2017 Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand Field Report

Sara Mulnix|March 31, 2017|Field Report

Thursday - Saturday, January 19 - 21, 2017 - Queenstown, New Zealand / Milford Sound / Embark Caledonian Sky

We gathered at the Millennium Hotel in Queenstown, surrounded by stunning scenery. Some of us enjoyed a walk about town before we all met up for drinks, dinner, and introductions from Expedition Leader, Mike Messick. The following morning, the birders went off in search of black stilts and falcons—and were successful! Another group headed off to explore local vineyards, with lunch included; and a third group boarded buses headed for the Dart River and, ultimately, a jet boat ride! After a day in the clouds, we were lucky to have a beautiful day with a shining sun that only accentuated our gorgeous surroundings.

In the afternoon, several of us rode in the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak. We were rewarded with stunning views of the Remarkables mountain range—as well as a few brave souls who set off to bungee jump, in the very town where bungee jumping was first attempted! We enjoyed dinner on our own in town this evening, before heading off to bed.

After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we were off to Milford Sound. We passed lovely scenery—and countless sheep—before stopping for lunch in Te Anau, the entrance into Fiordland National Park. As we drove through the park after lunch, we took in our stunning surroundings, flush with natural waterfalls and vibrant greenery. We approached the Homer Tunnel, named for the man who suggested a tunnel would provide greater access to the Milford area, and came across a friendly kea. These alpine parrots are exceedingly smart; one will often distract you, while the other nips your snacks or even car keys! Luckily, our group had nothing stolen before setting off again.

We ferried over to the Caledonian Sky and after a safety briefing and time to acquaint ourselves with the ship, we saw our first albatross of the trip—both black-browed and New Zealand white-capped were spotted soaring around us. Mike soon introduced the rest of the staff before our first dinner on board.


Sunday, January 22 - Ulva & Stewart Islands

A cloudy, sprinkly morning greeted us as we arrived at Ulva Island, an established bird sanctuary since 1922. We separated into various walks, led by local guides as well as our trusty expedition staff, and set about searching for local and endemic birds. We saw variable oystercatchers, Stewart Island robins, gray fantails, red and yellow-crowned parakeets, kakas, wekas, and tuis—not to mention our first penguin! As we arrived at the island in Zodiacs, a Fiordland crested penguin awaited us, quietly sitting alone and observing the scene. Just seeing this variety of birdlife would have been enough, but we were treated to the loveliest birdsong all the way through our walk; a perfect morning.

During lunch on board, we repositioned to Stewart Island, home to just 400 inhabitants. Some of us enjoyed a bus tour that included wonderful views of nearby Ulva, as well as beautiful golden beaches, while others hiked all the way out to a lighthouse overlooking the Foveaux Strait. There was free time to walk around town, visit the local pub, or explore the tiny but informative Stewart Island Museum.

In the evening, we were properly welcomed aboard by Captain Mike Taylor, met some of the friendly crew that would be taking care of us, and enjoyed a wonderful meal created by Chef Jörg Lehman.


Monday, January 23 - Dunedin

Our morning began overcast with a bit of rain, though nothing would dampen our spirits! We set off into groups, with one joining the scenic Taieri Gorge train for a ride through the countryside. They began at the historic Dunedin Railway Station before heading inland to the Taieri Gorge with spectacular scenery; and the sun even popped out!

Those of us seeking wildlife split into two groups who would visit the same places throughout the day. First up, Orokonui, an ecosanctuary and home to a variety of once-threatened species. We were greeted with a beautiful rainbow, though the wind would stay with us. We saw an incredible array of beautiful creatures, including tui, bellbirds, kakas, New Zealand wood pigeons (the largest pigeon in the world), rifleman (the smallest bird in New Zealand), and the once thought to be extinct takahe. The afternoon group even saw the tuatara, an ancient reptile.

After lunch onboard, we set off again for Tairoa Head, home to the majestic royal albatross. We listened to a brief introduction to the site, then walked up a steep hill past Otago shags and persistent red-billed gulls, and headed into an observatory where we watched these massive albatross, one of the largest seabirds in the world, nest and attempt to land. While beautiful as they soar, they gave us many laughs when trying to fight the wind and land among their peers. Returning to the ship, we saw a royal spoonbill feeding, along with several stilts, variable oystercatchers, and even black swans milling about.

Back onboard, we were greeted with a talented bagpiper, piping away! He played us on as we cleared through New Zealand’s immigration authorities before cruising down the harbor. As we sailed on, we gathered out on deck, spotting northern royal and New Zealand white-capped albatross, soaring along with us.


