Lying between New Zealand and Antarctica, a series of rugged and remote islands sit like silent sentinels in the harshest seas on Earth, those of the Great Southern Ocean. People gave up trying to live on them long ago and eventually surrendered the islands to their animal counterparts, who had evolved over centuries to survive on them.
Accessible only by large ship or icebreaker, New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands are now governed by the Hooker’s sea lion. In this realm of fragile beauty, it is these weighty pinnipeds (fin-footed mammals) which determine how any human activity takes place, not the other way around. Weighing up to 450kg, Hooker’s sea lions are entirely capable of climbing mountains, scaling rocks and blubbering their way across the most difficult terrain.
On all these islands, a Hooker’s will be there to either keep an eye on what you are doing, make sure you don’t wander off the path or to occasionally bark at you if you step into their territory. They are truly the kings of some of the most remote and beautiful islands in the world.
Aptly-named for their stunning geography, and a chain of rocks that acts as a barrier to ships making passage from Australia to South America’s Cape Horn, the Snares lie in the formidable and constant westerlies that characterise the Southern Ocean.
I arrived at the Snares on board the Russian icebreaker, Professor Khromov, after a day at sea from Dunedin. Peering through the rain-spotted windows of the wheelhouse, I saw a series of sharp and craggy islets. Shortly afterwards, the instruction came over the loudspeaker that we were going to motor ashore. Rubber inflatable Naiad dinghies were pulled up alongside and, after donning suitable wet weather and camera gear, I scaled down the ladder and stepped aboard with a group of people to explore the rugged Snares coastline, which is pockmarked with caves, grottoes and features gigantic strands of bull kelp.
It is virtually impossible to physically land on the Snares. Over one million pairs of sooty shearwaters use the islands as a key breeding ground and the few researchers who work here have to navigate their way over paths that span intricate labyrinths of shearwater or muttonbird burrows. Footing is precarious. An untested step could see you standing knee-deep in a collapsed muttonbird burrow, with a very nasty occupant keen to use its razor-sharp bill as an eviction tool!
As we reached the shoreline of Ho Ho Bay, the weather miraculously cleared and hundreds of cape petrels that had been resting on the ocean took flight. On the coast, thousands of Snares crested penguins materialised from the ocean and alighted on rock platforms to begin their slippery climb uphill to their nesting sites, high up under the olearyi or tree daisies.
Suddenly, we watched the penguins scatter from their bundled groups on the shore. A large Hooker’s sea lion had alighted and sent them running. As we motored around the other side of the seal, we saw a massive scar on its back, a remnant from what was probably a tussle with a great white shark. In the instant we caught his attention, he swung his head around and barked at us. His response forced us to slip away; the surrounding wildlife doing likewise.
As we left the lee of Ho Ho Bay and headed back to the ship, the wind whipped up spray that added to the almost freezing temperatures and stung our faces. It was a sharp contrast to the pretty, sheltered coastline full of penguins and terns that we’d just left.
After a rough day and two nights at sea, the Khromov anchored up at Port Ross on the Auckland Islands, just offshore from Enderby. It was here that guides briefed us on the antics of the Hooker’s sea lions prior to going ashore.
“Now the Hooker’s sea lions on Enderby think that tourists are one big game,” explained Aaron Russ, our guide from Heritage Expeditions. “If you run, they’ll run faster, so the best thing to do is turn around and face them; call their bluff.”
‘Yeah, right,’ I thought to myself. ‘I think I’ll take my tripod just in case.’
“Oh, and if you think you can get away by running uphill, Hooker’s sea lions can climb mountains,” continued Aaron. I giggled at the thought of giant lumps of lard clambering up rocks.
Landing on Enderby, tiny flightless Auckland Island teal ducks gently picked their way through the kelp in the spot beside us. From where we landed, it was a short hop over rocks to the beach. Instantaneously, we were greeted by our first Hooker’s. I heard him before I saw him.
Before I even had a chance to round the corner, a series of blood-curdling gargles preceded a large bark and I was instantly confronted by a large, open mouth. I recoiled suddenly, faced him then backed off slightly without turning away. He was the momentary victor as I edged around the cliffs and scrambled up to a grassy platform to keep out of his range. At the top, a brown skua, one of Antarctica’s most ferocious hunting birds, roosted in a bed of daisies, no doubt chuckling to itself about the crazy antics of tourists being scared off by his Hooker’s friend.
On other islands around the world, animals have become scared of humans. Paradoxically, the opposite is true for Enderby. The animals see so few humans each year that they are naturally curious of visitors and will approach without hesitation.
Once we had all gathered on the beach, we took off in a large group up to the crown of the island, walking an established path through windswept rata trees, past nesting royal albatrosses to the other side of the island, where the wind almost blew us off our feet. Approaching steep and rocky coastal cliffs, we dropped to our knees then crawled on our stomachs up to the edges of the cliffs to see nesting light-mantled sooty albatrosses on the rock ledges below us.
It was at this point that members of the group who only wanted to do a short walk were given the option of returning to the beach. I decided to do the longer walk.
HUNG, DRAWN AND SKUA’D
The wind determined the weather patterns for the rest of the day. Isolated storm fronts would appear as fast as they would go, casting dramatic skies against the rugged sea cliffs. The path meandered its way around many rock platforms fringed with long strands of Antarctic kelp, boulder-strewn beaches, grassy knolls and small gullies.
