On our first morning, we awoke close to the Snares, with hopes of a zodiac cruise and Snares Crested Penguins. But 60 knot winds left that idea dead in the water. Instead, we headed onwards toward Auckland Island where a day on Enderby Island beckoned...
Fast foward 24 hours and we awoke to complete calm: the sun was rising, the wind was still, the waters of Ross Harbour were smooth, and everyone was smiling. It was going to be a good day.
Enderby Island is a small island off the north-east coast of the much larger Auckland Island. Since 2001, Enderby has been free of pest animals - a problem in this part of the world, and a hangover from the days of sealing, whaling, and attempted farming. In the 1800s, rabbits, pigs, goats, cattle, rats, cats and mice were all introduced to Auckland Island, including Enderby Island. A pest eradication program led by the NZ Government successfully cleared Enderby Island of all pests, but the larger size of Auckland Island (510km2 ) still poses a logistic challenge.
After a quick breakfast, we eagerly pile into the zodiacs and straight on towards the beach...
...wait, those aren't boulders, they're sea lions! Hooker's Sea Lions! Welcome to Enderby Island!
We line up single file and walk quickly past the sea lions so we could get started on the boardwalk. The overly curious ones have to be stopped by standing in their way; a bag between you and the sea lion is considered the correct technique.
After navigating the sea lions, we set off through rata forest and out on to the fields of Ross' Lily, Bulbinella rossii. I asked a local pipit to pose on one of the flowers to improve my composition.
On the northern coast of Enderby Island we stop at one of the cliffs and watch the oddest albatross in the world, the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, do synchronised display flights above their nests on the cliffs below.
I'd seen Light-mantled Sooty Albatross once before, off Ulladulla NSW in 2009, an incredibly rare bird that far north. I'd put it down as the most graceful albatross at the time, but now I realise, watching them glide over the cliffs, that there is a touch of weirdness about them, something a bit crazy, something a bit prehistoric or alien. Alien graceful. The mantle of most graceful albatross I now reserve for Southern Royal Albatross but in truth it is a different kind of grace, a regal and sophisticated kind (more on them in a later post).
Turning away from the cliffs, we hike through megaherb fields towards the eastern side of the island. Gotta be careful where you walk though, otherwise you might run in to one of these Northern Giant Petrel chicks!
Think they're cute? Think again. Giant Petrels are the ugliest seabirds around, by a country mile. Don't get me wrong, they are awesome birds and I'm quite fond of them. But they are so downright ugly that it is comical. The chicks at this stage are already almost as big as the adults, which themselves are the size of a small albatross. And if you approach the chicks too close, they projectile vomit the stinkiest fluid which is apparently impossible to de-stink. I'm not keen to try.
Below is an adult Northern Giant Petrel on the runway. Because they are the same size and similar shape to one of the smaller albatross, taking off is quite hard work, particularly if there is little or no wind. Because their wings are so long and thin, flapping to generate lift is a) hard and b) not particularly liftful. Instead, they need plenty of wind passing over their wings and this, because of the length of their wings, gives them enough lift to take off. Hence, the running to take off.
On the botanical front, there are a lot of cool things to see too. Megaherbs! They are so cool I'll do a separate post on them at some stage, but I couldn't resist putting in this Campbell Island Carrot, Anisotome latifolia, overlooking the northern coast of Enderby Island.
Picking our way through the maze of megaherbs and cushion plants, we find plenty of Enderby Island Gentians (two species, endemic to the Auckland Islands) and the local sub-antarctic endemic Epilobium confertifolium.
We even find an orchid! In the photo I below I managed to combine the orchid (Prasophyllum colensoi), with the gentian (Gentian cerina or concinna) on top of a very small-leaved Astelia (Astelia subulata) which grows as an alpine plant in New Zealand.
From the cliffs, we head south through tall tussock with another megaherb, the Macquarie Island Cabbage (Stilbocarpa polaris). It seems a bit silly to have the Macquarie Island Cabbage and the Campbell Island Carrot on Enderby Island, why should they be named after a particular island when they also occur on other islands?
Soon after we enter the rata forest (Metrosideros umbellata) and stop for break in a grove full of the cabbage, ferns, lichens...
The rata must have it hard down here. Look how twisted and stunted they are! Whenever I see a twisted tree I think of the hardships and severe weather it must have endured over many seasons. On 'mainland' New Zealand, southern rata forest grow to 15m or more, big tall trees with impressive canopies. Here on Enderby Island, the canopy would not have been much more than 5m. I'm guessing the weather gets pretty wild here at times. We've had it lucky today.
On our way back to the main beach, myself and another photographer test the patience of the Heritage staff at the rear of the group....just one more photo of this parakeet! In general, the staff were pretty good about letting people walk and letting photographers stop and photograph, but as they explained it was part of their permit to operate that they were obliged to have one person at the front of the group and one person at the rear. It would be the photographers dream to just be able to wander wherever and whenever, without having to move on and catch up with the rest of the group. A small price to pay for the privilege of being on a special and utterly remote island.
After linking up with the others who did a shorter walk, a handful of birders struck out again in search of the local teal and snipe. The snipe here is the nominate race of the Subantarctic Snipe, endemic to a handful of sub-Antarctic islands south of New Zealand. They form little 'runs' through the thick grass, kind of like rodents do in Australia.
We also manage cracking views of the Auckland Island Teal, another sub-Antarctic endemic bird. Unlike the snipe, these ducks are completely flightless. Imagine, being completely flightless on an island in the middle of the Southern Ocean! Then again, as I watch these beautiful ducks swimming on a tiny lake on Enderby Island, I think - even if they could fly, where would they fly to? Why bother flying, indeed.
While we are all busy looking at the teal, a Yellow-eyed Penguin quietly slides into the water to check us out. I swing around to photograph, and make a mental note to adjust exposure compensation to take account of the dark water and the brightly lit penguin. I dial in -1 stops on the fly and shoot quickly before the penguin glides back into the grass. Checking my images after it disappears, I curse loudly. I've blown the highlights. The -1 stops should have been -2.5. The bright crest and nape of the penguin has been my undoing.
The dynamic range of the camera allows a small consolation - I'm able to rescue the highlights enough to make it look just OK. Still, I'm pissed off with myself. An incredible moment, and I blew it.
The day is almost over. Tired from the intensity of shooting non-stop all day, I plump myself down at the beach above the sea lions and watch them sleep. They look tired too. A couple of the smaller males square off against each to see who's taller, then collapse back to the beach and doze off again. The females have pups which are only three days old and are incredibly cute. They already have rolls of fat around their neck. The males are waiting for the females; about a week after the pups are born, the females mate again before heading out to sea. The pups from that mating will be born next summer.
We catch the last zodiac back to the boat, and I'm exhausted but elated. Everyone piles into the bar which is chock-a-block full. Everyone has a beer, and a smile, and a story to tell about how amazing Enderby Island is.