Galapagos of the Southern Ocean – a trip to the subantarctic islands with Heritage Expeditions

November 30th to December 12th 2020

There are very few places remaining in the world where you can still experience authentic wilderness and abundant wildlife with no humans living there.

New Zealand’s subantarctic islands are one such place. Not only are they within our locked down borders, but there is a New Zealand owned and operated tour company that can take you “over seas” to get there.

Many New Zealanders have never even heard of the subantarctic islands and would probably guess the Auckland Islands were somewhere in the Hauraki Gulf. Often referred to as New Zealand’s “forgotten islands”; the Snares Islands/Tini Heke, the Auckland Islands/Motu Maha, the Bounty Islands, the Antipodes, and Campbell Island/Motu Ihupukuare lie in an arc south-east from Stewart Island in the Great Southern Ocean between the latitudes of 47˚ and 53 ˚. 

These five groups are remote, uninhabited, on no regular shipping route and access to them is restricted.

Sitting in the path of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, the islands are constantly lashed by strong westerly winds and storms. Rain falls on approximately 300 out of 365 days a year and the average temperature is five degrees.

You can cross some of the roughest seas on the planet to get there, you need a permit to even set foot on Auckland and Campbell Islands (and only at certain landing places), and the nearest you can get to the Snares, Antipodes and Bounty Islands is in a zodiac inflatable boat, cruising the shorelines. So, why go there?

Because the subantarctic islands are home to some of the rarest and most endangered sea birds and marine life and, on land, there are bizarre-looking plants such as the giant megaherbs found nowhere else in the world.  Each island group has such a wealth of biodiversity they are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and have the highest conservation and protection status afforded by the New Zealand government. Very few people ever go there, yet the islands have a chequered history of human occupation, both Māori and Pakeha, full of drama, castaways and shipwrecks.

Day One – Dunedin

Our Heritage Expeditions “Galapagos of the Southern Ocean”, 13-day voyage began on Monday, November 30, 2020, with a dinner in Dunedin hosted by Aaron Russ, son of the founder of the company, Rodney Russ.

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, there were no Aussies or passengers from other countries, all 44 passengers were New Zealand citizens or residents. Most were baby boomers with the oldest being an 89-year-old former mountain climber. There were a few passengers on the right side of 40 and two zoology students in their early 20s on Heritage Expeditions True Young Explorer scholarships.

We were the first subantarctic Island cruise of the season; our itinerary was supposed to have included Australia’s Macquarie Island but the New Zealand government refused to waive the two-week mandatory quarantine for passengers on our return. So, at the dinner Aaron Russ announced they had made a last-minute change to the itinerary with Macquarie Island scratched and the Antipodes and Bounty Islands now included.

Day Two – Dunedin to Bluff

It was an early start with a scenic bus ride through the Catlins arriving at Invercargill for lunch and a final medical check. Everyone passed so it was back on the bus for the short ride to Bluff where the “Spirit of Enderby”, our home for the next twelve days, was berthed.

Built in 1984, the ice-strengthened Russian ship (formerly known as the Professor Khromov) was built for polar and oceanographic exploration and designed for sturdiness and reliability rather than luxury.  

With that in mind and the likelihood of experiencing the rigours of the Southern Ocean, we had booked a mini suite, comprising a double bed annex, a separate living space and our own bathroom.

The sea conditions were calm as the ship entered Foveaux Strait and headed down the east side of Rakiura/Stewart Island allowing everyone to enjoy their first three course dinner of the voyage … but it was not to last.

Day Three – At sea to Auckland Islands

A northerly storm blew up from the south overnight producing five to seven metre swells and making it impossible to anchor safely at the Snares or launch the zodiacs. A decision was made by the Russian captain and the expedition leader Chris Todd to head directly to the Auckland Islands and catch the Snares on the way back.

For the next 24 hours many passengers, me (Kerrie) included, had our first episode of sea sickness. For much of the time I stayed in our cabin clinging to furniture, beds, railings, or anything that might stop me from being tossed about by the waves and only occasionally ventured outside for some fresh air, sea spray and to watch the albatross riding the air currents. Unfortunately, I missed the first buffet breakfast, the first two course lunch and two informative lectures by Chris on the Auckland Islands and its early human occupation. Remarkably, archaeologists have found evidence of early Polynesian occupation there dating to the 1300 or 1400s – to date, the southernmost site of recorded prehistoric Polynesian voyages.  

