I consider myself lucky to have spent five seasons in New Zealand over the past 10 years. Returning to the Sub-Antarctic Islands for two voyages was a highlight of the summer for me with visits to Chatham and Pitt Islands (far to the east of the country) followed by a clockwise swing through New Zealand’s Subs themselves.
We cruised the Bounty Islands — or the “stones” as our Bulgarian Chief Officer appropriately referred them — at sunset. Swarms of albatross hovered over the bare rocky pinnacles on a stiff wind blown through lemon-yellow skies.
The Antipodes Islands offered up some phenomenal Zodiac cruising. The shores were harboring elephant seals, New Zealand fur seals, the odd Sub-Antarctic fur seal, and masses of Rockhopper and Erect-Crested Penguins.
With the Zodiacs we found arms of kelp, free-floating in the blue, to examine up close for minute epiphytic alga and clinging invertebrates.
We also discovered vast caves that swallowed up the boats whole and kindly spit us all back out again.
In at least half a dozen times visiting Campbell Island, only twice have I had the wind and swell and weather conditions align just right. With this trifecta in hand, just days before 2015 drew to a close, we dropped Zodiacs on the impressive and exposed eastern coast of this remote glacially carved island in the midst of the Southern Ocean.
Massive Southern Royal Albatross buzzed the black rubber boats. At first they would approach close to my eye level as I stood at the engine’s tiller with wings horizontal to the water’s surface. Then in the uplifted breeze close to the Zodiac, each bird would flex its stiff wings to flip from a horizontal to a vertical position in the blink of an eye. Rising vertically like a kite above our heads, the ancient feathered mariners at once displayed the full extent of their massive ~3.3 m (11 foot) wingspan.
In the Auckland Island group I got to explore a new landing site, one I had not visited before — the lovely old Hardwicke Settlement site on Auckland Island. People made an attempt to live here beginning in December 1849, when three ships from Britain arrived with the brave would-be colonists. Poor soil, ceaseless rains and thick scrub drove everyone out in 2 years and nine months. Now all that’s left are a few depressions in the rata forest that are likely house foundations and a small cemetery holding the bones of settlers and subsequent castaways.
Deep in the forest of the Hardwicke Settlement site is the Victoria Tree carved in 1865 by crew from the HMCS Victoria who were sent to this desolate spot to search for shipwreck victims. The voyage was a combined effort by the state governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland to try and mitigate some of the loss of life at the time due to wrecks on the Auckland Islands.
Leaving the Sub-Antarctic Islands following two voyages in and around these Southern Ocean “stones,” I lead two more trips around the North and South Island of New Zealand. But the cherry on the cake for the season was the three (unheard of) sunny days, in a row, in Fiordland National Park. Seeing the tops of the peaks here is a treat, not to mention hours of streaming sunlight and blue skies.
A fitting send-off for a season of hard-earned smiles, new friendships and stunning scenery.
Thanks to the expedition team for a great Season 5 and hope to see you all again some day!