New Zealand is a land of seabirds. Nowhere else on earth is there such a diversity of breeding species. For pelagic birders a voyage by ship through the Sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand is an essential pilgrimage. In late 2001, an intrepid band of bird, mammal and island enthusiasts from all over the world set sail from the Port of Bluff at the southern most tip of mainland New Zealand aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy. Led by veteran conservationist and expedition leader Rodney Russ (founder of Heritage Expeditions (NZ) Ltd.), we set out to visit all of the major islands in the sub-antarctic sector. The trip was amazingly successful and will never be forgotten by those aboard.
Ocean Wanderers is proud to present an illustrated account of the trip written by John Brodie-Good, a true seabird and marine mammal fanatic. John is the founder and owner of WildWings (and its sister company WildOceans), specialist nature travel companies based in Bristol, England. Together WildWings and WildOceans offer an unrivaled range of seabird and marine mammal orientated holidays at excellent prices.
Hope you enjoy the account, Angus Wilson
Need more information? I recommend visiting the WildWings web site (http://www.wildwings.co.uk/) or requesting their excellent catalogue (WildWings, 577-579 Fishponds Road, Bristol, BS16 3AF, England; Phone: +44 (0)117-9658-333; E-mail: email@example.com). By booking a trip through them, you are guaranteed excellent and friendly service as well as help with flights, side-trips etc. Please mention that you learned about their operation through Ocean Wanderers.
I awoke after sleeping through most of the trans-Pacific flight, just as we began our descent into Auckland, dawn's orange glow on the port side of the aircraft. Two flights gone, still two to go down to Invercargill. An overnight hotel stop, including dinner with all the passengers, Rodney Russ, our expedition leader and his team, and then a late morning transfer to the Port of Bluff.
Fig. 1. Our vessel, the Akademik Shokalskiy.Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.
The bus pulled up alongside our vessel, the Akademik Shokalskiy, looking smart after a fresh coat of blue paint. We piled aboard, stowing our gear in our cabins, and then time to explore the ship. Originally built in 1983, refurbished in 1998, a former polar research vessel, now home to forty odd passengers from around the world for the next eighteen days and our voyage of over 2500 nautical miles. At about 14.30 we slowly drifted away from the dockside and turned south, heading for the open ocean, which a fresh breeze was blowing over, with many small whitecaps catching the sun's rays. As the pilot's boat left us, just outside the harbour wall, I was wondering when we would see our first albatrosses. About 30 seconds later the first of a number of White-capped Albatrosses appeared! The first few minutes of this voyage pretty much set the scene for the rest of it. For the rest of the 18 days, whenever you came up on deck, there were always at least a few seabirds to see, albatrosses, prions and Cape Petrels and at times so many, you really didn't know what to look at first. This trip is not called the ultimate pelagic for nothing. We sailed southwards for the rest of the afternoon, with Stewart Island on our starboard side. Salvins, Wandering and Northern Royal Albatross swelled the species list, Northern Giant Petrels, many Sooty Shearwaters, our first Mottled, Soft-plumaged & Grey-faced Petrels, as well as numerous Cape Petrels (of the Snares race) along with our first White-chinned Petrels made up the rest of the afternoon's highlights. The only South Polar Skuas of the trip were seen too. We turned in highly expectant of what was to come.
Fig. 2. The Snares, home to vast numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and the endemic Snares Crested Penguin. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.
First light found us at anchor in the uninhabited Snares Islands, home to breeding seabirds and Hooker's (New Zealand) Sea Lion. Thousands of Cape Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters milled about offshore, a number of New Zealand Fur Seals were also present. We took to the Naiads (zodiacs with metal hulls) to get in close, first enjoying and photographing the handsome endemic Snares Crested Penguins and then looking for the island's two passerine endemics. The island's delightful Tomtits were seen well, coming down to the rocks by the sea. The local race of the Fernbird was also seen well by all. A lucky few scored with the trip's only Buller’s Albatross, a later breeding species in these islands but this bird back early. We hauled up the anchor late morning and headed on south again. The afternoon was spent seawatching as the ship rolled gently in the Southern Ocean swell, not all appeared for dinner. New seabirds included our first Southern Royal Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Campbell Albatrosses, and the super slim Light-mantled Sooty too. Fairy Prions were all over the sea, two Black-bellied Storm Petrels and a few Common Diving Petrels finished a superb first full day.
Fig. 3. The Snares, home to vast numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and the endemic Snares Crested Penguin. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.
