The albatross latitudes
Visiting New Zealand's subantarctic islands is an adventure; with no air strips and too remote for helicopters, ship is the only way to get there. Expedition cruises – not the glamorous dress-for-dinner kind of holiday cruise – cater for those who want a little more gravitas for their holiday buck.
Words by Susan Prior
Photographs by Yvonne Todd
Deep in the South Pacific Ocean is an assortment of environmental treasures, islands that are precious and wild, adrift in a restless and forbidding ocean – environments that are at once both fragile and hostile. They are New Zealand’s subantarctic islands.
The five subantarctic groups of islands, consisting of the Antipodes Islands, Auckland Islands, Bounty Islands, Campbell Island, and The Snares, are located between the latitudes of 47° S (Bounty Is) and 53° S (Campbell Is), where they lie in the path of the West Wind Drift, a circumpolar storm track, and the westerly Circumpolar Current.
These mysterious outposts, often forgotten, are magnificent and worthy of their World Heritage status. Here they are touched and defined by the howling gales of pure air – propelled by the turbulent forces of the ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘Furious Fifties’ – that have circumnavigated the globe unimpeded. These persistent howling winds of the West Wind Drift drive before them the currents that connect the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans into a contiguous expanse.
Perched on the Campbell Plateau, a southerly projection of New Zealand’s continental shelf, the surrounding waters of these subantarctic islands are relatively shallow. But at the edges of the plateau the ocean falls away steeply into a dark abyss.
This confluence of geographical elements pounding their shores has shaped the flora and fauna on and around these islands, making this a productive region, rich in endemic species. It is not possible to exaggerate the staggering wildlife statistics for this region. Rich in biodiversity, the list of seabirds, many of which are rare, is astonishing. Because of this, in 1998, the five groups, with a total land area of 76,458 ha, were declared a World Heritage area. World Heritage status also enfolds the surrounding marine environment up to 12 nautical miles from each group – an area of 1,400,000 ha. Managed by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, the subantarctic islands are one of New Zealand’s, and one of the world’s, remotest protected natural areas. In 2003, the sanctuary became a ‘no-take’ reserve, offering it absolute protection.
For man, though, the environment is tough and unwelcoming – a likely factor in these islands being among the world’s least modified. Historically, attempts to settle and farm have ended badly, and today the islands remain largely uninhabited apart from a sprinkling of research scientists, and conservationists. However, the potpourri of rare birds and plants, along with some enchanting scenery, attract a range of visitors: intrepid photographers, both amateur and professional, intent on capturing the islands’ brooding moods; scientists and students conducting research; and the occasional tourist looking for a cruise with a difference, and maybe a few bragging rights when they return home.
Visiting these islands is an adventure; with no air strips and too remote for helicopters, ship is the only way to get there. Expedition cruises – not the glamorous dress-for-dinner kind of holiday cruise – cater for those who want a little more gravitas for their holiday buck.
A Conservation Management Strategy is employed to protect the islands from the introduction of unwanted foreign pests – both flora and fauna – and from diseases. Visiting ships must be free of all exotic hull-encrusting organisms and hold recent ‘de-ratting’ certificates. Everything, but everything, that goes aboard these vessels is rigorously checked to make sure it is clean, and visitors must sign documentation to agree to these strict quarantine protocols. The rules apply to everyone – staff, tourists, scientists and media.
The effort and the journey are worth it. According to UNESCO: ‘There are 126 bird species in total, including 40 seabirds of which five breed nowhere else in the world.’ While for botanists there is the crazy, colourful plant life – the puzzling megaherbs – for which these islands are known. Visitors describe the appearance of these plants as being something out of prehistory – a kind of Jurassic Park. Whales favour the waters around these islands to mate and calve, adding to the breathtaking spectacle.
Once on the islands – and they can’t go ashore on all of them – tourists are asked to follow a Minimum Impact Code, which includes keeping to the tracks and boardwalks to avoid damaging the fragile ecosystems, and to stay a minimum of five metres away from animals.
One of the ships to visit the islands is the Spirit of Enderby; a polar expedition research ship that doubles as a 50-passenger cruise ship. It is a sturdy workhorse. Passengers board the ship in Bluff, New Zealand’s most southerly port, 27 km from the larger town of Invercargill.
Wildlife photographer Yvonne Todd, who provided the images for this article, joined the ship on gloomy day in January for an expedition to see The Snares, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, excited at the prospect of being in the company of Tui De Roy, an award-winning wildlife photographer and naturalist with a passion for the wild, who was running the photography side of this expedition.
Joining Yvonne on this 10-day expedition were a mixed and interesting group of people – students studying the area, botanists, birders and ornithologists, and photographers, as well as a member of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to ensure quarantine restrictions were maintained.