Day Four – Ross Harbour, Auckland Islands

We arrived and anchored in Ross Harbour overnight, and despite 50 knot winds and rain showers, the expedition team made the decision to launch the zodiacs.

Our first stop was on the northern end of the main Auckland Island where Hardwicke, an agricultural settlement and whaling station had been established in 1849.

The miserable climate, poor soils, treacherous seas and ferocious winds took its toll on the community. The whaling station proved uneconomic, and it was abandoned in August 1852. Now the only inhabitants are the wildlife.

During those two years and nine months there were five weddings, sixteen births and two infant deaths. Today, the only reminder of the town is a few scattered bricks on the forest floor and the original picket fenced cemetery.    

After the failed settlement, the most frequent evidence of human occupation was after a shipwreck. In Erebus Cove we saw the remnants of a message carved into the trunk of a rata tree: ‘H.M.C.S. VICTORIA NORMAN IN SEARCH OF SHIPWRECKED PEOPLE OCT 13TH 1865’.  Survivors of the shipwrecked schooner Grafton spent 19 months on the Auckland Islands, and HMCS Victoria was sent to search for survivors and victims.

Day Five – Enderby Island, Auckland Islands

An early morning start with an even earlier morning obligatory quarantine check by our guides to make sure our boots, waterproof jackets and packs were clear of seeds or other plant or animal matter before our zodiac ride to the south end of Sandy Bay on Enderby Island.

Years of pest eradication and millions of dollars have been spent in making some of these islands pest and predator free.

We split into three groups and the more energetic group (which bravely included me and Andrew) headed north on a 12km trek around the island.

There was no obvious track, just waist high tussock to wade through, hidden bogs (which I fell into) and sea lions popping their heads above the grass and growling at our unexpected presence. It was fantastic, we were the intruders, passing through their world.

We travelled along jagged, rocky cliffs with massive waves pounding on the rocks, sending giant spumes of spray into the air. And that was on a fair weather day. Stunning seascapes!

Everywhere we looked, there was wildlife. We saw Yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho), Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Giant Petrels, Red-crowned Parakeets/kakariki, Auckland Island Teal and subantarctic Snipe.

Then there were the iconic Southern Royal Albatross (toroa), with a wingspan in excess of 3 m and weighing approximately 9 kg.

Megaherbs, giant flowering plants up to a metre wide and tall, unique to the subantarctic Islands provided a bright splash of colour.  

Day Six – Musgrave Inlet (morning), Carnley Harbour (afternoon), Auckland Islands

Another early morning zodiac cruise to make the most of the weather, sea conditions and the wildlife. This time around Musgrave Inlet to see Rockhopper penguins, amazing basalt rock formations and extraordinary caves and caverns.

In the afternoon we walked through a rata and dracophyllum forest, to the site of a Coastwatchers’ station in Tagua Bay.  During the second world war, young scientists were posted here to keep watch for enemy ships. Their living quarters were dilapidated and barely recognisable but the hut where they used to watch for Russian or Japanese vessels had been restored and (amazingly) still contained the remains of a stove and empty cans of food.

Day Seven – Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island

A zodiac ride around the outer reaches of Perseverance Harbour took us to see the world’s rarest duck, the Campbell Island Teal.

We were also on the look out for endemic Campbell Island Shags, White-fronted and Antarctic Terns and Black-backed Gulls and a pair of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nesting high on the cliffs.

We passed the most amazing basaltic columns enroute to a Sea Lion colony of 30 or more animals sleeping or fighting to protect their turf. Wonderful!

We zipped past the anchored mother ship on our way to the inner reaches of Perseverance Harbour and the remains of what had been a farming homestead in Tucker Cove, then on to Camp Cove and the “world’s loneliest tree”.

