1/1/16 New Year’s Day
After staying up enthralled in last night’s spectacular aurora display, this morning starts a bit slowly. The options we’ve got are a long hike up Mount Honey, at 569m the highest peak on the island, revisiting Col Lyall saddle and the albatross nests or a zodiac cruise to the mouth of Perseverance Harbor. I’m keen to see more of the harbor and the island’s geological formations, and we’ll probably see Light Mantled Sooty albatross, a very different bird to yesterday’s Southern Royals.
Almost cutting the island in two, Perseverance Harbor runs approximately 10 km in a dog- legged east-west line, with its mouth at the eastern end. We follow the northern shore from our ship’s mooring near the harbors head, and see more Campbell Island Teal almost immediately. Rodney Russ is driving the other zodiac and you can tell he’s pleased we’ve seen so many of these once-rare little ducks. The shoreline changes from low shelving heath to rocky outcrops and then cliff faces cloaked in kelp as the harbor deepens.
Light Mantled Sooty albatross nest high in the cliffs, tucked between blooming profusions of Anisotome flowers and protective tussocks. It’s breeding and courting season, numerous pairs are calling and displaying. One bird will stay at the nest and call to their mate, swooping and slowly circling above. This petite and charming albatross has a fascinating two-tone call – the bird at the nest points its beak to the sky and releases a high pitch peeee, then tucks the beak down and the call changes, in progress, to a throaty ahhhhh. On the other islands I only saw them flit across the sky and didn’t hear this distinctive call, now to see them displaying and interacting is fascinating.
Campbell Island albatross swoop overhead, seeming to skim the cliff top dracophyllum. Yellow Eyed penguins peer out through walls of scrub, preparing to scuttle down the cliffs, splash into the harbor and hunt for lunch.Campbell Island is the breeding stronghold for both these seabirds, with the Campbell albatross nesting nowhere else on earth. Officially a mollymawk, or small albatross, they nest on the northern edges of the island. Yellow Eyed penguins are surprisingly agile – they look so tubby and clumsy yet can scale almost vertical cliffs in and out of the harbors choppy waters.
Waterfalls, narrow inlets and tiny coves lace the harbor fringe. We venture into a cove offering Giant Petrels a calm nook to rest from the ever- blowing winds, below a striking display of basalt columns. A Light Mantled Sooty albatross minds her nest along the cliff top. The water is meters deep but so clear I can see a throng of giant crabs lining submarine rocky outcrops. Giant bull kelp dominates the shoreline, thick whirling strands that easily choke our zodiac’s outboard motor.
Now nearing the harbor mouth, the cliffs open out and we move away from the shore to view a colony of Hookers sea lions. Massive bulls, golden cows and tiny pups. The colony seems concentrated on a rocky outcrop, maybe it’s warmer there this time of day. Past the colony, around the headland Yellow Eyed penguins trot down to the water, Giant Petrels feed on a dead sea lion lodged in the kelp.
In the middle of the harbor mouth, just out to sea there’s a huge flock of birds fighting over something. A dead whale? Petrels, gulls, Skuas and other sea birds tussling in a long queue. We move closer in to see a large, very dead sea lion bobbing and wafting over the waves. A gaggle of Giant Petrels has claimed the body, lining up to get a stab at the best hole in the flesh. Quarreling for supremacy and giving us a fantastic display of their behavior – tails fanning, necks craning, scoffing gory giblets down eager beaks.
Crossing to the southern side of the harbor brings us to extraordinary displays of columnar basalt. Formed as the island exploded from the ocean as a giant shield volcano, eerily geometric strips of basalt form rosettes, swooping arches and rows of pillars. At one point there’s a clump of these columns protruding end-on from the cliff, showing the hexagonal cross sections clumped like honeycomb. Alongside and abutting this mosaic display stand serried ranks of vertical columns, flanked at the other end by a curved bundle of the same pillars. The mind boggles to think of the forces on display here that formed this isolated island.
Along these cliffs more Yellow Eyed penguins peer through tussocks and herbs, scrambling down vertical rock faces to get to the sea. Three more pairs of Light Mantled Sooty albatross are calling and courting. Another sea lion colony inhabits this shore, bunched up pups hiding from marauding males, mothers slapping off greedy weaners. We’re looking at the large group of sea lions on the beach, then Tui points out the even larger colony up in the dracophyllum on the cliff top – there’s dozens up there that we can see, how many below the vegetation or out at sea? Large males triumphantly mount females, roaring off their competitors.
We’re last back to the boat, always the best spot to be on this trip, and now we’re steaming out of Perseverance Harbor en route for Port of Bluff, then home. It’s a day at sea tomorrow. As we move up the east coast of Campbell Island we pass massive rock stacks supporting dense albatross breeding colonies. Giant white forms glide through the sky, circling, swooping. From the sea the island is a spectacular sight, massive cliff faces, whole sides of the island sheered away by geological forces, rock stacks and islets clouded by birds. Looking over the rail for a last view of the Subantarctic I see a flash of feet and tubby body, a lone Yellow Eyed penguin porpoising on an afternoon hunt.