23 August 2014

Islands of Friendly Animals (Auckland Islands) 1996

Here are some memories of a yacht trip to the Auckland Islands in 1996 with Jim Wilson on 'Karoro'.

"We had pushed our way through the scrub of the main island of the Auckland Islands for hours.  At last we emerged onto the main ridge with the south wind at our backs and the cliffs dropping down to Lake Speight and Carnley Harbour in front of us.  A loud drawn-out call came down the ridge. We approached cautiously. Three large birds were dancing together, tails fanning, wings half opening, bills crossing and clattering together and heads nodding.  Their calls, uttered from outstretched necks, still haunt me.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross - gamming
     Suddenly one of them ambled forward with its head to one side, and looked at us with a white cresented eye.  It was a massive gentle, bird.  It seemed to be asking us what our intentions were, it even appeared to invite us to dance. We declined and, reassured, it wandered back to its friends, the wind ruffling its soft feathers. We sat quietly for ages, enthralled as they completed their sub-antarctic ritual. Finally they plunged down off the cliff, caught the wind with great outstretched wings, tilted slightly, and caught the updraft which brought them back up past us - our mouths open in admiration.
These were Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, also called Phoebetria  after Phoebe, the goddess of the moon, and  they are often seen together, soaring the southern swells, wing tip to wing tip.
Karoro Sheltering in Waterfall Inlet
     These magnificent birds were among  a number of friendly animals I encountered on a trip to the Auckland Islands in February this year with mountaineering friend Jim Wilson, on his 30 foot yacht "Karoro".  The Aucklands are the same distance from the equator as London.  Differences are the isolation and the presence of less than 3% land mass in this southern latitude compared with more than 60% at the same latitude north.  Plenty of water to build up the waves!
     We found out about the waves not long after leaving the sheltered waters of Port Pegassus at the southern end of Stewart Island.  Then, and on the way home, we were subject to the constant surge of wind and wave.  Here and there were trawlers and squid boats, all necessitating a close watch, especially at night.  We were pleased on the morning of the third day when we sailed into the sheltered waters of Port Ross, or Sarah's Bossum as the harbour was well named by the early sealers and whalers. 
Rata Understory
     Other high points were a landing at Hardwicke, the site of an attempted early settlement, a walk among the Hookers sealions and the land and sea birds about Enderby Island with Bill Day and Simon Mitchell from the 'General Grant' salvage expedition, a day walking about Waterfall Inlet with the brilliant colour of southern Rata flower in flower and a climb to a huge colony of breeding Shy Mollymawks - all mind-blowing stuff.  The final rush through the surging and very narrow Victoria Passage as we made our way out of Carnley Harbour into a southwest sea was made with dry throats and white knuckles.  This was life the way it was meant to be!
     Visitors to the Aucklands are always captivated by the friendly and fearless animals, relics of the days before humans. In such a hard environment it almost seems that survival has forged a bond, an empathy perhaps, between the animals and with humans.  The animals welcomed this new species - man, not knowing they were dealing with the most dangerous species on the planet.
     I'd always wondered how the moa had been wiped out so easily and quickly in New Zealand.  The Polynesians were skilled hunters but only had simple weapons. The moa, I thought, was big and able to run quickly enough to avoid the new predator.  As I drifted off to sleep one night down in the Aucklands I imagined the last moa presenting it

The Fearsome Victoria Passage

self to this other two-legged species - perhaps inviting him to dance - its last dance.
     These  islands and their animals have had a rough passage at the hands of visitors since they were discovered in 1806. Shipwrecks meant the introduction of rats, cats and mice.  Marooned sailors needed animals to survive. So sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and rabbits were released.  The effects were drastic.  On Enderby the rabbits and cattle survived and destroyed much of the coastal vegetation.  Sealers and whalers came and went and there were two attempts at settlement. An attempt to establish a whaling and sealing base in 1848 failed after only a few years, conditions were just too tough.  Sheep farming south on Carnley Harbour also failed.  Elizabeth Farr, a sealer was the first European woman to drown in New Zealand waters when being picked up from a sealing foray on rocks near the entrance to Carnley Harbour.  A Maori colony was establish for a while but they too departed for New Zealand.
Man has certainly been destructive, but in 1934 the Aucklands became a reserve.  They are now administered by the Department of Conservation, which does a remarkable job. On northerly Enderby Island they have exterminated cattle and rabbits.  The island is improving already. Gentians were blooming while we were there and the birds (parakeets, tomtits and pipits) were enjoying a feast of seeds.
     Adams Island in the south is virtually pristine but needs DoC's ongoing protection. The, main, Auckland Island still suffers badly from the ravages of pigs and goats and the magnificent megaherbs are relatively rare.  The megaherbs are large flowering plants - many closely related giant versions of our New Zealand alpine herbs - only down there they are much more colourful.  You can see what's possible on rock stacks or outcrops inaccessible to pigs or goats.
     So how does a once research veterinarian get carried away by a few animals on an isolated group of subantarctic islands?  You might understand better if I told you how two Hookers Sealions warned us we were in danger of going aground!  They did, believe me. We laughed as we saw them survey the narrow gap between the keel and the bottom of the bay and then rise to the surface beside the yacht, twice. We even told one another that they were trying to tell us of the danger. Didn't they know it was dead low tide and we knew what we were doing?  They celebrated as we, red-faced, winched ourselves off the bottom at high tide the next day.
     And again, on the way back to New Zealand. In the small hours of the morning we were heaving and weaving on autohelm in rough sea.  I was on watch and it was time to check on the horizon.  I slid back the hatch and stared up into the dark.  I gasped.  Hanging clearly in the navigation lights, was a huge albatross.  Its great wings overspanned the whole transom. We looked at one another briefly, then with an imperceptible tilt of the wing it glided off into the blackness.