The Sika Spruce, the only one of its species down here, was believed to have been planted by Lord Ranfurly between 1901 and 1907. For one passenger, the visit was especially emotional. Joanne Laing’s father had worked here as a meteorologist in the early 1950s and she had several photos of him posing in front of the same tree, although very much smaller.  

In the afternoon, we landed at the abandoned New Zealand Meteorological station and hiked to Col Lyall Saddle for stunning views of the coastal cliffs.

Along the way, we saw dozens of nesting Southern Royal Albatross.

There was almost no wind, the sky was blue with few clouds and the temperature was quite warm. One of the guides said she had visited Campbell Island seven times previously and had never experienced such perfect weather conditions. We felt very lucky indeed.

Day Eight – At sea to Antipodes Islands

A range of lectures from the expedition team kept us entertained, including one on the eradication of pests from Campbell Island and another on the history and wildlife of the Bounty and Antipodes Islands.

Day Nine – Antipodes Islands

Our first sighting of the Antipodes Islands was ghostly and ethereal, shrouded in sea fog. Luckily, this lifted in time for our expedition.

Sheer cliffs rise from the wave-battered rocks to a tussock strewn plateau so there is nowhere safe to land zodiacs on these volcanic islands, but that didn’t matter. Cruising along the coastline we passed masses of bull kelp tumbling in the waves, and on the rocky shore came face to face with Erect-crested penguins, endemic to these and the Bounty Islands.

Many had young chicks. There were also Rockhopper penguins and the Antipodes albatross. The two ‘twitchers’ on my zodiac nearly fell overboard in their excitement, when I spotted Antipodes Island parakeets on the rocks and a Reischek’s parakeet in the tussocks.  

Day Ten – Bounty Islands

Another blue-sky day greeted us in the morning on our arrival at the Bounty Islands. As the islands have no safe anchorage or easy landing sites, this would be another trip by zodiac, scouting along the sheer granite cliffs.

Discovered and named by Captain William Bligh in 1788, just months before the infamous mutiny, the Bounty islands are 700 km east-south-east of New Zealand. The total land mass is only 135ha and they have virtually no soil or vegetation.

Yet these remote, isolated rocky mounts are bustling with life. The skies above swarmed with wheeling, arcing seabirds. Everywhere we looked there was wildlife, from the diving and leaping rafts of Erect-crested penguins, to Salvin’s albatross nesting high up on the cliffs and noisy colonies of seals on the rocks below.

These islands are one of the main bases for the New Zealand fur seal in the subantarctic. Our heads were spinning from seeing so much wildlife in one place at one time, none of it seemingly bothered by zodiacs full of humans and their cameras.

Day 11 –  At sea to Stewart Island/Rakiura

The swell had picked up overnight and the Snares were in the path of another oncoming storm. The visit to the Snares was off once more but a decision was made to sail on to Bluff, pick up a pilot and head over to Paterson Inlet, Rakiura/Stewart Island for a guided walk on Ulva Island. 

Day 12 – Stewart Island/Rakiura

There was fresh snow on Mt Anglem/Hananui on Rakiura/Stewart Island as we steamed up Paterson Inlet, anchoring just off Ulva Island.

We landed on the beach and split into five groups, each with a guide.

Not long into our walk we saw Saddleback, Rifleman Kaka, Kereru and Stewart Island Robin. The biggest thrill of the day for me was my first ever sighting of a kiwi in the wild, the largest of New Zealand’s iconic kiwi species, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi (Tokoeka) in its natural habitat. For others it was a group of Mohoua, the rare Yellowhead flitting through the forest.

Our last night on board was a chance to relive the journey through a stunning slide show, featuring shots taken through the journey and set to music by one of the expedition team, followed by a sumptuous five-course dinner.

The expedition team, chefs and Russian crew had all worked tirelessly to deliver a first-class, out of this world experience.

Day 13 – Port of Bluff

In a touching ceremony, the expedition team and Russian captain lined up on the wharf to bid us farewell with hugs galore. Then it was time to pile into the bus to Invercargill and connections for our homeward journeys. We had shared a unique and extraordinary adventure that would bind us all together.

Several weeks later and I am still thinking about the subantarctic islands. As another passenger wrote to me recently with a link to his video and professional photographs of the cruise, “how can you not think of it.”

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