Heard and McDonald Islands

Heard and McDonald Islands

Southern Ocean
LAST UPDATED 23/11/2007
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Level of surfing


Quality of surf


Net code





102 km




Very Isolated, Extreme Cold, Severe Storms, Difficult Access

Best Months

December - February

Special Requirements

Special Pass / Permits, Lengthy VISA Process, Non tourist Friendly


CIA World Factbook 2002: Map of Heard and McDonald Islands, 8 August 2003

The Heard and McDonald Islands are a small group of barren and cold, uninhabited islands located in the Southern Ocean 7700km due south of Rajapur, India and 4100km west of Perth, Australia. They are territories and are under the administration of Australia and have been since 1947. They contain two active volcanoes, one of which, Mawson Peak, is Australias highest peak. They are made up of 3 main island regions, Heard Island, which is the largest by far, Shag Island, located to the north of Heard and much smaller and the McDonald Islands which are two small Islands off to the west.


B. Navez; Southern Elephant Seal; 1999

In the grand scale of things the Heard and McDonald Islands are a fairly recent discovery. It is believed they were first sighted by British sailor Peter Kemp on the 27th of November 1833. It wasn't for another 20 years until the islands were seen again by captain of the American sealing ship, the Oriental, John Heard who reported the discovery one month later. On the 4th of January 1854 Captain William McDonald on board the Samarang discovered the McDonald Islands close to Heard Island. However, no landings were made until March 1855 when sailors aboard the Corinthian Captained by Erasmus Darwin Rogers (not to be confused with Erasmus Darwin the physician and grandfather to Charles Darwin)went ashore. From this period on the islands were inhabited by some 200 American sealers who, over a period of 25 years, almost wiped out the local seal population and produced over 100,000 barrels of elephant seal oil.


NASA: Heard Island; 2005

This part of the world is where Pacific swell is born, as a result, you are often too close to the genesis area of these storms, fronts and depressions to enjoy clean swell. Summer is your only season here (Dec-Feb). The deciding factor is the temperature, even with the latest technology available, human life is basically unsustainable in these waters for any real period of time. You will need titanium vests, dry suits, experimental heating systems and that’s just to start. Most surfers use a board with a 'diamond deck', so inbuilt onboard texture on the deck, similar to what is used in the windsurfing industry. The type of wax you would need to be effective here would be liquid at normal room temperature and so transport of it to and from the break once on your board is difficult.

Winter is dark virtually all year round and ice is a big problem, apart from the reality of hitting something it effectively attenuates any swell in the area. The months either side are really pushing the limits of human endurance but with a few hours of sunlight on average it is a possibility for the well prepared. Swells here are massive but often a near blizzard of wind and spray. Summer will bring respite as the storm cells retreat just a little further south.

Hypothermia is a real problem here and dry suits can be difficult to manoeuvre in. The most exciting aspect of surfing here is that it is truly pushing the boundaries of what surfing is. For once, technology is being dragged kicking and screaming behind some of the expeditions to areas such as this, any day now it is going to catch up and when that happens, extreme cold-water surfing will eventually become a mainstream activity. Waves in areas such as this will be the new discoveries and uncrowded paradises of the next generation of surfers. Trade in your boardies for a 7mm steamer, booties and hood and get onboard!


Apcbg; Location of the Islands; 26.06.2006

Getting to the Heard and McDonald islands is pretty difficult and requires much preparation and planning.

To gain access you will need to join a specialist scientific expedition on board a ship and you'll need special permission from the Australian Antarctic Division due to its status as a nature reserve. There are no inhabitants on the island and living conditions will be very rough indeed.

where to stay

Fishdecoy; Ice cave, Antarctica; 1978

Find youself a nice cave to get shelter from the sub zero freezing temperatures of the Southern Ocean storms battering the islands and pitch your tent inside it. If you're lighting a fire - and are successful at doing so in this wet and frozen climate - make sure the cave has adequate ventilation, good luck with drying your wetsuit and preventing it from freezing solid. Have fun.

what to pack

Pupils info: Some folded scarves, 20 December 2005

If you still plan to go there, get ready or you will suffer! Be prepared for all kinds of weather. Basically, the warmer, the better, though temperatures can vary greatly during the day, so bring also some slightly thinner clothes. Bring windproof and waterproof clothes, warm jerseys and sturdy walking shoes for all seasons, as well as warm underwear.

As usual, bring all medical things u need with you and also toiletries. You won't regret a plenty of cold weather gear! Your camera and all the equipment you'd need for it, plus a good waterproof bag.  

Sunglasses and protective sun lotion are highly recommended. All the gear: a good sleeping bag and tent that are good for very low temp; special gas container u can use for heating food and water; a sturdy backpack or a cargo pack with a good daypack.

dangers and warnings

Henry Bowers; Scotts Antarctic expedition group; 1912

Keeping warm is the key here and hypothermia will be your biggest enemy and most threatening danger. If you are seriously thinking of undertaking a trip to these islands you really need to do your research on avoiding the dangers of exposure to such harsh elements and get yourself properly kitted out, and that doesn't mean an extra pair of socks from K-mart!!

Secondly, while most animals in this region are fairly placid and won't bother you too much, caution should be taken around the elephant seals that inhabit these islands. Whilst they are big and cumbersome on land they can be surprisingly quick and very dangerous, especially in breeding season when the males will be high on testosterone and busy clubbing each other to with an inch of their lives, with there heads!! Remember they weigh about a million times more than you do a bash from one of these fellows will do you no good at all.

restaurants, shopping and nightlife

Mushin; Gatecrasher Nightclub; 16.04.2006

Ok, lets get one thing straight, there are no restaurants, no shops and definitely no nightclubs on the Heard and McDonald Islands.

If you're coming here it's all about the adventure of this isolated far southern deserted land and to get away from all that jazz. While it will be tough here the rewards of doing it will far outweigh sacrifices you'll have to make. Be sure to bring plenty of high carb food with you to keep energy levels up in the freezing environment and while your at it, pack a few pounds on before departing it'll keep you warm, elephant seals aren't fat because there lazy, they might just be on to something! oh, and you'll have to bring bigger boards to offset your extra pounds.

what to do when it's flat

Nordlech; Snowboard with bindings; 09.02.2005

When the surf goes flat out here in the Heard and McDonald islands you can go and warm your cockles by the active volcano Mawson Peak, don't get too close now, you wouldn't want to synge your eyebrows!!

There are also many species of seals and birds to watch and photograph, to show your mates down the pub on your return. Or if you've remembered to pack your snowboard - game on, well done you!!

useful phrase guide

Krzysztof Burghardt; Navy emergency flare; 28.10.2007

The Heard and McDonald Islands are unihabited so unless you're Dr.Doolittle and can speak seal language, then you'll only really be talking to the guys you bring with, so be very careful choosing your buddies!

However, it would be well worth, infact quite essential, to bring some kind of communication equipment such as a radio, to be able to communicate with each other whilst on the island in case you are separated and in distress as well as some hand held flares and a loud whistle.

Also communtication with the mainland will be well advised so you can arrange to be picked up if things aren't going to plan. 

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