Dripping with moisture, overcast with dense clouds for much of the time, and subject to the wildest of winds, each group of islands has its own unique flora and fauna. On all the islands there is zero tolerance of any feral species –rats and cats, sheep and goats, cattle and rabbits. All of them will be, or are in the process of, being eliminated.
Yvonne described to me each of the islands she visited on her voyage.
The Snares – Tini Heke
A calm overnight sail from Bluff and just 200 km south, The Snares is the smallest and the first group to be visited. The largest island in the group is North East Island. Along with Broughton Island and a few stragglers called the Western Chain. this group has a total land area of just 3.5 km2 (or 1.35 sq miles).
So named because they were regarded as a shipping hazard, these are the most pristine of the subantarctics. Amazingly, The Snares has no introduced species – not even a mouse; consequently, landing here is only for a privileged few who manage to acquire a special permit.
For the passengers on the Spirit of Enderby their visit consists of a bumpy and invigorating four-hour ride around the craggy shoreline in a Zodiac. Yvonne says this gave a fantastic view of the dense populations of nesting sea birds, including a healthy population of Buller’s mollymawk albatross. Snares crested penguins, endemic to The Snares, use a colossal grey-green slab of granite, which tips down into the seas agitating at its base, as their landing and departure point. The penguins follow the commuter route up the slab of rock into the Olearia lyallii (subantarctic tree daisy) forest above, where they shelter in the low knobbly branches.
These islands have a population of some 1000 adult New Zealand fur seals, growling, snorting and bickering among each other. They were very nearly wiped out by sealers, and consequently have been protected since 1894.
Auckland Islands – Motu Maha Maungahuka
From The Snares another overnight sail brings the ship to the Auckland Islands, 465 km south of New Zealand. This is the largest group and consists of eight main islands with a combined land area of 625 km2 (or 240 sq miles). Three species of penguin call these islands home – yellow-eyed penguins, eastern rockhoppers and erect-crested penguins, although the last two are low in numbers. Readers will know of the eastern rockhoppers from the character Lovelace, the preposterous and charismatic penguin preacher in the film Happy Feet.
Another species living here is the New Zealand sea lion, or Hooker’s sea lion after Sir Joseph Hooker, a botanist with the 1844 British Antarctic Expedition. Now listed as nationally critical, and by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as vulnerable, this is the last outpost for this rare animal, which has shown itself to be particularly susceptible to bacterial infections. In 1998, an epidemic caused by Campylobacter killed 1606 pups and 74 adults. Bacterial disease hit again in 2014, killing another 300 pups, leaving just 1575 in the Aucklands and a total population of about 10,000.
This landscape, shaped by wind and waves, ice and time, boasts the southern limit of Metrosideros umbellata or southern rātā, a brilliant scarlet flowering tree from the myrtle family, which grows to about 15 metres high and up to 50 metres above sea level. Its twisted gnarled trunks create an ethereal landscape more suited to hobgoblins or fay banshees rather than the sea lions who, somewhat weirdly, wander beneath its spreading canopy.
On the higher slopes of the Aucklands, above this most southerly of forests, grows a windswept tussocky grassland in the deep spongey layers of peat soils left by the trail of receding glaciers.
Known as the ‘albatross latitudes’, ten of the world’s 22 extant species of albatross breed in the Aucklands, five nowhere else, including the Gibson’s, Antipodean and southern royal. These restless leviathans of the skies, some with wing spans in excess of three-metres – the length of a small car – circumnavigate the globe, travelling immense distances using the West Wind Drift to soar and glide with practised ease.
Southern right whales, a species now in recovery, mate and calve around the Auckland Islands in large numbers. Whalers called them ‘right whales’ because they were the ‘right’ ones to catch, inasmuch as they are conveniently found close to shore, they are slow swimmers, they are not prone to sinking when harpooned and they yield large volumes of oil and baleen. In 2009, research by Auckland University scientists using biopsy samples indicated that there were about 2100 individuals in these waters.
The regeneration of the Auckland’s endemic flora has been assisted by the eradication of feral species; at least five plants, including Gentiana concinna, are unique to this group. Nick Torr, in his report ‘Eradication of rabbits and mice from subantarctic Enderby and Rose Islands’ (2002), says, ‘ecologists have eliminated or allowed to go extinct cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, possums and rabbits in the 1990s, but feral cats, pigs and mice remain on Auckland Island. The last rabbits on Enderby Island were removed in 1993 through the application of poison, also eradicating mice there.’
As a consequence of its location bang in the middle of the Great Circle trading route, the often cloudy weather, and the inaccuracies in early maritime charts, the Auckland Islands have been the scene of many shipwrecks. Testament to this are fingerposts, dotting the windswept landscape of the island, thrusting bravely skyward into the prevailing gales, signing the way to the now non-existent castaway depots. New Zealand ceased restocking and maintaining these as the traditional shipping routes changed over time.
