Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand & Australia (part 2)

The Sub-Antarctic Islands of Australia & New Zealand
22 November to 9 December 2001
A personal account by John Brodie-Good

26 November
The first of a number of days spent entirely at sea, with over 15 species of seabird seen. Unexpectedly good weather meant we were sailing south east with a following breeze, our ship gently moving on the sea. No new birds but finally some cetaceans. A Sperm Whale in the morning, seen briefly swimming in the opposite direction, but close to the ship. In the afternoon however, two gorgeous Hourglass Dolphins came in to the bows and stayed with us for about 10 minutes giving everyone great views.

27 November
Due to the favourable wind and sea conditions we made record time and woke at dawn, at anchor off the south-west corner of this slim island. The sound of distant trumpets could be heard and I quickly dressed and went out on deck. A damp, grey morning greeted us and the source of the trumpets became clear, groups of 20-30 King Penguins were swimming around the ship, looking up to see what was going on. A naiad picked up some rangers from the ANARE Base and we sailed along the coast towards our landing, Sandy Bay.

Fig. 7. Endemic Royal Penguins crowd the Beach at Sandy Bay, Macquarie Island. Thousands of Royal and King Penguins come ashore here and clamber up the hillside to massive breeding colonies. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

The NE swell that had helped us the day before was now becoming a problem, making getting in and out of the naiads interesting. We sped ashore in the light but continuous drizzle, literally thousands of penguins on the beaches waiting for us. The landing point was enlivened by a small group of bull Southern Elephant Seals mock fighting whilst the King’s could’nt  wait for you to take your life jacket off, they  were  in amongst  us, giving gentle pecks to see if   we were  edible. The beach was heaving with King’s at the end we landed on, giving way to Royal Penguins further down, Macquarie’s endemic. It was hard to move with any speed, and the group delighted themselves slowly moving  along, burning film and video in large quantities, the sounds and smells of the throng being an unforgettable  experience, the high point of the trip for many people.  Just above the beach, a large Royal penguin colony, with both dark and white-throated birds present.  Whilst curious and friendly with us, they viscously pecked their neighbours  and any passing birds. Not one of the biggest colonies on the island, it still had a river of penguin pee coming down onto the beach.  Macquarie Island Shags could be seen diving for food out on the water. The rain persisted all morning and the majority finally returned to the ship when wet  through, a few staying ashore to score some sunshine  which suddenly appeared for a few minutes. Back on the ship, another drama,  this time a flipped naiad by the gangway, Rodney and one of the Russians taking an unplanned dip! The other naiad soon retrieved it, a group of inquisitive  King Penguins in the middle of it all. We hauled anchor and sailed further up the coast but the swell was still increasing which put paid to any other landings that day. Most people still had a very warm glow inside from the morning however.

Fig. 8. King Penguins frolic in the surf whilst our ship the Akademik Shokalskiystands offshore.Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

28 November
The wind had died down, the rain stopped although it remained overcast  overhead.  We went ashore at Bucklers Bay to visit the base and surrounding area. My group was led by the charming cat eradication lady, whose job seemed finished. No signs of any felines for at least six months, the cat eating dogs had done their work. She was soon to be replaced by the rabbit eradication person!  She led us around, showing us the old digestors and trypots, a grim reminder of the days most of the local wildlife was boiled up for it’s oil. Although south of New Zealand,  Macquarie is in fact Australian territory, the base being run by the Tasmanian Wildlife Service. Around the base were a small colony of Gentoos and some Rockhopper Penguins, adding to our growing penguin list. Brown Skuas and Southern Giant Petrels gorged themselves on the various carcasses on the beach ( why do Brown Skuas like the oldest, driest ones?). Some looked for the island’s [Eurasian] Starlings (why!) and Mike Scott-Ham pleased everyone by calling out "Orca" mid morning, a pod swam behind our ship in the bay, looking for elephant seal weaners which had to take to sea soon. We were then invited into the base and enjoyed fresh baked muffins and hot coffee. Manned year round, the staff usually spend 6-12 months on the island, mainly working with the wildlife. One year, Rodney arrived a day early and found all the guys dressed in drag! At lunchtime it was time to go, we bade farewell to our hosts and the Shokalskiy turned north-east for the Campbell group. We spent the rest of the day at sea, with the new species being our first Blue Petrels, slightly prion-like but that white terminal tail band is very obvious, even at some distance. A total of nine Hourglass Dolphins were seen, all came in to bow ride. At one point , Dick Filby and I were standing in our cabin, looking out of the open window. Before either of us could blink, an Hourglass Dolphin leapt clear of the sea in front of us, the perfect photo opportunity but our cameras were upstairs.