Tuesday & Wednesday, January 24 & 25 - At Sea / Campbell Island

Our first day at sea let our lecture series officially begin. After a leisurely morning, social anthropologist Shirley Campbell presented Maori Colonization of New Zealand: A Cultural Conquest of a New Land, and ornithologist Brent Stephenson presented Birds of the Southern Ocean. Lunch for the hearty was on the Lido Deck, where we spotted southern royal and wandering albatross; mottled, pintado, white-chinned, and black-bellied storm petrels; as well as sooty shearwaters. The first of three mandatory biosecurity briefings followed, where we made sure all outer gear was clean as a whistle for our visit to Campbell Island. David Barker presented on The Restoration of Campbell Island, before our first recap, which will likely be remembered for Little John’s brilliant foray into stand-up comedy.

The next day blew us away—figuratively and literally. With gale-force winds, we came into Campbell Island ready for a nice stroll to see some nesting albatross; but the weather had other thoughts in mind. The wind we experienced on this island was unlike anything we had seen before!

The walk was beautiful—megaherbs flowering, trees, and other vegetation galore—the only challenge was keeping our heads up through the wind to see everything! A majority of us made it to the site where a handful of southern royal albatross were nesting, completely unbothered by the wind, and a few were lucky to spot a rare, yellow-eyed penguin with a chick on the way back down the path. We all saw the inquisitive Hooker’s sea lions, who were ready to fight for their right to the path, along with Campbell Island pipits and a Campbell Island shag.

After lunch onboard, the weather was deemed too rocky for a Zodiac cruise, but our captain had a surprise for us; he had discovered the extremely rare erect-crested penguin! This species is typically found only in the Antipodes or the Bounty Islands, so this was an extremely exciting find.

After a few rocky hours onboard, we cancelled dinner so everyone could stay put in their cabins and attempt to batten down the hatches, with room service available for all.


Thursday & Friday, January 26 & 27 - At Sea / Macquarie Island, Australia

After a rough night at sea, some of us were all too ready to stretch our legs at breakfast, held in the lounge. Our lecture series began with marine biologist Rich Pagen’s lecture, Whiskers, Blubber, and General Lounging Around—Seals of the Sub-Antarctic; followed by New Zealand native and historian, Lloyd Esler’s presentation on The Human Settlement of the Sub-Antarctic. After lunch, the weather lightened up and we were able to go out on deck with our naturalists. We saw white-headed, white-chinned, soft-plumaged, and northern giant petrels; gray-headed albatross; and even some Antarctic prions. Since we were heading out of New Zealand and into Australia the following day, it was time for another biosecurity session, before Michael Moore, affectionately referred to as MiMo, and Brent showed us how best to use our smart phones when photographing wildlife, and Brent shared some fantastic images when discussing Penguins: Masters of Ice or Stinky Critters? After recap and a thorough briefing of our next few days on Macquarie Island, we headed for dinner and bed.

After a rough few days, we were handsomely rewarded with two, absolutely stunning days on Macquarie Island. With the sun shining bright, we disembarked half of the ship at a time; our shore party consisted of welcoming king and royal penguins, as well as a few sluggish elephant seals. After a brief introduction to the island by a ranger stationed there, we were off to explore. Down the beach a ways was a friendly colony of king penguins, just as curious about us as we were about them. We sat for a bit, letting them walk up to us to sniff around, crawling over massive amounts of kelp and the resident elephant seals. Circling back, we walked up a boardwalk to see a royal penguin rookery—parents with their chicks, up to a month old, were all desperately holding onto their resting areas, even fighting others off if need be; and the sounds!

After a BBQ lunch on board, we switched groups; those who went out in the morning stayed on board for a presentation by some of the local rangers, and the rest of the ship got to explore. This region only receives around 42 days a year of limited cloud cover and a shining sun; we all felt very fortunate! Once everyone was back on board, we jumped off again for a Zodiac cruise around Lusitania Bay and observed massive colonies of king and rockhopper penguins, as well as Macquarie Island cormorants, northern and southern giant petrels, and the occasional glimpse of light-mantled sooty albatross.


Saturday, January 28 - Macquarie Island

After a peaceful night’s rest, we were ready for another jam-packed day at Macquarie Island. We awoke to clouds and slight rain, but the hearty among us couldn’t be deterred and enjoyed another incredible Zodiac cruise. For nearly two hours, we cruised up and down the coast of the island, observing king, royal, and rockhopper penguin colonies—and the lucky among us even managed to spot a gentoo or two!—light-mantled sooty albatross soaring overhead, and countless giant petrels bobbing in the water. Likely the most amazing sight was that of hundreds of penguins bopping around in the water surrounding the ship; they porpoised and came right up to the base of the Caledonian Sky, we had never seen anything quite like it!

Back onboard for lunch, we soon disembarked again for our tour at the Macquarie Island Station. Researchers led us around in small groups as we checked out their homes and found gentoo penguins, wandering albatross, and one massive decomposing sperm whale. At the end of our walk, we were welcomed into the mess hall for some of the most delicious homemade scones. The island was so beautiful and the rangers so friendly, we simply couldn’t believe we were ending two days on Macquarie Island with sunshine and four extraordinary visits.


