Dusky Sound, New Zealand

The Sub-Antarctic Islands: Evolution, New Zealand Style

Mark Brazil|April 20, 2008|Blog Post

I confess; I am biased. I adore islands, and have called three island groups home: Britain, Japan, and the isolated antipodean archipelago of New Zealand. Remote, far-flung, modern, and bustling are all adjectives that describe the Maori's Aotearoa—land of the long white cloud, aka. New Zealand.

For me, as a naturalist, New Zealand represents a micro-cosmos of what happens to life forms long left in isolation, for here are some of the world's strangest living things. In a unique time warp style "experiment," New Zealand's early splintering away from Gondwana left it without terrestrial mammals. Into that yawning gulf spread reptiles, birds, and insects—dividing the ecological niches between them—leaving New Zealand with birds larger than ostriches, flightless nocturnal foragers (kiwi), and even flightless nocturnal parrots (kakapo), crickets (weta) as big as rodents, webless and croakless frogs, and more species of geckos and skinks than seems reasonably possible for such a small island group. While many of New Zealand's ancient occupants have since become extinct, those remaining are endlessly fascinating.

New Zealand reveals its secrets slowly, often through a veiled mist, as if providing the very fogged lens one's brain needs to grasp the immense timeline involved in the evolution of such extraordinary organisms. I recall my last voyage to New Zealand's offshore islands with that buzzing sense of excitement one feels from exploration. Visiting the Maud Island sanctuary in Cook Strait was an eye-opener and being shown enormous land snails, common gecko, and Cook Strait giant ground weta by the local Department of Conservation staff was such a privilege.

The land birds of New Zealand are an unusual mixture of introduced European species and totally distinctive New Zealand endemics. Away from shore the seabirds are truly awesome. In one day off Kaikoura we logged an amazing 23 species including six species of albatross and eight of shearwater and petrel.

Marine mammals are a big part of what draw naturalists such as myself on deck; while waiting for them to appear, watching seabirds is the ideal distraction. How can one resist the grace of a huge albatross, its wings locked into an endless glide as it careens across the rolling wave tops, or the hurried skyward wheeling of a shearwater? Of course a whale's blow or a dolphin's leap is all it takes to draw our attention from the birds to mammals and persistence at the rail is often rewarded by special sightings—of endemic Hector's dolphins, or perhaps even a sperm whale.

The historical city of Dunedin with its distinctly Scottish heritage, and my home for several years, is a major attraction in itself, and on our voyages it is our departure point from the main islands for the sub-Antarctic treasure trove of Campbell, Enderby, and Snares. As a collective World Heritage Park, these islands are off limits to all but a select handful of groups each year and we are privileged to be counted among them, making our visit to this region an extraordinary opportunity. Along these remote shores are blunt-nosed Hooker's sea lions (endemic to New Zealand) and wide-ranging southern elephant seals. To be able to watch a pair of southern royal albatross courting at their nest, and on the same day see literally thousands of New Zealand black-browed albatross is awesome. And surely there is nothing in the seabird world to match the elegance of a pair of light-mantled sooty albatrosses performing their paired display flight overhead. Tiny Snares Island is staggering—it seems coated with seabirds, as they clamber and soar over it, and burrow into it. A strict sanctuary, we do not land here, but our ship and Zodiacs take us in close to marvel at the thousands of Snares Island penguins in the water, on the rocky slopes and in the tree-daisy forest, while New Zealand fur seals play in the waters offshore.

It's a wrench leaving the sub-Antarctics behind, but with Stewart and Ulva Islands ahead the amazing show goes on! Of all the offshore sanctuaries, Ulva is my favorite. The tree-fern-filled forests are a reminder of primeval New Zealand, complete with a flourishing array of native birds and native soundtrack. Rifleman, yellowhead, bellbird, tui, tomtit, kaka, saddleback, all unique to New Zealand, are found here. At dusk the sight of thousands of shearwaters offshore homing in on their breeding islands makes an indelible impression.

New Zealand's South Island is amazingly varied; dramatic coastal mountains at Kaikoura in the northeast give way to a coastline of rugged capes and sandy beaches backed by undulating hills and lowlands further south. Our voyage culminates in the southwest, enveloping us in the spectacular scenery of Dusky and Doubtful Sounds, in Fiordland National Park, and finally in Milford Sound with its towering cliffs and dramatic mountain peaks draped with the veils of countless waterfalls. Rain or shine the scenery here is, simply, sublime... when it's bright and clear the mountains dominate; during or after a shower, the waterfalls entrance, gushing, spouting, furiously dancing their way down to the sea. There can be no more fitting place to end a voyage around magical New Zealand.

I can hardly wait to return.