New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands

By Leanne Dunhill

The Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia lie in the Southern Ocean. These remote and desolate stepping stones to Antarctica offer rich biodiversity, breathtaking scenery and fascinating human history. They are home to some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on Earth. Many bird species, invertebrates and plants (including the weird and wonderful mega-herbs) that call this region home, are found nowhere else on Earth. Regular visitors include large numbers of penguin species and roaming seabirds who find sanctuary here to breed and nest. These unique islands have rightly gained World Heritage status and are afforded the highest level of protection from human intervention. Strict management plans allow only a handful of human visitors during the southern summer season and only the most trusted small ship expedition cruise operators are issued permits to take tourists ashore. Some cruises just take in the Sub-Antarctic cruises, while longer voyages include these islands on the way to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

King Penguin Chicks on Macquarie Island

My time visiting the Sub-Antarctic Islands was on the way to & from Antarctica. To be honest the reason for the trip was to go to Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctic Islands in my mind were just a bonus. I really did underestimate what I was about to discover on these beautiful windswept islands. For me, the highlights were seeing the Southern Lights as we headed back north towards Campbell Island, the inquisitive King Penguins on Macquarie Island and the giant Elephant Seals they huddled together on Sandy Bay, Campbell Island and sitting amongst the tussock with the Southern Royal Albatross and hearing them fly effortless above. Their take off and landings aren’t quite as graceful. In addition to the flora and fauna, the old homesteads, the Australia Antarctic Division research station on Macquarie Island gave a great insight in to how humans lived in these very harsh conditions dating from 200 years ago to the current day.

I would highly recommend adding these islands on to your ‘must see’ destinations while long-haul international travel from our home country remains restricted. I would have no hesitation in revisiting these islands. The best time to visit is between November and February. Why not take advantage of your time in New Zealand’s South Island to experience more of your homeland and before commencing your expedition enjoy Southland’s great hospitality.

Here is a quick guide to some of the Sub-Antarctic islands you are likely to visit on a cruise from NZ.

Snares Island – NZSAI World Heritage Area, New Zealand

Amongst the islands of the Southern Ocean, The Snares have the distinction of being the only forested group without introduced mammals, not even mice. Consequently it is a remarkable haven for wildlife. Over two million Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) breed here in the summer months. Four species of Albatross are listed as breeding on the snares, but only two are consistent breeders; the Southern Buller’s Mollymawk (Thalassarche bulleri bulleri) with about 8,700 pairs and approximately 700 pairs of Salvin’s mollymawk (Thalassarche salvini). The Islands are home to the endemic Snares Crested Penguin (Eudyptes robustus) with an estimated population of 35,000. The Island’s mammalian representatives include approximately 1,000 New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) and approximately 500 New Zealand Sea Lions (Phocarctos hookeri).

Whilst landing on The Snares is prohibited due to its pristine nature, guests have the opportunity to explore the coastline in search of the penguins, albatross, seals and sea lions from zodiacs accompanied by expert naturalists.

Auckland Islands – NZSAI World Heritage Area, New Zealand

The Auckland Islands are made up of the remains of two ancient volcanoes which have been subsequently cut by glaciers. The terrain is rugged and mountainous, with steep cliffs on the western and southern sides and deep valleys with long inlets to the east. These are important seabird breeding grounds. It is the strong hold of the rare yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), with a high proportion of the population breeding on Enderby Island.

The Auckland Islands have become the primary breeding location of the New Zealand Sea Lion. Sadly since annual monitoring started in the mid-1990s New Zealand Sea Lions have shown an overall decline of 40% in pup production. Additionally, most of the world’s population of white capped mollymawk (Thalassarche steadi) breed here (some 90–100,000 on Disappointment Island) along with Gibson’s wandering albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) on Adams Island, the Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) and the endemic Auckland shag (Phalacrocorax colensoi).

Enderby Island

You can enjoy a relatively easy walk on Enderby Island along the Northern Cliffs track in search of some of the endemic land birds and the world’s second rarest species of penguin – the yellow eyed (Megadyptes antipodes). There is also a chance to view nesting Southern Royal Albatross (Diomeda epomophora) and New Zealand Sea Lions (Phocarctos hookeri).

Campbell Island – NZSAI World Heritage Area, New Zealand

Campbell Island is the most southerly of the five New Zealand Sub-Antarctic groups. Campbell Island is home to six species of albatross, including black-browed (Thalassarche melanophrys), grey-headed (Thalassarche chrysostoma), light-mantled sooty (Phoebetria palpebrata) and a small population of Gibson’s Wandering albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni). Several critically endangered birds are endemic to the Campbell Island group including the Campbell Island teal (Anas nesiotis) that were reintroduced in 2004 after an absence of many years.

Southern Royal Albatross on Campbell Island

Campbell Island was described by the English botanist Joseph Hooker as having a “flora display second to none outside the tropics.” Campbell Island is known for its megaherbs – herbaceous, perennial wildflowers characterised by their great size, with huge leaves and very colourful flowers, which have developed as an adaptation to the harsh weather conditions on the islands.

