Heard and McDonald Islands: UNESCO World Heritage Site In Australia

Skuas and dominican gulls on a beach at Atlas Cove, Heard Island with the Big Ben volcano in the background.

Where Are The Islands Located?

Heard and McDonald Islands (HIMI) is an external territory of Australia comprising of a volcanic group of barren Antarctic Islands. The islands are located about 1,056 miles from the Antarctic continent and about 2,527 miles southwest of Perth. The group of islands covers an area of 144 square miles and has a coastline measuring 63 miles. HIMI were discovered in the mid-19th century and have been part of the Australian territory since 1947. The islands contain the country’s only two active volcanoes. As the only volcanically active subantarctic islands, they provide an opportunity for tourists to observe ongoing geomorphic and glacial processes. Heard and McDonald Islands were listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.

Geography Of The Heard And McDonald Islands

The HIMI are unique wilderness containing the outstanding and ongoing biological and physical processes in an area free from human activities. Heard Island is characterized by Big Ben who is an active volcano rising to a height of 1.70 miles. Snow and glacier cover the active volcano. The Heard Island has relatively shallow and fast-moving glaciers that respond quickly to the changing climate and faster than any glacier anyway making them important in monitoring climate change. The McDonald Island is much smaller than the Heard Island covering about 100 hectares and surrounded by several small rock islands. The HIMI are outstanding examples highlighting the significant ongoing ecological, biological, and evolutionary process. The islands are free from introduced species and are examples of sub-Antarctic islands with a high population of birds and mammals. However, the islands have low species diversity. The intact ecosystem offers an opportunity for ecological research which investigates the population changes and the interaction of plants and animals as well as monitoring the health and the stability of the Southern Ocean Ecosystem.

Biodiversity Of The Heard And McDonald Islands

HIMI are part of the Southern Indian Ocean Island tundra ecoregion including several Sub-Antarctic. Plantlife is restricted to grasses, lichen, and mosses. The low plant diversity is due to the isolation of the islands, severe climate, and permanent climate, in particular for the Heard Island. The main determinants of vegetation cover on the islands include wind exposure, availability of water, nutrient availability, and altitude. The low growing herbaceous flowering plants are the major vegetation components on these islands. The main native animals of HIMI include insects and a large population of seabirds, seal, and penguins. Seal breeding on Heard Island has increased due to the protection offered to them. HIMI are crucial breeding habitats for a wide range of birds. The surrounding water provides an important feeding area for birds and scavenging species. There are 19 species of birds recorded on Heard Island and McDonald Islands. Penguins are the most abundant birds on the island while 28 species of seabirds have been recorded on HIMI.

Protection And Management Of The Heard And McDonald Islands

HIMI is managed as a strict nature reserve by the Australian Antarctic Division through the HIMI Marine Reserve Management Plan. The Islands, like other World Heritage Sites in Australia, are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. The management activities involve the maintenance of strict visitation and quarantine control to maintain the natural conditions of the islands and its ecological integrity.


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