Wednesday 8 February 2023

New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands: Galapagos of the South

#expeditioncruising .

Wildlife rules the roost on the subantarctic islands of Australia and New Zealand

Words and pictures Roderick Eime

Like a chorus line of overweight, bad-mannered beer drinkers, they gather to recite the only lyrics they know. Cavernous mouths agape and bulbous heads akilter, it’s a strangely musical sound despite the random, belching monotone each can only manage.

Adolescent elephant seals won’t be called up for a Broadway production any time soon, but that doesn’t stop them singing up a raucous storm for us, even if it does sound like an excited chimpanzee dancing on a hundred whoopee cushions. [image]

Here on Macquarie Island, deep in the ‘Furious Fifties’ and halfway to the Antarctic continent, we’re technically still in Tasmania, postcode 7151. Occupied by a succession of Australians/Britons since its accidental discovery in 1810, the almost 13,000-hectare sliver of land has had quite a tumultuous existence ever since.

Elephant seals in chorus on Macquarie Island (RE)

The endearing but oil-rich elephant seals, who possess virtually no fear of humans, were hunted and harvested to the brink of extinction. When the seal numbers dipped to uneconomical levels, the hunters turned to the similarly fearless penguins. And when they exhausted the supply of penguins, they abandoned the island, leaving behind rabbits, rats, mice and cats.

Deemed too hostile for even a penal colony, Antarctic explorers like Mawson later employed the island for geological research and as a transit base for expeditions heading to Cape Adare where Sir Douglas built is now famous huts. In 1911, a radio station and a few rudimentary shacks were erected on the northern tip at the creatively named, Wireless Hill.

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) built a more permanent base in 1948, maintaining a presence ever since. Nowadays the population can vary from 20 to 40 rangers, scientists and staff, depending on prevailing projects and the season.

In 1933, ‘Macca’ was declared a wildlife sanctuary and in 1972, a state reserve. In 1997, UNESCO included it on its World Heritage list in recognition of its remarkable geological features. A small contingent from Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service, led by ranger Chris Howard, now keeps an eye on things.

“Welcome to Macquarie Island!” says Chris as we stumble up the rocky beach of Buckle Bay after being deposited skillfully by Silversea expedition staff manning the Zodiac tenders.

AAD base on Macquarie Island (Parks TAS)

Landing on Macquarie Island is no mean feat in itself and neither is getting here. En route, we endured two nights of howling gales and 10m swells that made the simple task of staying in bed a challenge. Even now that we’re safely at anchor, the short run ashore in the sturdy Zodiacs is one heck of a wild ride and when we reach shore, we are manhandled out of the boats and almost carried ashore. Still, we all make it and there is a distinct sense of achievement. 

Chris is clearly excited to see us. Fewer than 500 'tourists' land here even in a busy year and just lately things have been quiet while an enormous iceberg blocks Commonwealth Bay, making access to Mawson’s Huts impossible.

He is also keen to share the big news on Macquarie, namely the recent declaration of its ‘pest-free’ status. An eight-year, military-scale operation required a team of 12 hunters and 11 dogs to walk 92,000km in search of any surviving pests after a comprehensive aerial baiting program in 2011. The removal of hundreds of thousands of rodents has allowed the beleaguered flora to recover and halt the disastrous erosion that saw the cliff face at Lusitania Bay collapse onto an important penguin colony in 2006.

King Penguins on Macquarie Island (RE)

The four species of breeding penguin and albatross, as well as numerous other migratory seabirds were particularly badly affected and can now nest unmolested on this southern sanctuary once brought to the brink by the uncaring and greedy hand of man.

After exploring Macquarie Island’s natural wonders and sampling the best scones south of 50 degrees at the historic base, our itinerary continues back toward New Zealand and its own subantarctic islands.

While Macquarie may have earned the ‘gold medal’ for remoteness and historical significance, New Zealand’s peculiar islands including the Snares, Enderby, Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes each possess their own unique qualities making them more than worthy of mention - and a visit.

Part of New Zealand’s ‘National Nature Reserve’, these protected islands have their own chequered history including shipwrecks, wartime coastwatch bases, livestock farming, sealing and even scientific endeavours like the German Transit of Venus expedition of 1874. 