We awoke coming to anchor off Enderby Island, at the top of the Auckland Islands group, with a full day ashore exploring the island planned. An Australian Gannet out in the bay being an unexpected surprise. We landed at a sandy beach and had to be careful not to step on a pair of Tomtits and a few New Zealand Pipits which were under our feet. As we walked onto the main part of this small island, Auckland Island Banded Dotterels posed for the cameras. We walked over onto the cliffed western coast as a group, our first quarry being the strange and unique Sub-Antarctic Snipe. About twenty of us spread out in a line and started walking slowly over the low vegetation. Within minutes, a ‘brown ball’ was spotted skulking amongst some long grass, our quarry. Excellent views were had and photographs taken of this enigmatic species. A number of others were seen throughout the day, usually flushed from underfoot, they prefer to run than fly.
Fig. 4. Like Gulliver, Dick Filby towers over two Subantarctic Snipe. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.
As I arrived at the cliff top, an Antarctic Fulmar flew by, whilst just below, four pairs of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses were nesting, the adults sometimes gliding along past. A few pairs of Southern Royal Albatross also nest in the centre of the island, although being morning, meant the few adult birds present were dozing on their nests. We were free to take a slow walk around the north of the island, finishing back on our landing beach late afternoon. A number of the slightly alien-looking Yellow-eyed Penguins were scattered around the island, much the shyest member of the family. Small groups of Red-crowned Parakeets were common - parrots and penguins!
Fig. 5. A handsome Red-crowned Parakeet nibbles the grass on Enderby Island. Around seven subspecies have been described, scattered across the subantarctic islands of New Zealand. Some are very rare and threatened with extinction. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.
The island's other endemic was soon encountered too, the Auckland Island Flightless Teal, found in the quiet pools around the shoreline.
Fig. 6. Auckland Island Flightless Teal are relatively common on the kelp beds and tidal pools of Enderby. The cryptic coloration makes them difficult to spot amongst the kelp fronds. The much reduced wings are evident in this photograph. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.
A few Antarctic Terns were fishing offshore, whilst Auckland Island Shags went about the business of nesting, many birds tearing clumps of grass from the hillsides, their mauve eyes glowing in the afternoon sun. Part of the group had brief views of a New Zealand Falcon flashing over a beach and rapidly disappearing again. Bellbirds and Tui's were present in the thickly vegetated areas.
Late afternoon, we returned to the vessel, but within a few minutes an unexpected situation had arisen. The staff quickly realized from an unturned tag on the board by the gangway, a passenger was missing ashore. No names, but it also emerged he was diabetic too. Two zodiacs immediately set off round the island whilst Rodney and the team went back to shore to rapidly retrace the group's steps. They all returned about two hours later, still no passenger. With only a few hours of light remaining, the majority of us on the ship split up into groups of four to five and all went back ashore with torches and radios. We searched until after dark but then the real risk of loosing more people became apparent and we returned to the ship out in the bay. Many more snipe were seen though, and a few of us heard what surely was an Auckland Island Rail, thought to be extinct on Enderby Island. I don't think anyone slept well that night, luckily for a certain person, a calm dry one.
Up before first light as I was in one of the second wave of rescue teams. Two hundred miles away in New Zealand, a coastguard helicopter was on scramble alert, we had two hours to try and find him, then they would come and join us in the search. Rodney had a hunch as to where our missing gentleman was and Steve Smith and I joined him at breakneck pace ashore, we headed for the centre of the island. As we tried to keep up with Rodney, a bird shot out in front of us and landed in a bush 20 yards away. We put our bins up to discover a stunning New Zealand Falcon, just off the nest, its brood patch clearly visible. One of the harder species to see, we knew we would be pushing it if we watched it for too long, for the bird's sake and Rodney's blood pressure! We rejoined him quickly and soon after came across our missing gent, sitting on a bush eating a Mars bar, none the worse for his ordeal. Rodney wanted him back on the ship for a medical check, he wanted to look for our falcon! With the excitement finally over, we hauled anchor and sailed down the east coast of the island group, heading for Carnley Harbour on Auckland Island itself. We enjoyed a short forested walk at Tagua Bay with it's flowering Rata trees before moving the ship to enable the more adventurous to climb the SW Cape and get close to the nesting White-capped Albatrosses. Across the water from them, was one of the main Gibson's Wandering Albatross colonies too.
Late afternoon and the Shokalskiy turned south towards Antarctica and our next destination, the true sub-Antarctic island of Macquarie. As the coast of Auckland Island fell behind, the seabird spectacle around the ship was unforgettable. Twenty-two species in the air at once, you really did not know what to look at first. The new species included our first White-headed Petrels, one of the smartest pterodromas, along with our first Grey-headed Albatross, Antarctic Prions, Wilson's & Grey-backed Storm-petrels and three Little Shearwaters of the sub-Antarctic race, elegans. The second Antarctic Fulmar of the trip was seen too, this time I managed to get most of the group on it. It was still only day 3!
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