It’s not often that the partners of Zegrahm Expeditions visit a place where none of us have ever been. So when the Clipper Odyssey pulled into the Chatham Islands, our final destination on the inaugural Wild Edge of the Pacific trip, the excitement was palpable.
The previous evening, while sailing in from Gisborne (on the “mainland,” as the Chatham Islanders prefer to call the North Island), had given the birders a taste of what lay in store when we’d encountered a single magenta petrel. The sighting of this almost mythical species, one of two critically endangered seabirds restricted to the Chatham group, occurred at the end of an entire day’s sea-watching from the deck… and in the middle of a staff meeting! We emerged to find a small posse of hardened birders, their expressions a mixture of delight and apology.
First settled in the 16th century by Moriori people, a peace-loving offshoot of the Polynesians, the islands subsequently saw the arrival of Maori and European settlers, who altered the landscape and brought with them a suite of domestic animals. The fauna and flora of the Chathams, once rich in endemic species, was forever changed: by the end of the 1800s no fewer than 21 species of birds, a full third of the original total, had become extinct. Equally stirring is the story of how New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has turned the tide for the islands’ survivors, with captive breeding and predator control programs saving such famous birds as the Chatham Island black robin and shore plover from extinction.
Chatham Islanders consider themselves separate from the rest of New Zealand, as evidenced by the fact that they have their own unique “time zone,” 45 minutes ahead of Auckland, and refer to themselves as “Wekas,” as opposed to their “Kiwi” mainland counterparts. The majority of the once forested islands have been converted into sheep farms, though the distance from market and downturn in the wool and mutton industry has meant that the bulk of the 700 or so residents are now involved in the more lucrative crayfish and abalone industry. One particularly memorable encounter reflected this newfound affluence: four fishermen, seated on their shiny Harley Davidsons outside the hotel pub on our final evening, explained that their club had 30 members who, bored of the island’s few dirt tracks, would occasionally fly their motorcycles back to the mainland for more extensive road trips.
Exploration of the offshore islands of the Chathams, many of them strictly protected nature reserves, revealed such land bird rarities as Chatham Island oystercatcher, shore plover, Pitt Island shag, Forbes’ parakeet, and Chatham Island pigeon, all of which survive with a total world population of under 1,000 individuals, The standout seabird highlight was cruising around the majestic cone of Pyramid Rock, a birder’s Mecca and home to the entire global population of the spectacular Chatham Island albatross.