Auckland Islands: November 2002 - January 2003 Home
Andy on giant rata
Andy ringing Royal Albatross
Xmas dinner- Bruce, Louise
Sunrise from Sandy Bay
Tracks in the sand
Yellow eyed penguins
Snowy the white penguin
Yellow eyed penguin conference
Bidi-bidi near South East Point
(Acaena minor antarctica)
View to Auckland Island
Gentiana cerina on the north western cliffs
Southern rata forest below Dees Head, Auckland Island
(showing leaf colour)
Looking towards Enderby from Dees Head
Rata bushes in the middle of Enderby Island
Regenerating rata (and rata skeletons from land clearance in the late nineteenth century)
Huge rata trunk (est. 650 years old)
Skua pair dismembering remains of sealion autopsy
Snaggle tooth bull sealion
Wally at the South East Point harem
Elephant seal and emergency shelter on Dundas Island
Several years after first wanting to go down to the sub Antarctic with DoC (the Dept. of Conservation), finally, in November 2002 my dream became reality, and is partly to blame for the lateness of this newsletter!
The Auckland Islands are New Zealand's largest sub Antarctic archipelago, comprising of Auckland Island (the largest in the group), Adams Island (the second largest), and a number of smaller islands including Enderby Island, where we were based.
The islands are volcanic- the two larger islands made from the eroded remains of two shield volcanoes, glaciated scenery looking very like the west coast of Scotland. Enderby was formed from a basalt lava flow, and is flat, with nice beaches on the sheltered side, and is about 6km long and 2km wide.
The islands were discovered in 1806, and there quickly followed the usual heavy exploitation, initially by sealers and whalers. By 1830 not one fur seal was to be found (the population is now small but slowly recovering, and made of very shy seals, compared to the trusting nature of the sealions, who weren't heavily exploited). A settlement was started on Auckland Island in 1850 (the Hardwicke settlement), to trade with whalers, but by then the whales had gone and the soggy peat soils and cold weather made agriculture virtually impossible, so it collapsed after three years, but it left a legacy of wild cats, pigs and goats on the island.
Farming was attempted from 1874 on Enderby Island, which had a better climate than the main island, and this continued till 1934, when the whole Auckland group was gazetted as a reserve. Sheep died out on Enderby, but a few cattle survived, and rabbits bred in large numbers, keeping much of the island as short turf.
About 10 years ago, DoC removed the cattle, and poisoned the rabbits (and incidentally cleared the island of mice), since which time the island's flora has started to rebound. DoC is also planning to get rid of the pigs and cats on the main island soon, which will be a fantastic bit of ecological restoration - the main island is a bit of an ecological desert, with most of the wildlife on Enderby, and the still pristine Adams Island.
DoC also runs a sea lion project, monitoring the population of New Zealand sea lion, the rarest of the world's sea lion species. This is where I come in - they needed someone for the first part of summer who could autopsy sea lion pups, in order to monitor causes of death. I was also helping with counts of adults, and re-sights of tagged animals, which gives an indication of basic ecology including movement, lifespan, and breeding biology of the animals. I was also helping with a trial of ivomec (a wormer) to kill hookworm in pups, to find out how much this reduced mortality (a lot, apparently), and bits and pieces like putting leg rings on Royal Albatrosses (my favourite job!).
I met my co-castaways in Invercargill. Wally, a DoC worker who had been on the expedition for seven years in a row, was the person who kept the expedition running from day to day. Louise and Bruce came from Canterbury University, and were doing behaviour studies on the sea lions. After a couple of days preparation and food shopping in Invercargill, we boarded the 'Marine Countess', a boat that was less a countess than an old bag lady, for the journey south. With sea-sick pills, I just managed to avoid serious nausea in the huge swells, but I can't say I enjoyed the 30 hour journey, except for the amazing seabird life to be seen from the window.
Our home for the next seven weeks was to be a hut a few yards from the beach at Sandy Bay ( the 'Aucklands Riviera'). The drizzly day set the tone for nearly all our time there - we had no 24 hour period without some rain, and only one sunny week! Temperatures generally hovered around 11 to 13 centigrade during the day, often very windy (even more so than Wellington!), but luckily with heavy rain confined to the hours of darkness in most cases. Apparently it was the worst weather Wally had experienced in seven years down there!
The wildlife made up for the excess of weather though. It was just like living in a wildlife documentary, and a big-screen wildlife soap opera unfolded out through the hut window. Sea lion numbers on the beach rose from a smattering of beach-master males and sub-adult males (SAMs) to a full breeding colony including a huge harem of about 400 females with pups. Daily happenings in 'Sealionation St' included rape, child sex abuse, child murder, cannibalism (a behaviour the BBC came to film for 'Life of Mammals' but failed), homosexuality, fights (these reminded me of brawls in Scottish pubs), births, deaths, abductions, adoptions, sexual harassment, and of course, lots of sex.
Away from the beach, albatross soared like sailplanes across the landscape, and spectacular herbs dotted the landscape with a riot of yellows, pinks and whites. Penguins would run the gauntlet of sea lions on the beach to reach their nests in the rata forest- a Tolkienesque forest of incredibly gnarly ancient trees dripping with mosses, ferns, and lush endemic nettles. Bellbirds filled the forest with an incredible chorus, especially where the rata was in flower, and snipe would run from under your feet. I could go on waxing lyrical, but eventually you'd get bored of reading it- you get the picture!
Accommodation was comfortable enough, with a diesel range to keep it warm, and supply lots of hot water for showers, and we all took turns to cook. Christmas was a normal working day, apart from a boozy 'Xmas dinner' with our $5 presents to each other ( I liked my plastic reindeer that pooed jellybeans best!). Entering data into the laptops filled most of the evening, and it was an effort to stay up till dusk, which didn't arrive till after 11pm (with dawn at 5am).
Early in the expedition, I had little work, and plenty of time for photography. Later on , with pups being born and dying, I had autopsies to do- up to 7 or 8 a day sometimes ( which got tedious- 3 or 4 was as much as I could do with any enthusiasm). Early deaths were mainly trauma - pups being squashed by fighting males, but later on a joint infection/ meningitis disease was the commonest cause of death (this was a disease first identified only the previous year). After the autopsies, I'd feed the 'clean up squad' of skuas and giant petrels (or nellys). They'd gather as soon as I put the white overalls on, and initially I had to beat them off with a cane, but they soon learnt to wait for dinner. One I called 'Eric' (probably a female) would stand by my feet keeping the other skuas at a distance, for which service I rewarded with choice bits of carcass.
After seven weeks, I was glad to return to the mainland - I'd had a fantastic experience, but I was certainly missing home, partners, (sex!), cities.
I've been asked to go back next November - I wouldn't miss the chance to go back for the world!
Here's some more information on the Auckland Islands