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.
Macquarie Island. Macca. Jewel in the crown of our trip, if conditions allow to enjoy it properly. The hardest place to visit, when it comes to weather. The island is a narrow patch of land jutting from the ocean, 38 kilometers orientated north-south: the rock was originally formed at the bottom of the ocean, in a dorsal, and was then pushed towards the surface. Because our only authorized landing sites are on the eastern coast, any non-westerly wind makes any visit practically impossible.
We had two days at Macquarie, which gave us a bit of flexibility. The outlook for the second day looked bad, so we condensed all landings on one single day. It was intense.
We started at the isthmus. We had to receive a briefing from the rangers there, but regulations prevented them from boarding if the wind was faster than 25 knots… we circumvented the issue by landing ourselves and listening to the briefing there 😉
Chris gave us a tour, which ended with scones and jam at the station mess. Australia has maintained a scientific station on Macquarie since 1948, with many programmes going on. We were to pick up 6 workers there and take them back to the civilized world, including Jez, a PhD student who looked at the recovery of seabird populations after the eradication of rabbits on the island.
The first thing we noticed while arriving to shore was the accumulation of big sausages on the stony beach. These were elephant seals! They had a nap in the sun, much like the fur seals of Cape Palliser. Most of them were weaners, young animals born around 2 months before, and they were absolutely adorable! Look at these round bodies, look at these big empty eyes! During the night they learnt how to swim, and so they were pretty tired when we met them, and most of them slept. Some looked at us, curious, as we tried not to walk on them.
In the tussocks, grumpy moulting mothers let us know they didn’t want to be disturbed.
Finally, a few males hung around, sleeping anywhere they fancied, sometimes in front of the sheds. They were huge beasts, seemingly melting onto the ground under the sun. These animals were not inquisitive like sea lions: they watched us but never moved.
On the isthmus, we also met Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) and Macquarie shags (Leucocarbo purpurascens).
In the afternoon, after having lunch on board, we landed at Sandy Bay. It’s difficult to find words to describe what we saw there… we landed among penguins, walked among penguins, watched penguins for a whole afternoon, and couldn’t get enough of it.
In the hills, there was a colony of Royal penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli), a species that breeds only on Macquarie Island. Leading there was a boardwalk with info signs… probably the info signs with the fewest readers in the world, given the location! That said, they gave good insight into the penguins’ behaviour and attitudes at the colony.
I saw many “Excuse me, coming through” walking among their peers, trying to avoid vicious bites while looking for their nests. On the pictures, it looks like the other birds had crowded in a street to see a celebrity and really wanted to touch them, to get closer.
The picture below is interesting, as it shows a Brown skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) flying over the colony. These opportunistic birds await only one thing, that a penguin looks away, to snatch an egg for its meal. We saw one do just that! Possibly related, we still don’t know why many penguins, including Royals, lay one egg but discard it when the second comes. A theory would be that the first one, thrown to the skuas, is a bait for them to stay away from the second one, the “precious” one.
It was a delight to watch them, but there was much more to see. Actually, I was overwhelmed by the place, the birds, the photographic possibilities, all this to enjoy in only four hours. I tried to make the most of it, and in the end I was exhausted.
At the other end of Sandy Bay, there’s a small colony of King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus). We walked to the edge, and let the birds come to us. I felt privileged to witness such behaviour, to experience such proximity. Thanks to the full protection they enjoy, these birds have not learnt that humans can be a threat, therefore they do not fear us. Rather, they are curious, and come to us, check us out, peck at our gear to get a taste of it. Priceless.
Because it takes about 14 months to raise a young King penguin, pairs won’t breed every year but rather every two, or more often three years. We were on Macquarie at the beginning of the breeding season, and if Royal penguins had already laid an egg, Kings hadn’t. We saw youngsters wearing furry brown down, some still fed by adults, and some in between, with some down left but moving to adult colours.
Many elephant seals rested on the beach, most of them youngsters bouncing around. A cow was still taking care of its pup, under the protection of the “Beachmaster”, the biggest seal I had ever seen. Does it remind you of a Star Wars character?
We found another scavenger on Macquarie: the Southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus). It’s extremely similar to the Northern one, and their ranges widely overlap. To recognize a Southern, look at the bill tip: it shouldn’t show any contrast with the rest of the bill, while a Northern has a red contrasting bill tip. It’s even easier if you see a completely white bird, a “White Nelly”, for only Southern giant petrels can look like that.
Too early, we had to leave Sandy Bay. In the morning, the plateau was dusted with snow. Wind had picked up as expected, and we had to stay on board. We cruised along the eastern coast of the island, watching millions of penguins from a distance, while albatrosses and petrels flew around us. Then we left and sailed north-east, towards Campbell Island.
Previously in the SUBANTARCTIC series:
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