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Marion Island - History

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Discovery and annexation...

Marion Island was first discovered in 1663 by the Dutch ship Maerseveen. The discovery was accidental and no landing was made on the island. More than one hundred years later, in 1772, it was seen again by Frenchman Marion du Fresne, who was looking for Antarctica when he came across the island group. Thinking it was part of Antarctica, he spent 5 days trying to make a landing before he discovered it was only two small islands. They left and never returned. After four more years, Captain Cook also saw the islands, but could not make a landing because of bad weather. The first recorded landing on the island was in 1803 by a group of sealers, but they did find signs of earlier occupation. In late 1947 and early 1948 South Africa took possession of both Marion and Prince Edward islands. Under the command of Lieutenant-Commander John Fairburn the two islands were annexed and the South African flag raised. The first expedition to the island was a meteorological team, led by Allan B. Crawford. Meteorologists have occupied the island ever since, joined in later years by scientists conducting research on the environment and ecology. One of the first documented records of biological observations on Marion Island were those made by Richard Harris,who observed and collected seabirds during a British sealing expedition in 1830. There are two major chapters in the history of Marion Island - sealing activities and the introduction and subsequent eradication of cats. Both had major impacts on the current state of the island and its wildlife.


During the 19th century elephant seal oil was the primary natural resource collected on the island. This was done by boiling the seal blubber in large tri pots either on the beach or on board the ships. Harvesting of fur seal and penguin skins for gloves also occurred on the island. Some remnants of these days still scatter the beaches. Remains of huts can still be seen but most sites are protected and the artifacts stay undisturbed in their wet, cold graves. The earliest documented evidence of sealing relates to the landing of a gang of sealers from the Catharine, Henry Fanning as captain, in December 1803 or January 1804. At that time the Islands were an important rendezvous for sealers. Sealers of different nationalities including American, French and British exploited the Islands. The second half of the 19th century saw a rise in the number of Norwegian sealers as well as sealers based in Cape Town. The first Cape Town based sea elephant oil industry on the Prince Edward Islands was established in 1833. Large-scale sealing occurred until November 1930 when seal numbers had dropped too low to be commercially exploitable. The ship SS Kildalkey made the final sealing expedition to the Island and took about 1 450 seals on this last trip. Today sealers still roam the Island, not carrying clubs and guns but tagging equipment and scales. Harvesting of seals has been replaced by research of these wonderful creatures.

Historical pot
Sealer's pot
Sealers' cave

The Cat Eradication Program...

Five domestic cats, including a castrated, orange striped male tabby and a black and white female together with three kittens were introduced during 1949 on Marion Island. These felines were brought to the island to help eradicate a mouse problem in the base. As cats do they soon multiplied and the first feral cat was seen in 1951. By 1975 the population had increased to more than 2 000 cats feeding on thousands of burrowing petrels, a much easier prey than the mice they were supposed to hunt. In 1975 alone the cats ate just under half a million birds and species such as the Common Diving Petrel, the Soft Plumage Petrel and the Grey Petrel became extinct on Marion Island. With other remaining bird species also at risk it was decided to initiate the Marion Island Cat Eradication Program. In 1977 the entire cat population was estimated around 3 405 individuals. A few animals were infected with the highly specific disease feline panleucopenia. By 1982 there were an estimated 615 cats remaining. During the spring of 1986 a secondary control measure in the form of nocturnal hunting was initiated on full scale. For three summers, eight two-man teams using battery-operated spotlights and 12-boreshotguns killed approximately 803 cats in total. The progressive decrease in hunting success and the sighting rate of cats suggested that hunting alone was no longer sufficient in reducing the numbers. Traps were used and between 1989 and 1991 the remaining cats were removed. During the 12-monthperiod post April 1991, only eight cats were trapped and three trapping teams recorded no sightings. It is now believed that complete eradication of feral cats on Marion Island has been achieved after 19 years.

Cat eradication programme
Cat Eradication Programme


The best known shipwreck around the Prince Edward Islands is the Solglimt at Ships Cove.
The image is of the sealing vessel which ran aground in 1908 at Ships Cove. The survivors constructed a small village against the cliff, housing 70 men. The wreckage lies in +/- 8 meters of water. Most of the wreck is covered by the sandy bottom with only four visible structures remaining underwater. The largest section resembles that of the boiler/engine room, from where the displayed artifacts in the bar of Marion Base were salvaged.

Diving amongst shipwrecks
Diving to a shipwreck.