Fit and adventurous visitors have the opportunity to undertake a six kilometre hike along the Col Lyell Saddle Boardwalk. This is a 3 hour walk along a narrow wooden boardwalk with a steady incline that is steep in sections. Zodiac expeditions within Perseverance harbour search for the endemic birds, Sea Lions and occasional elephant seals.

Bounty Islands – NZSAI World Heritage Area, New Zealand

The Bounty Islands are a scattering of 20 igneous islets and rocks lying 700 km east-south-east of New Zealand. They were discovered by Captain William Bligh in 1788, just months before the mutiny on the Bounty, and the islands are named after this infamous ship. The largest island of the Bounties is Depot Island (because there used to be a castaway depot on it) which is 800 m long and 88 m at its highest point. The islands themselves are all Nature Reserves.Bounty Islands/Moutere Hauriri Marine Reserve was created in 2014 and the name translates as “angry wind”, a wonderful description of the conditions often found at these remote islands.

The Bounty Islands can be smelt and heard from a sizeable distance, as every available rock that is not regularly swept by the sea is covered in New Zealand fur seals and seabirds, particularly during the summer breeding season. The islands have the world’s largest breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri), with over 20,000 somehow squeezing on amongst the birds. There are around 30,000 breeding pairs each of Salvin’s mollymawks (Thalassarche salvini), erect-crested penguins (Eudyptes sclateri), and fulmar prions (Pachyptila crassirostris), and around 500-600 pairs of the endemic Bounty Island shag (Phalacrocorax ranfurlyi).

Antipodes Islands – NZSAI World Heritage Area, New Zealand

The volcanic islands of the Antipodes Island group lie 860 km to the southeast of New Zealand’s Stewart Island/Rakiura. The group consists of the main Antipodes Island (around 2000 ha), Bollons Island to the north (52 ha), and several other smaller islets and rocks. The highest point on the islands is Mount Galloway (366 m), which is also the group’s most recently active volcano, although an exact eruption date is unknown.

The islands are home to a wide variety of sea and land bird species including the endemic Antipodes snipe (Coenocorypha aucklandica meinertzhagenae) and pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae steindachneri) and two species of parakeet including the Antipodes, or unicolor, parakeet (Cyanoramphus unicolor). This bird is notable for among other things, its habit of eating meat – both scavenging seabird carcasses and even hunting the small grey-backed storm petrel.

The seabirds range from the tiny storm petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) to the Antipodean wandering albatross (Diomedea antipodensis), one of the largest flying birds in the world. Small populations of white-capped (Thalassarche steadi) and black-browed mollymawks (Thalassarche melanophris) breed on Bollons Island. There are also erect-crested (Eudyptes sclateri) and rock hopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) and nine species of burrowing petrel.

The Antipodes Islands are mostly covered by tussock lands interspersed with patches of tall, prickly shield fern and megaherbs in the wetter areas. Low herbs and shorter grasses can be seen particularly where seabirds have opened up areas. Recovering slip scars are covered by distinctive and fragile white lichens. Of the 71 species of plants present on the island only three are introduced species. The lack of browsing mammals contributes to a lush vegetation with natural communities being in excellent condition.

Macquarie Island – World Heritage Area, Australia

Macquarie Island
Macquarie Island Penguins

Long celebrated as one of the wonder spots of the world, the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve lies 1500 km south-southeast of Tasmania, halfway between Australia and Antarctica. Macquarie Island is the only place on earth formed entirely of oceanic crust and rocks formed on or below the seabed. It is because of this outstanding geological feature that it was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997.

It is an island of great beauty and outstanding natural diversity, a breeding place for many of the Southern Ocean’s birds and animals. Around 3.5 million seabirds arrive on Macquarie Island each year to breed and moult. Most of these are penguins. There are four types breeding on Macquarie Island. The Royal penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) are the most numerous with a population estimated at around 850,000. There are over 100,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), 5,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) and anything up to 500,000 breeding pairs of Southern Rock-hopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome).

The light-mantled sooty albatrosses (Phoebetria palpebrata) are the most abundant of the four albatross species breeding at Macquarie Island with an estimated 2,000 breeding pairs. Smaller colonies of the black-browed (Thalassarche melanophrys) and grey-headed (Thalassarche chrysostoma) albatrosses occur with around 100 pairs each. Less than ten pairs of wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) breed annually at Macquarie Island. Less than 800 pairs of Macquarie Island cormorant (Phalacrocorax atriceps purpurascens) breed on Macquarie Island along with great skuas (Stercorarius skua), kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) and Antarctic terns (Sterna vittata).

Three types of fur seals breed on Macquarie Island; the Antarctic (Arctocephalus gazelle), sub-Antarctic (Arctocephalus tropicalis) and New Zealand (Arctocephalus forsteri). The New Zealand fur seal is the most common on the island with over 2,000 individuals. The fourth type of seal breeding at Macquarie Island is the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina). It’s estimated that around one seventh of the world’s population of elephant seal live on Macquarie Island.