Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand & Australia (part 4)

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

5 December
South-east Island’s other claim to fame is the home of two endemic waders, Shore Plover and Chatham Island Oystercatcher. The morning was a beauty, no wind and blue skies. We piled into the naiads - sod breakfast. The short cruise into the bay quickly revealed our quarry, both species seen very well, some of the Shore Plovers with small chicks. A Little Blue Penguin just on the cliffs above the water was an added bonus, with a few Chatham Island Shags above it. We could see Tui’s ashore in the vegetation but no sign of the fabled Black Robins . Small parties of Chatham Island Red-crowned Parakeets flew around.  After such a great start, breakfast. We couldn’t help but notice the entire crew including the captain were fishing off the back deck, we had turned into a trawler. As a guide to the richness of these waters, they  each dropped a line with four or five baited hooks into the water. Literally seconds later,  they would pull the lines back in, each hook with a gleaming Blue Cod on it. The birders got a great bonus too,  the fish were being gutted on the spot, the waste thrown back into the sea. The local Pacific Albatrosses soon got the idea and were squabbling for the titbits, very close to us, well within photographic range. This is what I call a real expedition cruise,  when even the captain and crew chum for you! At midday we sailed northwards, slowly  picking our way through the island group. Quite a few more Little Blue Penguins in the water,  Pitt Island Shags and a trickle of other seabirds. Our second day of seeing Broad-billed Prions too, with one found dead on the back deck first thing. We anchored in Pitt Strait off the coast of main island for a few hours. Magenta Petrel (aka Taiko) breeds  in the forested valley in front of us by Taiko Head, and we stayed on the top deck with the remote chance we may see a bird returning, no luck. An hour before dark however, Rodney  appeared with a steaming tray of fresh grilled Rock Lobster with wedges of lemon, the only way to eat it, absolutely delicious. You don’t get that kind of service on the Scillonian or the Biscay ferry!  Now were did he get those from?

6 December
We came into the dock on main island at dawn, and clambered ashore at the little wooden jetty. Civilisation again!  A pair of Welcome Swallows flew around us, Eurasian Skylarks were singing everywhere (can we have some back please?)  Our ground transport was waiting and we piled into the Landrovers  and headed off for the Tuku Reserve, about half an hours drive over dirt roads. Our driver was called, Bruce, so it seems was every other man on the island, as we drove along it was Bruce’s farm on the left, then on the right, Bruce’s farm! A few Australian Harriers could be seen quartering the fields.

Fig. 17. "Baaaaruce, baaaaruce....." Sheep are a way of life in New Zealand and the remote Chatham Islands are no exception. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

Our local guide met us at the reserve entrance and we walked in. A unique piece of native forest with Tree Ferns abundant. We walked slowly  along the narrow paths looking for the specialities. Chatham Island Warblers seemed quite common, excellent  views were had by all.  At one point we reached a fork in the path, one indicated by a piece of blue plastic around a tree. Taikos breed up there said the guide, Mark and I were the only ones  not wishing with all our hearts that we could take that path. A few minutes later, the sound of flapping wings and our first Chatham Island Pigeons, very impressive beasts. A few other birds were seen in this magical valley, Fantails and a number of people encountered Wekas crossing the paths . Flowering orchids and a few butterflies added a more temperate feel to the place. We trooped out, another pigeon posing nicely in a lone tree. Back at the quay by lunchtime, fish and chips and tea made with fresh milk, a few phone calls home from the payphone. Our last naiad ride back to the ship and we sailed again, this time for our final destination, South Island, NZ. We headed south-west and into an increasing wind. The message from the bridge was that we were going to have ‘some wind’ tonight, early to bed I think.

