Above Picture:  Hazel Watt, the first woman known to have landed on Marion Island, 2 June 1959

“National Women’s Day is a South African public holiday celebrated annually on 9 August.  The day commemorates the 1956 march of approximately 20 000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country’s pass laws that required South Africans defined as “black” under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport, known as a passbook, that served to maintain population segregation, control urbanisation, and manage migrant labour during the apartheid era.  The women stood silently for 30 minutes and then started singing a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock).  National Women’s Day is based around much of the same principles as International Women’s Day, and strives for much of the same freedoms and rights” (click here).

The first human landings on the Prince Edward Islands that are definitely known from historical research conducted by the Antarctic Legacy of South Africa occurred in 1806, although it is most likely that sealers had gone ashore on both Marion and Prince Edward a few years before.  What we do know for near certain is that all landings for the next 150 years were made by men.  Indeed, it is not until 1959 that the first known landing by a woman occurred.  On 2 June of that year, Hazel Watt, the wife of a radio technician travelling as a passenger aboard a relief vessel, was allowed ashore to “spend a few hours at the weather station”.

SANAP oceanographer Pamela Laycock goes ashore to overnight on 13 September 1979

Following from this brief visit, it was two decades before the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) included women in its annual expeditions, at first only initially aboard ship, and then for short relief visits on the island.  The first South African female scientist to go ashore on Marion Island was Pamela Laycock in September 1979.  Two years later, Tamar Salinger was ashore with a relief ornithological research group, and became the first woman to walk around the island.  The first women to spend a full year on Marion as part of an over-wintering team were biologists Marita Cawood and Marianne Steenkamp in 1986/87.  Since the mid-1990s women have thankfully become regular members of over-wintering teams (including as scientists, meteorologists. medical orderlies and team leaders).  However, it was not until 2003/04 that meteorologist Samantha Linnerts over-wintered as the first woman of colour.  A few years later, in 2007, Kusi Ngxabani became the first black woman to lead a Marion annual relief as the government’s Departmental Control Officer.

MFM research assistants, Elsa van Ginkel and Vhuawelo Simba (left) in front of a waterfall on the Van den Boogaard River

The current over-wintering team on the island commenced with seven women, two of whom (Elsa van Ginkel and Vhuawelo Simba), were appointed jointly by Mouse-Free Marion and the University of Pretoria’s Department of Plant And Soil Sciences to advance planning and preparations for the project.

Elsa van Ginkel at the entrance to Marion’s ice cave on the central plateau



Cooper, J. 2008.  Human history.  In: Chown, S.L. & Froneman, P.W. (Eds).  The Prince Edward Islands: Land-Sea Interactions in a Changing Ecosystem.  Stellenbosch: Sun PReSS.  pp. 331-350.

Cooper, J. & Headland, R.K. 1991.  A history of South African involvement in Antarctica and at the Prince Edward Islands.  South African Journal of Antarctic Research 77: 77-91.

Terauds, A., Cooper, J., Chown, S.L. & Ryan, P. 2010.  Marion & Prince Edward.  Africa’s Southern Islands.  Stellenbosch: SUN PReSS.  176 pp.

John Cooper, News Correspondent, Mouse-Free Marion Project, 08 August 2022

The Mouse-Free Marion Project is a registered non-profit company (No. 2020/922433/08) in South Africa, established to eradicate the invasive albatross-killing mice on Marion Island in the Southern Ocean. The project was initiated by BirdLife South Africa and the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.  Upon successful completion, the project will restore the critical breeding habitat of over two million seabirds, many globally threatened, and improve the island’s resilience to a warming climate.  For more information or to support the project please visit mousefreemarion.org.