New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands and Fjordland Oct 22—Nov 07, 2011

Posted by Barry Lyon


Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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On this, our second expedition to New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands in the last three years, we returned to a part of the world that is unknown to most, yet, nonetheless, is one of the planet's hidden treasures. In cruising a swath of ocean that stretches from northern New Zealand to southernmost Australia, we cut a path through some of the world's most remote waters and visited some of its most isolated locations. Like stray bits of pepper in a vast sea of salt, the Subantarctic Islands exist as lonely dots of land at the interface of the Pacific and Southern oceans, occupying a latitudinal belt from 43° and 52° South.
Shaped and influenced by a miraculous combination of geography, climate, latitude, and ocean currents, these islands are largely uninhabitable for mankind, but ideal places for wildlife to flourish. This region supports the world's greatest diversity of breeding seabirds along with elephant seals, fur seals, sea lions, endemic landbirds, and bizarre and beautiful botanical compositions. The plankton-rich waters of the Southern Ocean are home to massive amounts of plankton, which form the foundation of one of the world's most robust marine environments.

Our itinerary was grand in scope, one that included most of the major islands: Chathams, Bounties (weathered out), Antipodes, Campbell, Auckland, and Macquarie. Each day was memorable for close encounters with albatrosses, visits to colonies of nesting penguins, images of the sea filled with hundreds of seabirds, and Zodiac cruises to rugged shorelines and hidden bays.

Our two-week cruise yielded 13 species of albatrosses, 7 species of penguins, and nearly two dozen other petrels, giant-petrels, diving petrels, storm-petrels, prions, and shearwaters, in addition to an impressive assortment of critically endangered landbirds.

Favorite memories included:

The Chathams—A morning at the vitally important Awatotara preserve produced views of many of the islands' endangered landbirds including Chatham Islands Pigeon and Gerygone, Gray Fantail, and Tui. Zodiac cruising around South East Island brought us close to Little Penguins and the highly endangered Shore Plover. An early evening cruise by Pyramid Rock saw us within a short distance of the world's only nesting place for the Chatham Islands Albatross.

The Antipodes—Isolated but brimming with wildlife, the Antipodes are the remnants of an eroded network of ancient volcanoes. Zodiac cruising along Perpendicular Head and Anchorage Bay brought encounters with Erect-crested Penguins, Eastern Rockhopper Penguins, and Light-mantled Albatrosses soaring effortlessly against the high cliff faces in acts of courtship and pair bonding; and close studies of Antipodes Parakeets. The Antipodes also featured fantastic rock formations of columnar basalt, tussock-draped hillsides, and shorelines awash in kelp and sea foam. An added bonus was the rare opportunity to cruise around nearby Bollons Island, home to more Erect-crested Penguins, nesting albatrosses, and marvelous rock formations.

Campbell Island—Wild, heavily vegetated, and successfully cleansed of introduced predators, we enjoyed a rare day of good weather here, in addition to a VENT-tour-first, Campbell Island Teal, of which we saw six; nesting Southern Royal Albatrosses; and scores of Chatham Island Shags and Yellow-eyed Penguins.

Enderby Island—A beautiful day, weather-wise, was equally productive for hiking and Zodiac cruising endeavors that revealed Yellow-eyed Penguins, Auckland Island Shags, Auckland Island Teal, Subantarctic Snipe, Red-fronted Parakeets, and Bellbirds!

Macquarie Island—Southernmost of the "Subs," but arguably the most remarkable of all, Macquarie Island presents a canvas of scenic beauty, thousands of King and Royal penguins, and beaches thronging with elephant seals.

At sea, between islands, we typically found ourselves amid blitzes of seabirds, where half a dozen species of albatrosses were seen readily each day. On several days at sea we were treated to the sights of dozens of White-headed, Gray-faced, Mottled, and Soft Plumaged petrels. Especially memorable were the afternoon in the Chathams when we saw thousands of White-faced Storm-Petrels around the ship, and our first day out of Macquarie Island when we were thrilled by the sighting of a very unexpected and seldom seen Antarctic Petrel.

Of equal importance, an overriding theme of this trip was heroic efforts in the arena of conservation, particularly the removal of non-native predators from island ecosystems. Two decades of work in such places as the Antipodes, Campbell, Enderby and, most recently, Macquarie Island have resulted in the removal of cats, rats, mice, pigs, goats, and cattle. Seabird colonies previously decimated, native landbirds pushed to the brink of extinction, and indigenous botanical communities shattered by overgrazing are rebounding to former levels of biological integrity.

It should be noted that the success of this trip was not entirely due to the obliging wildlife, but also to the conditions in which we traveled and the people with whom we traveled. This was the first time VENT has partnered with Australian-based Orion Expeditions, and its ship, Orion, proved itself a first-rate expedition vessel, getting high marks for comfort and class. The expedition staff was superb. We had the privilege of traveling with several birders on the staff, while guest lecturer Neville Peat proved himself an outstanding all-around naturalist and historian.