Fig. 18. (Left) Half-starved, two Brit birders scavenge for food in an attempt to stave off scurvy.  Only the slice of lemon that came with the fish & chips saved them! (Right) Those staying on the Chathams can hire Bruce here to take you offshore in search of the many resident seabirds. Overnight trips are not recommended. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

7 December
Apparently it was a fairly rolly night, I slept soundly through it. Daybreak and the wind had gone, still a bit of a swell on the ocean. We were to spend the last two full days at sea, just south of the Chatham Rise. Plenty of seabirds again including yet more new ones. The majority of our group finally connected with a number of Cook’s Petrels, one of the possible pterdromas  in these more northern waters. At lunchtime I came back out on deck just in time to see a Black-winged Petrel wizz down the side of the ship, underwing facing me. A species many missed sadly. The striking Buller’s Shearwaters were starting to appear again  and finally decent  views were  obtained of five or so Westland Black Petrels. Not so easy to i.d., slimmer and slightly smaller than White-chinned and Grey-faced Petrels, they had to be pretty  close though to see the bill pattern properly.

8 December
A very gentle sea, some weak sunshine and our old enemy, mist again. It was a quiet morning, and we went down to lunch expecting a long slow afternoon. I was one of the first back up and immediately noticed five Common Dolphins heading towards us, Long gone by the time the first of the rest of the passengers came up, we took our positions for the afternoon. "Blow" came the shout, " and another"…whales at last, but distant. We were puzzled at first, they were large animals but what were they? They seemed to have diffuse rounded blows  which vanished very  quickly  in the still air? We had a bit of time in hand and so we went  for them. Closer too and the mystery unfolded,  they  were Sei Whales. We enjoyed great views of one in particular,  which swam parallel to us for a few minutes.  Seen closer too, the last part of the animal left on the surface was the falcate dorsal fin which actually stays above the water for some time before finally submerging too. Everyone was up in and around the bridge, a number of blows around us. I noticed one group looking at something else in the water  at about ten o’clock. I put my bins up and saw a small group of much smaller cetaceans.  When I saw a long whitish  beak coming out the water I shouted "beaked whales" which quickly focused everyone’s attention on them. We had good views for a few minutes and then they were behind us. We grabbed the whale book from the bridge and worked through the key. Gray’s Beaked Whales was the unanimous decision, a species Rodney then said they had seen before. Rodney then insisted we had to all go downstairs for the final recap and disembarkation briefing, a tough call when many of us had waited so long to see more cetaceans.  Again, I was one of the first back up, just in time for two more Sei Whales, I wonder how many there really were?

 Fig. 19. Martin Hale, looked chuffed with himself after gripping off the rest of us with his Chatham Island Petrel. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

The seabirds had picked up again too and the photographers  enjoyed  close  views  of many birds from the stern, including some Soft-plumaged Petrels. Martin Hale and a few others claimed the last surprise though, a Chatham Island Petrel. What a finale! Angus had won the paint competition, with four different colours on his jacket (the Russians kept painting the ship and not putting up signs!)

9 December
Dawn found us skilfully steaming up the river towards the port of Dunedin and the end of an incredible voyage.

Fig. 20. Journeys end. Daybreak in over the Otago Peninsula. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002.

Two hats, one of our favourite Russian crew members became 3 hats as he now wore a hard hat on top of his baseball cap and Davey Crockett  fake fur number. We had been lucky with the weather, the roaring forties and fifties had spared us, and between us we had seen nearly everything we could have hoped for. Farewells to Rodney and the team on the quayside, he had just a few hours before they sailed again, with new passengers and a different itinerary.  By 08.00 we were on a bus in town, dropping various people off at different hotels and then the half hour drive to the airport. We managed a few more birds even, Little Shag, Masked [Spur-winged] Plovers, Black Swans, Paradise Shelduck, Pukekeo, Variable and Pied Oystercatchers, Australian Magpies and two New Zealand [Sacred] Kingfishers. Then it was the four flights home again.

10 December
I had just dozed off on the final leg from L.A. to London when a tap on my shoulder re-woke me. "Wanna see the Northern Lights?" Not half,  we were over the Canadian Arctic somewhere and by shrouding yourself in an airline blanket by the window, you could see white curtains in the sky. A fitting end to an unforgettable  trip.


Many thanks to Rodney Russ and his superb Hertiage Expeditions team, the Captain and crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy and our splendid travel companions. It was a great trip and we look forward to sailing with you all again!

John Brodie-Good and Angus Wilson

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Page layout and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.
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