Between November 12 and 29, I went on an expedition to the Subantarctic islands of New Zealand and Australia. Two and a half weeks on a ship through the Southern Ocean, hopping from island to island, watching birds and making photographs, away from civilization… it was a true adventure. I’m telling here the tale of this voyage.
“Port Ross is a very sheltered bay, we never have problem getting to shore there”. These optimistic words came from our staff as Judd, the expedition leader, announced conditions would get a bit tougher, with wind picking up significantly. Indeed, our shelter proved good enough to visit Enderby Island, the piece of land at the north of the Auckland Islands archipelago.
Again, a host of endemic species and subspecies awaited us there, starting with the flightless Auckland teal (Anas aucklandica) which we ticked even before setting foot on the island. Our guides had warned us it could be difficult to find! Amazing nature, ever surprising… This duck is a close relative to the Brown teal (Anas chlorotis) I had met on Tiritiri and in Zealandia, but evolution far from the mainland made it lose the ability to fly. It still uses its wings, or tries to use them, when climbing obstacles, as a complement to its strong legs.
From our landing site, we saw 6 of them dive like eiders, a behaviour none had witnessed before. Evolution at work!
As promised, it was windy, but also rainy. Rain is not so much what Judd looked at, because it’s really wind that defines whether we can get on the zodiacs and on shore. If it rains, well, we’ll be wet, and that’s it. So we got wet. Like, really wet, but it didn’t matter too much because we got to stretch our legs, and therefore keep warm. Following Dan, we walked in the grass in search for the local Subantarctic snipe subspecies (Coenocorypha aucklandica aucklandica). Snipes are shy birds that often stay hidden in the vegetation, flying being only their last option. Some spotted one going inside a bush; we waited until everyone was there, then our guide slowly walked to make it come out. When it did, it froze and barely moved, offering us unprecedented views of this rare bird. After a minute, we realized that, almost under our feet, were two chicks! We had not seen them! That might explain why the adult refused to back away.
Exhilarated by this premium encounter, we walked back to hop on the boardwalk. On the edge of the rata forest, we spotted some Northern giant petrels (Macronectes halli) nesting. What an unusual sight for a bird we mostly associate with the sea! The trees framed that big guy quite nicely.
A teal was having a rest on a small pond, and a Yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) sat in the grass. Oh, that makes me think I still haven’t told you about my encounter with this species in the Catlins. That will have to wait, I’m too impatient to write about the cruise ;D
Once the narrow boardwalk left the forest, it became difficult to stay on it, because the wind tried hard to push us out. Not that it was dangerous to step out, but it would have been a pity to trample the Bulbinella megaherbs that flowered there. The Subantarctic are known for their megaherbs, which are basically flowers that have grown into monsters. They can be spectacular, and are a pretty foraging field for New Zealand pipits, of which a subspecies is endemic to the Auckland Islands (Anthus novaeseelandiae aucklandicus).
At the end, on the northern shore, the wind blew straight from the ocean, but we carried on along the coast. A few Light-mantled albatrosses (Phoebetria palpebrata) nested on the cliff there, stoic in the face of the storm. Luckily, we would meet this species times and again in the following week, in better conditions.
On the way back, another species of albatrosses put up a show for us. Southern royal albatrosses (Diomedea epomophora) nest there in small number, white ghosts lying in the grass or flying over. Majestic in the air, with their wide wings locked in position, they looked clunky on ground, walking slowly in a very chicken-like way. One graced me with a take-off. It spread its wings, and in a heartbeat it was in the air, picked up by the wind.
The Auckland Islands got their name from William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, when the islands were discovered in 1806. The baron was the captain’s father’s friend, and Auckland (the city) was named after one of his sons, George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland. As far as I know, none of them ever set foot in New Zealand, but George was First Lord of the Admiralty and sent William Hobson, the founder of Auckland, to the East Indies (south-east Asia). Mount Eden is also named after the Earl.
The Auckland Islands saw the shortest lived settlement in the history of British colonization, as Hardwicke, established in 1849, lasted only two and a half year. Whaling was poorer than expected, and the soil and climate were simply not favourable to crops. We were too busy exploring Enderby Island (named after the discoverer’s ship’s owner) to visit the remains of Hardwicke, but there’s not much left anyway: a cemetery and a mast, I reckon.
Soaked as we were, we stayed ashore shorter than initially planned. In the morning, rain had not abated, but we went on the zodiacs to visit a small colony of Southern rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysochome).
In many places in New Zealand, one can find this dark, volcanic rock, and that’s great because I think it looks awesome on pictures. For birds, it creates a terrific background. Add a bit of rain and you get the perfect apocalyptic mix. Well, until you have these funny-looking creatures entering the frame 😉
We went onboard for breakfast while the ship moved to Carnley Harbour, further south. It might have been raining, but the wind was very kind to us and we could do what many in the staff had never done before, including our expedition leader: climb to the Shy albatross (Thalassarche cauta) colony on the main island.
Gus opened the way: there was no path, just bushes of lush and wet vegetation, and mud. A lot of mud. I was at the back of the line, so I did not have the hardest time of all. My only challenge had to do with my waterproof pants: they are a bit too large, and there’s no way to tighten them more. That’s how I found myself on top of the cliffs, holding my camera in one hand and my pants in the other, while stumbling among slippery tussock to find the best viewpoint. Thrill! (it was actually a bit scary). I managed, no worries, but next time I’ll make sure to buy better equipment…
It was raining, and we were also in the fog, but we found our birds. At first there were a few dozens in sight, but soon the mist slightly lifted and we could see the surrounding cliffs covered in white specks. At that point it was raining harder than ever, and water drops had come onto my lens. From experience, trying to dry one’s lens in such conditions is pointless, so I didn’t. In the pictures below, what you may think of as fog may actually be water on my lens. I’ll let you guess what is what 😊
Too soon we had to go down, which was an adventure in itself. I was asked to be the last in line, to make sure no one would be left behind, and I made sure of it with pride.
Back on the ship we could finally get dry and enjoy the next leg of our trip, a long navigation south towards Macquarie Island.
Previously in the SUBANTARCTIC series:
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