We eventually chanced upon a patch of grass on the coast where we could sit and snack on our packed lunches. As we sat there, a couple of yellow-eyed penguins leapt out of the nearby sea and plopped themselves down near our feet to watch. Nearby, a couple of red-crowned parakeets nibbled on grass. Completely distracted by hunger and scenery, we failed to notice a brown skua that had sidled over to investigate what was in our packs. “Oi!” I yelled as I grabbed my camera. “That’s not for you!”
As I approached, the skua decided it didn’t like camera surveillance and took flight directly at me. I had, quite literally, been ‘skua’d’ on Enderby!
Continuing on the path around the coast, more sea lions graced the beaches, along with giant petrels. At one point we stopped while endangered Auckland Island shags collected nesting material around our feet. They would get a bill-full of the stuff and look up at us to almost thank us, before flying off with their grassy loot.
The beaches on Enderby were as beautiful as any I’d seen on the Great Barrier Reef, just with a 30-degree temperature difference. Glass-clear waters teeming with life crashed against white sandy beaches littered with water-smoothed stones.
On the last stretch we had to scramble through coastal heath to get back to the Naiads. The track narrowed and became unclear and suddenly I came across a Hooker’s lying in the path. I gasped in shock, wondering what to do next. If I went left he’d run me off the cliff, so I ran to the right and found myself in the middle of a nesting yellow eyed penguin colony.
Thankfully, the shrubbery was too difficult for the Hooker’s to cross and I was safe. Approaching the final beach, another Hooker’s thought it would be fun to terrorise returning members of the group by chasing them up the dunes. At least here we only had to cross a barren moonscape to get past him.
Auckland Islands are a renowned fishing territory for the New Zealand scampi fleet. Before we departed the islands, we joined them for a night in the sheltered anchorage of Carnley Harbour. Even here, two Hooker’s sea lions accompanied Aaron in the Naiad as he went to negotiate with the fishermen for some fresh scampi for dinner. Feasting on fresh scampi that has grown in the abundant Southern Ocean is like eating oversized prawns, with an injection of extra flavour. It was an idyllic meal to accompany our departure towards the Campbell Island group.
The final stop on our Sub-Antarctic sojourn was the mammoth-sized Campbell Island group. Initially set up as a sealing colony, the Campbell Islands were discovered in 1810 by Captain Frederick Hasselburgh aboard the sealing brig, Perseverance. He named the islands Campbell after his Sydney-based employer, Campbell and Co.
As with many start-up industries on these islands, sealing was a relatively short-lived source of income and it concluded in 1830. Whalers also operated on the island sporadically, but the last operation lasted only seven years and shut down in 1916.
Now Perseverance Harbour provides visiting vessels with some of the best shelter from the prevailing westerlies of the Southern Ocean. Although Force 8 to 9 winds regularly hit the harbour, the perilous wind-blown effects of other islands like Macquarie are pleasantly absent.
Since 1954, the islands have been declared a national park and they are now home to some of the rarest plants and animals in the world. A large colony of royal albatrosses breeds here and on one of the walks in the valley near Mount Lyall it is possible to sit and commune with these gigantic birds as they sit on their nests. Occasionally, one will stand up and lope its way up to the ‘runway’ – a rocky pass blasted by winds. There they spread their wings and are simply uplifted to grace the skies like giant gliders.
In 1992, a meteorological employee at Campbell, Mike Frazer, gained the more dubious award of being the world’s southernmost shark attack victim. On one of his days off, he decided to go snorkelling with some friends and a couple of the local Hooker’s sea lions. I’m sure the last thing he thought about while snorkelling on Campbell, which sits around 700km south of New Zealand, would be a shark attack, but as he snorkelled in Middle Bay a large great white smashed into his side, shortly returning to take off his arm.
His companions quickly rallied to his aid and saved him by administering first aid tourniquets to curb the bleeding. A military helicopter was dispatched from New Zealand to make the 2000km round trip to the islands to rescue him. Miraculously, he survived – and the people who came to his assistance were all awarded bravery medals.
In the same harbour, the Professor Khromov anchored up near the scientific research station, the only semi-inhabited buildings left on Campbell. The wharf at the station has its own resident Hooker’s, which barks at incoming people to let them know who’s boss. I met this guy and caught a whiff of his breath on the breeze, which, I have to say, left a bit to be desired. After that, I decided the best way to greet a Hooker’s was to check the wind first!
On our last foray around Perseverance Harbour, we cruised the shores by Naiad looking for wildlife and remnants of the old whaling station. As usual, a Hooker’s joined us for the entire journey. He would check on us occasionally, surfacing at the back near the outboard. I think he was checking we weren’t getting too close to his gull, tern and cormorant mates to photograph them. He was like our own personal escort.
Leaving Perseverance Harbour on the final leg of our journey back to New Zealand, we cruised by Erebus Point, where close to 50,000 Campbell Island albatrosses call the cliff-tops home. We began to burley and were suddenly joined by close to a thousand albatrosses behind the boat.
Other animals joined the fray and penguins could be seen springing out of the wake of the Khromov, while light-mantled sooty albatrosses performed courtship displays overhead.
Two days later, we entered the Port of Bluff, Invercargill. Tired, exhilarated and somewhat fitter from ‘legging it’ to escape the sea lions, the blustery island hop around New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands had left us wide-eyed and longing to return. Try as they might, the Hooker’s sea lions certainly hadn’t dampened our enthusiasm for these remote, majestic isles.