25/12/15 Christmas Day, Port Ross, Enderby Island (Auckland Island group)
Calm, finally calm. Port Ross is in the southern lee of Enderby Island, cupped by the northern edge of Auckland Is. After a rough overnight crossing from The Snares we’re rewarded with this vista of Enderby Island’s steep columnar basalt cliffs, swept with cloud and westerly breeze. Went out on deck first thing this morning to get my bearings. This island is the most northerly of the out-lying ridges of the shield volcano which created the Auckland Island group. Port Ross is a sheltered harbor, I can see the beaches of Sandy Bay to the north and Auckland Island’s hills to the south. After breakfast it’s our first landing briefing of the trip – what we’ll be doing, where we’ll go and what protocols we need to follow. Today there’s a couple of options – once we pass through ‘Penguin Alley’ we’ll cross the island on a boardwalk, then there’s the options of a 12km hike round the northern half of the island or go back down the boardwalk. Will see how the first stage goes!
Enderby Island is World Heritage listed and pest free, which means strict quarantine. To ensure no seeds, soil or other hitchhikers get to land we have to clean and vacuum all the kit we’ll be taking on shore – especially anything Velcro, which can hold seeds tightly. Boot wash station is set up on the 400 level deck, scrub gumboots and hiking poles before and after landing. The galley team are flat out preparing Christmas dinner so it’s a packed lunch to take with us, and not a scrap, seed or rind is to be left on shore. The briefing included how to deal with wildlife. Even from the deck I can see the landing site is crowded with sea lions. We’re only allowed on the beach to get in and out of the zodiacs, no wandering through the colony. Sea lion protocol is similar to unfamiliar dogs: no eye contact, no engagement, keep walking and don’t run! As for Penguin Alley, it’s a grass sward between two creeks that Yellow Eyed penguins use to access the beach. We have to cross it but must keep moving until we’re clear. They spook easily.
We load into the zodiacs at 9.30 and head for shore. It’s my first up close encounter with Hooker’s sea lions, and they’re impressive. Big dark bulls and honey coloured cows with dripping eyes, tiny pups which I didn’t see at first, snugged into mum’s flippers. At the top of the beach we gather at a cluster of small huts inhabited by a research team studying the island’s wildlife. A large sub adult sea lion is fearlessly galumphing around, checking us out.
Once all the expeditioners are landed we quick-march across Penguin Alley and head for the boardwalk, a 2km strip of treated pine dissecting the island south to north. At the edge of the rata forest is a small family of sea lions – tiny pup, feeding mother and very protective bull. The expedition leader Rodney Russ keeps us moving past. Rata entangles down to lush ferns and dracophyllum trunks covered in lichens and black mould. This patch of forest quickly passes into low shrubs of Hebe elliptica, then we’re out on to heathland. We have to keep moving at this point, and get across the island to the north side.
Terminating in a seat and viewing platform, the boardwalk reaches the northern cliffs which drop down to swelling ocean and kelp covered rock platforms. Light Mantled Sooty albatross nest on the cliff faces, and we walk through peaty heath amongst megaherbs to reach a low shelf where we might be able to see a nest. A pair dart through the air, swooping and calling. Tui tells me they’re courting. Must be the season for it, as I think of the albatross we saw displaying at The Snares. Different species, of course. I’m already at sea as to the numerous albatross we’ve encountered.
Decision time. Do I join the long walk around the northern tip spiced, we are told, with ‘man- eating tussocks’? A combination of MS vertigo and sea-legs is making walking through spongy peat in gumboots more than challenging, and there’s no boardwalks from here. I opt for the shorter distance, but with more time to explore.
Gusts of sweet wind blow across the herb field. Of all the places on earth I thought to smell nectar, the Subantarctic wasn’t one of them. Blooming profusions of enormous Anisotome latifolia scent the air, giant clusters of scented colour related to, of all things, the carrot. Bulbinella rossii, Ross’s Lily, spikes golden and green through the heath, fat brown seed pods already forming. A young male sea lion is up here too, likely taking a breather from the constant competition for space and mates at Sandy Bay.
The heath, or fellfield, is one of the most diverse environments in the Subantarctic. Blooming megaherbs grow thick on the northern headlands, through the centre of the island swathes of cushions plants, gentians, mosses and tussock grass layer the peat. Multiple species thriving and vying for space in a vibrant ecosystem. In the distance Southern Royal albatross glide, haunting cries reverberating and old bones littering the moss. Sailors used to make pipe stems from the long hollow wing bones.
Some of the group who also chose the boardwalk are ahead of me and signal a quiet stop. There’s a pair of Yellow Eyed penguins emerging from the scrub. We quietly, apart from the constant clicking of cameras, observe them. I keep moving and meet up with another group watching a Bellbird. Green and like most birds heard before seen, she flits amongst the scrub.
Entering the rata forest again there’s time to appreciate the twisting trunks and thick ferns. A small creek flows down a deep gully, leading to Penguin Alley. And there he is again, the protective bull and his family. What were the rules again? There’s no-one nearby to ask! Got growled at but made it past in one piece.
So many sea lions. Enderby is one of their few breeding strongholds, and looking at the beach today you wouldn’t think the population is under threat (it is.) The hills above the beach are covered in dense green tussocks big enough to hold a chunky young male or three. I follow Tui along the grassy hills up to steep sand dunes. It’s the best way to view the busy colony: big males scrapping, females feeding pups, sub adults surfing the inshore waves. Skua gulls are ubiquitous, hardy scavengers always ready to make the most of birth and death in the colony.
There’s more penguins up here on the dunes, a small group clusters on short grass. Giant Petrels swoop on the updrafts, coming to land on the sand. There’s so many large birds here, even saw the brief flit of a falcon. We come across three Giant Petrel chicks, huge balls of soft grey fluff sitting in a loose group on the grass, another one better camouflaged in a patch of scrub uphill. I saw why these birds, along with the Wandering albatrosses, are called tube- noses. A very obvious pair of external tube- shaped nostrils go part-way down the top of their beak. Past the chicks was a Red-crowned Parakeet, feeding in moss. The land up here is really boggy, with lots of little wetland-like puddles and drainage channels. The parakeet was not fazed by us at all, just kept snacking away as we clicked and beeped our cameras at him
Waiting at the research hut for a zodiac back to the ship, I got to see Penguin Alley in action. A pair of Yellow Eyed’s emerge from the scrub, hustle to the edge of the grass, pause and then head back. Turning again for the beach they make a run for it down the dunes, past dozens of sea lions. Hitting the water they’re away, a flash of feet the last sight of them.
On the beach lining up to get in the zodiac I’m happily snapping away at the sea lion colony. One big young male is getting increasingly sick of the tourist paparazzi, and as I take one too many pics he roars, I panic and dash for the zodiac. Everyone who’s safely in the launch laughs and calls out ‘Don’t run!’ It was pretty funny once I was off the beach.
After reading and writing about the Subantarctic for so long, it’s fantastic to absorb the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the landscape. Being here.
Later The westerly wind is biting tonight, picking up pace from during the day. On either side of the islands the closest land is South America. To the west it’s Argentina, to the east, Chile. A brilliant night in a calm harbor with the full moon rising, first Christmas full moon since 1977. Just got a shot of it out of the porthole, dipping into a cloud bank.