Some we are permitted to land on while others, like the Snares and Antipodes, we cannot. Instead, we circle and explore in close with the Zodiacs. Keen birders are on the lookout for the endemic species to add to their ‘life lists’, while long lenses wave awkwardly in the swell trying to catch a snap of the elusive snipe or rare parrot. All the while, curious penguins escort our craft, their little heads bobbing up and down like some aquatic whack-a-mole as they dive among the waves for dinner.

Giant petrels squabble on Enderby Island (RE)

Ashore at both Campbell and Enderby Islands give us a chance for some decent exercise, even though at the height of summer we are still wrapped in parkas and thermals with bulky Wellington boots as protection against the damp turf underfoot. New Zealand authorities have thoughtfully installed an extensive network of boardwalks with the dual purpose of protecting the flora and making it easier for the clumsy mammals who visit several times each year aboard expedition vessels like Silver Discoverer. As on Macquarie, extensive pest and feral eradication has taken place on these islands in an effort to undo the harm caused by 19th-century sealers and more recent farmers and return them to the original inhabitants, the sea lions and seabirds.

New Zealand researcher and expeditioner, Rodney Russ, was one of the early visitors to recognise both the natural beauty and commercial opportunity of taking travellers to see these remarkable islands which he dubbed, “The Galapagos of the Antarctic”.

“These ecologically important islands contain astounding natural biodiversity and are a critically important wildlife refuge,” Russ told me some years ago on an earlier visit to Campbell, “They are all in the cool temperate or subantarctic zone and are home to some of most abundant and diverse wildlife seen on the planet.”

We set out on a lap of Enderby, the smaller satellite island of much larger UNESCO World Heritage-listed Auckland Island. Blessed with lighter-than-usual winds, we make good progress through the thick tussocks sometimes as tall as ourselves. Occasionally we encounter the delightful, but timid Yellow-Eyed Penguins scampering in pairs or small waddles from the dense rata forest to the sea.  [image]

No wonder the penguins on Enderby are always on the run. We discover the intensely territorial Hooker’s Sea Lions (Phocarctos hookeri) who maintain an important breeding colony here on the few sandy shores. Like temperamental beachgoers, the young males will charge us barking and blustering as if we were about to chat up their girlfriends. Fortunately, this fearsome ‘attack’ can be quickly diffused by holding a big stick or similar object over his head, turning bold bravado into benign placidity. Even so, it’s wise not to hang about. 

Let’s not preoccupy ourselves solely with mammals because some of the most beguiling creatures you will meet in these parts are the giant seabirds in the form of albatross and mollymawks who nest across the entire ecoregion, formally known as the Antipodes Subantarctic Islands tundra. In fact, as I learn from Malcolm Turner, the travelling ornithologist aboard Silver Discoverer, almost half of the world's species of albatross can be found here carefully nurturing their labour-intensive offspring in nests constructed so close to boardwalks we are obliged to detour into the tussocks to avoid upsetting the doting parents.

Albatross On Campbell Island (RE)

Here on Campbell Island, we make a six-kilometre hike to a geographic feature called Col Lyall Saddle where predominantly southern royal albatross (Diomedea epomophora) nest near the peak. Normally this island is swept with relentless winds gusting to 70 knots and more, but today you’d be pressed to get a child’s kite airborne. It’s easy to observe, from a respectful distance, these serene birds which are among the largest of all seabirds with a wingspan of 3m or more. Back closer to shore are the gnarly giant petrels (genus Macronectes) which, despite their close relationship to the handsome albatross, had an extra beating with the ugly stick. Sealers and explorers were so unimpressed with these ill-mannered birds they dubbed them ‘stinkers’ or ‘glutton birds’ and true to name, two cantankerous youngsters are squabbling violently for scavenging rights on a putrid sea lion carcass.

The glory and brutality of life, death and survival in these harsh latitudes sets an ideal stage for expedition cruising. These enchanting creatures, fair and foul, are the rightful inhabitants of these lands and greet visitors with a comedic mixture of curiosity, timidity and outright disdain. Thanks to responsible excursions our understanding and respect for these delicate environments are enhanced enormously. Just don’t take anything the elephants seals say too personally. They have long memories. 

For more information about travel to the sub-Antarctic Islands, see 

Heritage Expeditions

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