The Auckland Islands

The journey to Auckland Island took around 18 hours so during the next morning Chris, Brian and Rodney set the scene for the visit to Auckland. It seems they all worked here together in the seventies and each of them have their own special memories.

As we approached the island group the ship was joined by increasing numbers of seabirds. Perhaps the most spectacular were the Sooty Shearwaters, they gathered in their thousands on the water and occasionally took off en masse (on one occasion right in front of the ship across the entrance to Carnley Harbour - magnificent). There were several Yellow Eyed Penguins in the water and we were able to get reasonable views of a few. However, as we were steaming up Carnley Harbour a particular Yellow Eyed Penguin (spotted in the first place by John) came up beside the ship and performed for us. He swam around in a fairly erratic path, we could see him below the water as he twisted and turned. We were able to see when and where he would next surface. We were particularly impressed by the height he reached while porpoising along. At a rough estimate, based on the ship's speed the penguin was swimming at around 12 knots (15 mph). Certainly, from our limited experience Yellow Eyeds must rate amongst the best swimmers of the penguins.

Once we had dropped anchor we were taken ashore by Zodiac, and went on a short walk up through the forest to the old coast watchers hut and look out point. We saw Bellbirds and Tomtits during the walk, but the highlight was the forest. The sub Antarctic Islands have a unique natural vegetation. Near the beaches there are incredibly tall tussock grasses, they grow to more than 2 metres high so that if you venture inside you can quickly become lost. Further inland the tussocks usually give way to a scrub land of ferns and small bushes interspersed with flowering megaherbs. Above the scrub there is a forest mainly composed of Rata trees which form a gnarled and fairly impenetrable jungle. Unfortunately, much of this natural vegetation has been destroyed by animals introduced accidentally or deliberately by humans. The larger introduced mammals such as pigs, sheep, goats and cattle were particularly destructive. They were introduced either in attempts to start up farming activities or to provide food for castaways. You can see the scars caused by grazing, although the land is now recovering as all these large mammals have been removed. The smaller mammals, rats, mice, cats, mustelids etc. remain a problem on the larger islands (they have been removed from some of the smaller islands and a few remote islands were never contaminated). These small mammals are responsible for keeping down some of the megaherbs which they eat, but the main impact is on the native birds. Rats and cats will take eggs and young chicks from the nesting birds, so that they have been much reduced in numbers and forced to nest in more remote places.

In the evening we both wore Yellow Eyed shirts and once again there were numerous comments on our attire - it seems that guessing what we would wear had become a new game for the other passengers.

The following day we made an early start leaving on the Zodiacs at 08:00 to hike up through the forest and scrub to the top of the cliffs at South West Cape to see the Shy Mollymawk colony. After breakfast, while getting ready to depart, a Yellow Eyed swam past our cabin window as if to say good morning. The weather looked reasonable but a little damp as we set off.

The climb was slow and fairly tiring, especially as some members of the group kept losing touch with those in front and thus getting off the best route. There is no track - we just had to make our way through the undergrowth as best we could. The ascent took about an hour or so altogether and we arrived at the top a little after 10:00 to see the mollymawks flying about above and below us. We spent an hour or so just sitting at the top of the cliff where the birds would fly immediately above our heads and land close by. The size and agility of the birds is quite astonishing. However, they do seem sometimes to have trouble with landing. We watched a particular bird trying to land and greet his partner. He must have made at least a dozen abortive attempts before finally making a successful approach. The mollymawks are able to hover stationarily in the wind above their nests and bring in their wings so that they just stall and drop to the ground. However, if there is too much wind, then they cannot stall. It is particularly interesting to watch how they change the shape of their wings as they come in to land and use their feet as air brakes. It seems they know quite a lot about aerodynamics!

Whilst we were at the top of the cliff we also watched a pair of Light-Mantled Sooty Albatrosses doing a 'synchronised fly'. Apparently this is part of their courting procedure; it was certainly beautiful to watch.

We next went to see a Wandering Albatross sitting on its nest. The bird was quite still and seemed quite unaffected by all the attention the people were paying it. We had our lunch by the Wanderer and then had a rest before starting a slow descent. It was so peaceful and calm just sitting in the tussock grass enjoying the scenery, some of us just dozed off! At the bottom we saw a group of Skuas which I decided to photograph. Once I approached them (keeping a good 5m distance) they decided to come to investigate me so I was able to get some closer shots. Before long seven Skuas had gathered around and other members of the group joined us to take more photographs. The Skuas were very curious and came right up to us. Fred in particular was lucky enough to get one Skua to peck the lens of his video camera. He showed the footage later and it looked very good.

After returning to the ship we cruised around Auckland Island to have a look into one of the Fiords. We anchored in Erebus Cove ready to visit Enderby Island the following morning.

In the morning we decided against taking the optional early (05:30) trip to Hardwicke Settlement, and got up for breakfast at 07:00 in time for an 8:30 departure for Enderby Island. While getting ready we saw a pod of dolphins porpoising from the window of our cabin. We believe they were Hourglass Dolphins.

Once we had landed on Enderby we soon saw several Yellow Eyed Penguins. We took a walk across to the North coast and then walked slowly around the coast back to Sandy Bay where we had started. In all we were on the island from about 08:45 to 19:00. On the walk across the island we saw several Royal Albatrosses sitting on their nests; however these birds did not seem as impressive as those we saw on Campbell Island.

When we reached the coast we soon ran into Yellow Eyed Penguins walking into the bush. The first ones we saw were along the cliff tops, but we also saw several in the scrub inland. When we stopped for lunch we found a nest with one adult and two chicks, the chicks were brown and fluffy and about half full size. We kept a good distance so as not to disturb the birds. However, some of the party took the opportunity to approach close enough to get really good photos and obviously distressed the adult penguin.

We also found another nest with two adult birds but no chicks or eggs. Later, while walking alone Barb and I found another nest with two adults. Further round the coast we came across a group of seven birds on the rocks. These birds turned out to be most approachable and posed for us for about half an hour. Two of the birds were preening each other and then one of them gave an ecstatic display (all captured on video).We later found another group that kept away from us. Later still we were on our own and, among the rocks, found another group of seven penguins that posed for us while we sat and ate the remains of our lunch. In all we took five rolls of film and about an hour and a half of video of Yellow Eyed Penguins.

We noticed how YEP's both move and look like Gentoos. We asked Brian about this and he simply said that there are strong structural differences to distinguish the Megadyptes from the Pygoscelids. I would like to know a bit more detail though.

Once we had completed the circular walk (around 6 km in about eight hours including stops to look at penguins) we stopped on the beach to watch the penguins coming ashore. We could see the birds out at sea looking up to find a clear route inshore and across the sealion infested beach. They are very cautious birds and most did not come ashore during the two hours we waited. We saw eight birds coming ashore and then running and hopping across the beach and the grassy slopes to their nests in the forest.

All in all this was a most excellent day - total YEP count approx 60.


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