There is something reassuring in the effort still required, even today, to visit Antarctica. Yes, day-long scenic flights from New Zealand and Australia have been an option for the well-endowed of pocket for a while, and now equally well-heeled tourists will be able to fly in to Australia’s Casey Station. But this does not get you to the incredible sights, sounds and silences that we had been lucky enough to experience. Only days and days on board a well-provisioned and expertly-navigated ship could do that. But it’s a long schlep even to the Antarctic Circle, and we were delighted to be able to break our journey at some of the sub-Antarctic islands.
Going south and with a good following wind, we reached New Zealand’s Auckland Islands less than 24 hours after leaving Bluff, and Campbell Island the day after. On Auckland Island itself, we landed beside stunning red-flowering rata trees and walked through Tolkien-esque wizened forest to pay our respects to the island’s dead including a 14-week baby, victims of one or other of the numerous shipwrecks in this area. Cruising along the coast to Enderby Island past ancient cliffs and swirls of kelp, we caught sight of rare yellow-eyed
penguins and teal, as well as pied cormorants, gulls, skuas and sea lions.
At Campbell Island a well-constructed board-walk led us carefully past grumpy moulting sea lions and into the hills, to the heart of a post-breeding colony of southern royal albatross. Occasional sooty albatross soared above, keeping their distance from their noisier neighbours. The scenery was reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, with ancient rounded hills, elongated inlets and lakes. But there was something a little bit different, hinting at the area’s remoteness, in its vegetation: parasitic rainforest-esque foliage colonising of tree branches, autumnal colours of the ferns, unusual mega-herbs that sporadically popped up through the grasses.
It was an extraordinary privilege to step into the albatross’ home territory. We were enchanted by their effortless soaring around the ship when we were at sea, but it was even more special to see the young birds practising their mating routines, squabbling over more desirable tussocks, busy in the never-ending task of plumage-maintenance, or simply dozing. There’s a five-metre rule for Antarctic wildlife - or, some experts suggest, a ten-metre rule - to restrict the distance that human visitors can approach the local inhabitants, but there were many occasions when
"You lookin' at me?"
Southern royal albatross on Campbell Island
we found the wildlife breaking this rule. One of the experts found himself having to duck to avoid unintentional attempted decapitation by a young albatross who had quite clearly not seen the human sitting in his take-off path.
On the way north, we stopped overnight at Macquarie Island, and awoke our first morning to a veritable “soup” of king penguins porpoising, fishing and playing around the ship. With the Island’s almost inevitable low-lying cloud creating a mystical other-worldly atmosphere, it was an extraordinary sight - penguins everywhere, on, over and under the surface. At breakfast, everyone was buzzing with excitement at the prospect of a landing after a full week at sea, and a morning in the company of these lively creatures. We had not yet climbed out of the Zodiac before we were being inspected by Sandy Bay’s usual inhabitants. Even the giant petrels, the ugly vultures of this part of the world, gave us a second glance, but the elephant seals were too cross at the itching discomfort of moulting to do more than grunt and belch as they flumped up the beach to their preferred resting place.
A guide explained the limits within which we
could walk, and then we were off on our own. King penguins are very busy and very curious birds. They seemed to be permanently on the move, strutting importantly along the beach, pausing only to stare quizzically at us. With my hood up against the smurr (Macquarie isn’t known for great weather), I could only focus on what was within my blinkered vision, but I could hear the crunch of gravel before each new morning-suited gentleman hove into view. A couple of times, I held my camera above my head to photograph “blind” behind me and, sure enough, I was being approached from all angles, the locals peering myopically at this odd new arrival on their beach. These guys certainly didn’t know the five-metre rule. The breeding area was, of course, out-of-bounds, but we could see shapeless bundles of brown fur nestling amidst the well-dressed adults. Skuas looked on, ever on the alert for the next meal, though I was bemused to see a quartet of them fight over a penguin foot when there didn’t seem to be much there to eat. Further along the beach was a small colony of the Island’s endemic penguin species, the royals. These guys
looked scruffy, all being mid-moult, and certainly didn’t benefit from a comparison to their City-smart neighbours.
Later that day, we visited the Australian base and wandered around the beaches at the north end of the Island. Yet more moulting going on here: the squidgy trip-over-able mounds of fractious male elephant seals lurking among the tussocks improbably far inland, having come ashore here for this express purpose, little orange-booted squabbling gentoo penguins who live on Macquarie all year round, and a few king penguins apparently enjoying a holiday from the noise and bustle of their main colonies further south.
As we set course for Hobart the next day, a few enterprising king penguins came to see us off and we were escorted on our way by a variety of albatross, petrels and skuas, including three royal albatross that remained with the ship for the next twenty-four hours. Wildlife everywhere. A “wonder spot”, in Douglas Mawson’s words, and a great end to an incredible trip.
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