29 November
There is no nicer way to be woken up than with the words "Three Humpback Whales coming towards us, breaching!" Hastily pulling clothes on, we rushed out onto the bows to join the entire ship’s company for the show. Indeed, two adults and a younger animal were heading towards us, the adults breaching every few minutes. Andrew, our amiable Australian cruise director suddenly started a running commentary on the biology of Humpbacks, it turned out he’d spent the summer on a whale-watching boat out of North Island. Just as the animals were starting to come into the big lens’s range, they veered away, presumably heading south to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic.  We steamed north-east all day, no new birds but plenty of old friends to keep us company.  We managed  another eleven Hourglass Dolphins too,  every single one coming  in to bow-ride.

30 November
We awoke to a calm anchorage at 06.00, in a spectacular bay  on the eastern side of Campbell Island. Two walks were on offer, a gentler one on the boardwalk to the top of the island and a more adventurous and longer one for the fitter. We landed by a not long abandoned weather station and walked up through scrubby vegetation (with Blackbirds and Dunnocks singing, and Redpolls flying around!) heading for the more barren and bleaker top of the island. We had already seen the island’s endemic shag on the way in. Big white dots were scattered around the hillsides, nesting Southern Royal Albatrosses. It only took about half an hour to get up there, and we were greeted by an almost  hurricane like wind which came out of nowhere. Thankfully, it only lasted about half an hour and subsided again. The less enthusiastic returned down early, leaving the few of us left to spread out and pick our albatross.

Fig. 9. A pair of Southern Royal Albatross sit calmly on a wind blasted coll on Campbell Island. The diagnostic dark cutting edge of the bill and white upper wing coverts are evident in the right hand bird. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

I have been lucky to see a number of the large albatrosses at sea but this time we could get yards from them on land. Being the morning, most nests were occupied by just one parent bird, and most were asleep or dozing ( albatross colonies are like student digs, nothing happens in the mornings). I sat down quietly by a sleeping bird and watched. She woke with a slight start a few minutes later and eyed me up and down. I obviously passed because she seemed quite happy, no bill-clicking to indicate displeasure, she started to doze again. I felt my eyes going with hers. Needless to say, a lot of photographs were taken that day. A great honour to be in such a place with such company,  a personal highlight for me. The island was also carpeted with two flowering species of mega-herb,  a great splash of colour in a rather bleak landscape.  I liked Campbell Island, its wildness and albatrosses  a global  treasure. Only earlier in the  year, the island had over 120 tons of rat poison dropped all over it by helicopter, so far, no signs of rats. New Zealand has lost so much of it’s original wildlife due to man introducing species, it currently leads the way in trying to restore remote oceanic islands to their former state. Our day wasn’t over yet, even though the landing was.

Fig. 10. Like smoke, newly formed clouds billow over a headland on the eastern coast of Campbell Island. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

We sailed out of the bay and ran up the east coast of the island. We assembled on the back deck for Rodney’s first chum session, cameras ready. Surprise number one was when opening the drum he found out the wrong fish bits had been supplied and it was still frozen. The smell was enough to do the job though, and soon we were surrounded by the lovely Campbell Albatrosses, skimming the water and over our heads, with Cape Petrels in underneath them. Campbell Albatross is one of the new species, similar to Black-browed but with pale ‘honey-coloured’ eyes and darker underwings. Even I got some good photos.

Fig. 11. An adult Campbell Albatross glides passed the ship, attracted by the smelly fish offal. The pale iris is very obvious on this bird and one can just make out the extensively dark underwing. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

Next: Part 3 - Into the gloom in search of Bounty!Click to read the third gripping installement.

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Page layout and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.
Text copyright of John Brodie-Good© 2002 All rights reserved.
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