work on the carcass of a huge seal.
On the beach are thousands of King and Royal penguins. We're assaulted by the din of the constant calling between chicks, and the adults who have returned from hunting in the sea. The smell of the beach is like any beach with rotting seaweed on it, and we take the ranger's word for it that the smell at the rookery higher up the hill is "quite strong and takes some getting used to."
We aren't allowed to approach or touch the animals. But the penguins are inquisitive, and as long as they come to you, you can get extremely close. You can even encourage them by squatting down and waddling your backside from left to right.
Birds and animals were not always treated so respectfully here. This island has a brutal past, as a magnet for sealers who, after slaughtering all the seals, turned on the penguins.
But today, the seals and penguins have regenerated. In 1979, the Tasmanian government declared Macquarie a restricted area, and in 1997, it was named a World Heritage Area.
One generally visits Macquarie during the summer months of December and January. The daytime temperature is about 46 degrees Fahrenheit; no one is allowed to stay overnight.
Expedition cruises to this part of the world are the best way to get here, but since there are so few visitors' permits, only a few operators come.
Of course, it's worth seeking out those that do.
For more information, go to: www.planetware.com/australia/macquarie-island-aus-tas-mi.htm.