Subantarctic Dreaming

On a day not too dissimilar from the one I see outside my office window today, I was bouncing along the chop of the Subantarctic ocean on a wee black zodiac.  Fog blanketed the horizon, drizzle soaked my face, I had so many layers of clothes on I could hardly move. The knarly edges of the Snares Islands poked out from the ocean, piercing the fog, and I wondered to myself ‘is this a dream?’. 

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Broughton Island, Snares

We zoomed along the surface of the open ocean, past Broughton Island to North East Island. With the wind blowing through our salty hair, we circumnavigated North East Island – a feat never achieved before with Heritage Expeditions. Below us were New Zealand Fur Seals and Hooker’s Sea Lions, above us were Cape Petrels, Antarctic Terns, Grey-Headed and Northern Royal Albatross.  On a rocky slope in front of us were thousands of Snares Crested Penguins, staring right back at us. If I wasn’t so cold, I would have been certain this was a dream, because my entire life I had wanted to be in this moment – a moment I thought would never come. I was at sea level but I felt on top of the world.

As I stare out my office window, the rain runs down the glass and in the distance I see a familiar figure.  A beautiful big blue and white vessel – the Spirit of Enderby – berthed just a couple of hundred metres from my harbourside office.  I can’t help but fade into a daydream…

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Spirit Of Enderby

… Yellow-Eyed Penguins look suspiciously out from behind bright green Hebe bushes.  A Northern Giant Petrel scurries along the sand, dodging snoring Sea Lions, wings outstretched to prevent it from toppling over.  The piercing colour of the Megaherbs stands out amongst the mist, as does the watchful stare of a bull Sea Lion not too impressed with our company. 

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Suspicious Sea Lion

Enderby Island, part of the Auckland Islands group, did not disappoint. As we hiked the coast of the small island, spectacular scenery greeted us at every turn – from the spooky rata forests to the sheer grey cliffs, from the tussock fields to sandy beaches, from rock crevasses to fields of wildflowers.  Feet sodden, knees scratched and legs aching, after seven hours on the move we made it back to Sandy Bay. Desperate to stay ashore a little while longer, I sat, I watched and I waited for everyone to reboard before it was my turn. As I sat, still unsure if I was actually living out this moment, a walking-bus of eight Yellow-Eyed Penguins, the world’s rarest Penguins, shuffled their way down the grassy hill and onto the beach.  As they made their way to the ocean they scurried past numerous sleeping Sea Lions, trying not to wake them. But the misplaced step of a penguin saw it hit the sand, wake a Sea Lion and as a result, a hilarious scurry ensued. The penguin was frantically trying to get back on its feet and regain composure, but eventually giving up that idea he tummy-shuffled all the way to the waves. It was absolutely magical. I might have even shed a little tear.  

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Yellow-Eyed Penguin walking-bus

That night as we sat down for dinner, out the portholes we could see Auckland Island come into view.  We arrived in Carnley Harbour as the sky darkened, and with the excitement of children in a lolly shop, we all frantically threw on our warm clothes and piled onto the zodiacs to get a view of Rockhopper Penguins and intriguing rock formations.  That night I didn’t dream, because my reality was better than any dream.  

The next morning the fog sat low across the hilltops of Tagua Bay.  That morning we walked. Past tiny orchids, huge trees, decrepit WWI era buildings, and a 360° view that took my breath away.  That evening, the true Subantarctic weather reared its incredible head – horizontal rain, large crashing waves, ominous skies and gale-force winds.  Most incredibly though was the majority of crew and passengers had congregated in the bridge, huddled and peering through the rain at millions of Sooty Shearwaters on the wing silhouetted against the sky.  

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Sooty Shearwaters in Carnley Harbour

I am startled from my daydream as a large black-backed gull soars close past the window of my office.  It reminds me of the day we arrived at Macquarie Island and the Black-Browed Albatross that circled the boat. 

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Black-Browed Albatross at Macquarie Island

The Black-Browed wasn’t the only one interested in us. As we all looked down in excitement, King and Royal Penguins poked their heads above the water looking back at us with bemusement.  On the shoreline, thousands of little tuxedoed men and women stood greeting us with their slightly-off-tune honks. “Stay at least five metres from all wildlife” the crew warned before we landed on the island affectionately known as ‘Maca’.  I don’t think anyone informed the wildlife there were rules – at one point I had a moulting weaner Elephant Seal curl up and go to sleep on my gumboot, at another point a King Penguin tried to peck at my nose, and a Royal Penguin stopped to ask me about my camera.  I spent hours sitting on the beach watching young male Elephant Seals squabble, weaner pups burp and snore in the most delicate of fashions (not), King Penguins walking about in clique groups, and Royal Penguins protecting their babies. As the wind picked up moulted penguin feathers floated up and then down like snow.  This had to be a dream.  No, this was better than a dream.  This was heaven. Although, a pretty smelly, loud heaven indeed.  

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Southern Elephant Seal & King Penguins at Macquarie Island

But my days were numbered – we had just one more island to visit.  One more absolutely incredible island – that of Campbell. The sea was calm, so with a little bit of optimism, we set out in our little zodiacs to find a massive colony of Grey-Headed and Campbell Albatross.  The weather stayed calm and when we eventually arrived thousands of Albatross painted the cliff-side white, and thousands more greyed the skies.

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Grey-Headed and Campbell Island Albatross Colony

After lunch, in the hot sun, I strolled up the Col Lyall Saddle, a little Campbell Island Pipit leading the way.  I couldn’t help but admire the vibrant Megaherbs, the view of the Spirit of Enderby anchored in Perseverance Harbour and the airy silence. The silence was broken by my own gasp. A huge Southern Royal Albatross was sitting right next to the path, less than two metres from myself.  We looked at each other for the longest time, I apologised under my breath and carried on to the top.  I sat amongst the wildflowers, admiring the most spectacular view I had ever set my eyes upon, with Southern Royal Albatross flying off into the distance.  A tear rolled down my cheek. My heart was content.  

A tear rolls down my cheek because I wish I were back aboard that magnificent vessel.

Subants

“I have seen nothing to surpass, or even equal, the grandeur, the savage majesty of its grim storm-beaten sea walls; standing up bold and defiant, sullenly challenging old ocean to a trial of strength” – Henry Armstrong 1868.

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