Campbell Island – Motu Ihupuku
Campbell Island is New Zealand’s southern-most territory, lying between 3° to 4°, just north of the Antarctic Convergence where the warmer waters of the South Pacific meet the cold circling currents of the Antarctic Ocean. Remote and often forgotten, these ‘lost lands’ are far, far away from humanity, tormented by swirling, churning seas. Sitting on the edge of the Campbell plateau, it is 660 km from here to New Zealand’s South Island. To the west of Campbell Island, the continental shelf ends in a precipice, the edge of the 5500-metre-deep subterranean Macquarie Trench. And across this divide is Australia’s own subantarctic island, Macquarie Island, 700 km away.
Campbell Island is, frankly, miserable. In fact, it is probably the most gloomy place on earth with, on average, rainfall for 325 days each year, less than one hour of sunshine on 215 days of the year, and wind gusts of more than 96 kph every third day.
Boardwalks were built in 2001 to protect the vegetation from the conservationists who were working on the island at the time as part of the rat eradication programme.
Yvonne describes her visit to the island: ‘It was utterly wild. Just getting into the Zodiac to go ashore was a challenge. The sea spray was more than three metres in height.’
As for the hike along the 3.5 km Col Lyall Boardwalk to the top of Col Lyall itself, Yvonne says, ‘“Breathtaking” isn’t the word! On the way up, I was afraid I’d get blown off the boardwalk. And when I got to the top I had to stay down on all fours. The wind was so strong it was impossible to stand up. I’ve never experienced anything like it.’
With the horizontal rain slashing like knives across her face, Yvonne says that taking photographs was hopeless, with no opportunity to set up her tripod.
As on the other islands, the removal of feral species, in this case sheep and cattle, has led to a resurgence in native flora. It is on Campbell Island that the megaherbs come into their own, from sea level to the tops of the highest exposed crags, giving the island their character. When in flower, the landscape is awash with colour, making one of the world’s most impressive natural meadows
Why these plants have evolved with their super-large foliage is a conundrum. There are a couple of theories: the large leaves evolved as a direct result of the lack of sunlight, and the cloudy, cool and humid conditions, enabling the plants to photosynthesise more easily; alternatively, they are relics of an ice age, left behind in an isolated wilderness.
One of the two members of the giant carrot family, the Campbell Island carrot or Anisotome latifolia, has big umbels of flowers (umbrella shaped) with jagged leaves. Growing up to an amazing height of two metres, they spread luxuriantly in a swathe of creamy pink through the island’s meadows. The Ross lily, Bulbinella rossii, with its distinctive yellow cone-shaped flowers adds to the colourful spectacle. Another plant, the Macquarie Island cabbage, Stillbocarpa polaris, has survived on the island despite intensive grazing from feral sheep and cattle introduced by a population of early hardy settlers. On Macquarie Island, it was eaten by sealers to prevent scurvy.
With 119 introduced plant species, more than on any of the other islands, there is one particular interloper of note. It is a Sitka or Norwegian spruce, credited as being the loneliest tree in the world. It was planted as a memorial on the orders of Governor-General Lord Ranfurly in the early 1900s at the head of Perseverance Harbour, a long finger of water that nearly bisects the island. Somehow it has survived, but it has failed to reproduce in the harsh climes of the island.
There have been some great conservation ‘wins’ in this group of islands. The Campbell Island Snipe, not seen on the island since 1810 when cats and rats were introduced, was found on nearby Jacquemart Island in 1997. Since the removal of the rats, and even though they are not the best fliers, these birds have flown the 1 km back to Campbell Island and are now breeding there.
The Campbell Island Teal, a small flightless bird and the world’s rarest duck, was rediscovered living on Dent Island in the 1970s. Eleven were taken to New Zealand for a breeding programme in 1984 and 1990. Finally, in 1994, there was some success when Daisy, one of the females, bred. In 2004 and 2005, conservationists were able to return some of the teal to Campbell Island, and within a year they were breeding.
The rare yellow-eyed penguin, a New Zealand endemic species, has its main breeding ground on Campbell Island, while the eastern rockhopper is down to just a few breeding pairs. Populations of New Zealand fur seals, sea lions and southern elephant seals can also be found on this southerly outpost.
As I sit writing this article in the comfort of my office, I transport myself to these precious and wild islands, and imagine icy breathtaking gales slashing across my face, the raucous cacophony of the birds, and the bellowing, snorting and grunting of the seals. As with many remote and wild places, some of the flora and fauna are under threat, but these islands are very much not forgotten. Everything that can be done is being done to preserve them for our children. And that is a good thing.
Note: As well as the Spirit of Enderby, the Silver Discoverer also visits New Zealand’s subantarctic islands.