Splendid isolation in the Sub-Antarctic

Halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica lie a handful of islands, home to massive penguin colonies and feisty sea lions. We dropped in...

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A morning bright and silent. I found we had dropped anchor in the night on the south side of Enderby Island. From our cabin we could make out a landing place known as Sandy Bay. Our ship was a quarter of a mile out but dark objects were visible on the shoreline so I fetched the binoculars: sea lions waddling along the beach. The alpha males are known as ‘beachmaster bulls’. They’re large, the size of brown bears, and can outrun humans.

For the last three days we’d been cruising south from New Zealand with the intention of stopping at several of the earth’s most isolated islands, home to seabirds, seals and scientists. The Sub-Antarctic islands of Enderby and Campbell are maintained by New Zealand, while Macquarie is Australian territory. They’re reserved for conservation and scientific work, but landings can be made with prior permission. We were travelling on the Orion, which in the summer runs expedition cruises to the islands from Australia and New Zealand. It also calls in at some of them en route to Antarctica.

We stumbled our way into a Zodiac and headed towards Enderby, the cold spray buffeting our faces and clouding our view. Our expedition leader, Don MacIntyre, had already gone ashore to establish a base away from the aggressive males. As we came to a halt, I could see bulls, females and big-eyed pups covering the beach. Some of the younger bulls had moved to the lush grassland above to cool off. They lay there inert, like large brown rocks.

Even on a sunny day Enderby looked bleak and unforgiving. It’s the largest and most northerly of the Auckland Islands, an archipelago 300 miles south of New Zealand first explored by Maoris in the 13th century and by Europeans in 1806.

Like most of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic territory, Enderby is an eroded volcanic stub, pushed up through the sea between 25 and 10 million years ago. But there’s vegetation on the island now, small forests of southern rata trees, their branches contorted into arthritic poses, as well as tiny pink and white gentians, and ‘megaherbs’ like the pink-flowered Anisotome.

Penguin superhighway

Don was on the shore directing everyone up off the beach, away from a route that had been established by rare yellow-eyed penguins. Several of them had appeared on a crest in the dunes and seemed to be taking an interest in us, but Don insisted that we would disorientate them if we crossed their “Penguin Highway”.

I’d been reading up about shipwrecks on Enderby (the whole of this region is littered with them, including at least nine around the Auckland Islands). In March 1887 an American barque carrying 24 people ran aground here. Six months later the eight survivors were rescued by an illegal whaler.

The castaways had made use of a wooden refuge in the tangle of rata trees. This was kept provisioned by the New Zealand government well into the 20th century. That’s where Kate, my wife, and I headed while everyone else had their lenses trained on the big-eyed baby sea lions. The ‘Stella Hut’, as it is known, is a small A-frame shack made of two converging wooden walls. It would keep off rain, but an adult could barely stand up inside. Yet quite a few whaling crews sheltered here over the years.

We were about to rejoin the others when I saw that a large bull sea lion had followed us and blocked our path. This close, I could see how powerful his shoulders were. Sea lion can walk and even gallop on their flippers. The floor of the rata forest was too uneven for our challenger to get up any speed, but we were reluctant to try and step around him as Don had warned us about the possibility of being bitten. Kate and I clambered through the twisted trees and forded a stream to emerge near where the rest of our group was viewing the young bulls from a safe distance.

Shore leave

Enderby is only a mile and a half a mile wide at the point where we landed, so it was a quick trek across to the north coast. A boardwalk’s been laid by NZ’s Department of Conservation to protect the native flora and in mid summer the landscape was predominantly flowering heather – reds and purples among the tussocks of green.

From time to time a southern royal albatross would sweep overhead making sure we weren’t getting too near nests dotted around the heather. We’d seen these remarkable birds from the Orion but our closeness to them now brought home their prodigious dimensions. An albatross’s wingspan averages three metres, allowing it to glide on the updrafts and thermals for thousands of miles as it searches the sea below for food. Such awe-inspiring qualities have over 50-million years of evolutionary refinement behind them. That’s 100-times longer than Homo sapiens have been walking the earth.

We saw albatross again at Campbell Island, the most southerly of NZ’s possessions, 180 miles southeast of Enderby. Again we’d arrived in the night but woke to a much rougher sea in the over-optimistically named Smoothwater Bay. Williwaws were whipping across the turbulent water.

Captain Mike tried for some hours to get us into the fjord known as Perseverance Harbour but the seas weren’t cooperating. Campbell is the remains of a shield volcano; the eastern side of its cone blew up millions of years ago. It’s a wall of grim black cliffs rising out of the ocean. The original idea was for us to disembark at the old weather station at the head of the fjord and walk up to Mt Honey (1,866ft). We also had hopes of sighting the world’s remotest tree, a sitkaspruce planted on the island in 1902 by Lord Ranfurl. It soon became clear that this was over-ambitious in the circumstances, so Don offered us the option of exploring the cliffs from the Zodiacs as a back-up plan.

As we bounced closer, it was clear that black-browed albatross were nesting in huge colonies on Campbell, their guano painting the tops of the cliffs white. Closer to shore, the size of the swell became even more apparent as we dropped down dramatically to see metres of brown kelp clinging to the rocks that were suddenly exposed above us. At this point, with the sea deteriorating, Don recalled us to the ship.

Pilgrimage to ‘Macca’

Macquarie, 445-miles south west of Campbell, was like the Scottish Highlands rising out of the sub-Antarctic Sea. Frank Hurley, photographer of Shackleton’s and Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions, was so taken with it that he surreptitiously left an important lens at one end of the island so that he could persuade Douglas Mawson to let him walk all the way back to get it. The island is a long thin ridge stretching 21 km north to south. We landed on the one section that isn’t reserved for conservation and scientific research into the South Magnetic Pole.

We were met here by Drew, a bearded young scientist from Tasmania who was pleased to show us around. The beach was full of solemn king penguins and I sat down next to them while Drew was assembling his party. The kings shuffled closer to us, and one even pecked at Kate’s boot as if to see what manner of creature this was. Drew turned out to prefer the orange-footed gentoos – attentive parents but very laid-back. “They normally get their fishing done by 11am,” said Drew, “and then take the rest of the day off.”

But the real stars of “Macca” are the elephant seals that we found wallowing all the way down the beach. These massive creatures are Phocidae, which means that they do not walk on their flippers like sea lions but move in undulating lurches with all the finesse of Jabba the Hutt.

The males we were looking at were 4-5 metres long with huge probosces that are used in producing extraordinarily loud roaring noises during the mating season. There was a lot of play-fighting going on, bulls slamming together so that the tops of their torsos reared up from the beach.

I was fascinated by such powerful, ugly creatures while Kate was more interested in photographing the thousands of feather-crested royal penguins, whose colony was being circled by three hungry seabirds called skuas looking to pick off the chicks.

Drew showed us a section of the island where wire fencing kept the rabbits out. It was three or four times more lush – windswept helmet-orchids and Macquarie Island cabbage pushing up through the tussocky grass. “The natural vegetation has been denuded by rabbits which Europeans introduced,” he explained. “The slopes are far less safe these days with far fewer plants to bind them. We’ve had more human deaths on Macquarie than on any other island.”

The Australian government is now working hard to eradicate any flora and fauna introduced by Europeans or Maoris in the hope that Macquarie will be returned to its pre-human state. The same process has been under way on the other islands too, a concerted attempt to heal the wounds of the anthropocentric past, and return these remote, enigmatic islands to the plants and animals that have called them home for thousands, even millions of years.

The author travelled with Orion Expedition Cruises

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