Sunday, January 29 - At Sea

Our lecture series continued with another day at sea. After a leisurely breakfast, The Nature Conservancy Director of New Zealand Programming, Michael Looker, presented on various TNC projects throughout the world, and our wonderful chef, Jörg Lehman, taught us all how to make soufflé. Geologist Yvonne Cook shared her talk on The Shakey Isles—Geological History of New Zealand, and we enjoyed lunch onboard. After our final—and quickest yet!—biosecurity cleaning, Lloyd challenged us with a nautical knowledge literary quiz during teatime. Ash Rushton, Project Manager for the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, gave us even more knowledge on the incredible Macquarie Island before recap, briefing, and dinner.


Monday, January 30 - Enderby Island, New Zealand

A slightly overcast morning greeted us as we arrived at Enderby Island. We disembarked into three groups: the long walkers enjoyed a near circumnavigation of the island, the medium walkers headed straight across to the northern side of the island, and the leisurely walkers spent a relaxing morning with Lloyd on land.

Most everyone had incredible wildlife sightings, with Hooker’s sea lions awaiting us on the beach, along with skuas soaring all around. We saw yellow-eyed penguins, bellbirds, Auckland Island shags, pipits, red-crowned parakeets, tomtits, giant petrels—the list goes on! Some of us were able to see a light-mantled sooty albatross chick in its nest, as well as tuis, royal albatross, and New Zealand fur seals. We also took in the stunning vegetation, from rata forests to massive tussocks.

We headed back onboard for Rich’s lecture, Poised to Profit from Pelagic Productivity: Cetaceans of the Southern Ocean, before recap and dinner ended a perfect day on Enderby Island.


Tuesday, January 31 - At Sea / The Snares

With a rough night behind us, we discovered the weather hadn’t much improved; we would be arriving to The Snares later than planned and thus, Brent spoke on Extinctions and Rediscoveries. When we arrived at The Snares shortly thereafter, conditions were not appropriate for a Zodiac cruise; however, our trusty captain slowed the Caledonian Sky down and got us fairly close to the rocks so we could see the incredibly rare Snares crested penguin! There were a few colonies we could see, and gray-headed and Buller’s albatross soared around us, along with common, diving, cape, and pintado pentrels, and hundreds of feeding sooty shearwaters.

After this beautiful respite and lunch, David Barker shared a little about his life on the Auckland Islands, before Lloyd presented on the history of Fiordland. The sun was just starting to shine after recap, and several of us enjoyed a beautiful dinner on the Lido Deck.

Due to the stormy weather earlier, our immigration check-in was in the evening; several of us enjoyed a nightcap before we headed to bed for our last full day onboard.


Wednesday, February 1 - Dusky & Breaksea Sounds, Fiordland National Park

We began our morning with a quick continental breakfast and our last lecture from Shirley on Ta Moko: The Art of Maori Tattoo. Brunch was had by many on the Lido Deck, surrounded by the dense forest and jagged mountains of Fiordland National Park. We soon disembarked in groups for our visit to Astronomer’s Point and a Zodiac cruise.

In 1773, Captain Cook visited the region looking for a brief resting stop. He and his men came across Astronomer’s Point; they stayed for five weeks, living off Manuka, and managed to map out a highly accurate chart of the sound during their stay. We enjoyed a somewhat shorter visit, popping up to observe the totora and rata trees and kidney and crown ferns, surrounded by the sounds of parakeets and tomtits. After fighting off the sandflies, we enjoyed cruising via Zodiacs throughout the sound, spotting Fiordland crested penguins, New Zealand fur seals, spotted and little pied shags, and variable oystercatchers.

We made it back on board for afternoon tea and a group photo, as we cruised through the gorgeous Breaksea Sound; even some dolphins couldn’t resist the show! We bade farewell to the captain and his team before dinner and an excellent photo slideshow from MiMo (with assistance from Brent), and our last night onboard.


Thursday & Friday, February 2 & 3 - Milford Sound / Disembark / Queenstown / USA

We awoke to the sheer cliff faces of Milford Sound, waterfalls tumbling, and gorgeous greenery in every direction. Many of us enjoyed one last leisurely breakfast on the Lido Deck, before last-minute packing beckoned. One more time, we ferried from the Caledonian Sky, waving goodbye to our friends in the crew, as we headed back on a bus ride through Fiordland National Park. We stopped at the Chasm this time, enjoying the swirling water splashing around eroded rocks, before lunch once more at the Kingsgate Hotel Te Anau. We arrived back at the Millennium Hotel Queenstown for one last group dinner, and shared our goodbyes. The next morning we were off; whether it be for homeward-bound flights or new adventures, we would definitely be taking a piece of the spectacular sub-Ants with us. 

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