Sub Antarctic rolecall, waddle forward if you’re in decline

Somewhere between New Zealand and the last unpopulated and (largely) unexploited continent on the planet- Antarctica, lies the Sub Antarctic Islands. Amongst those islands are the Snares and the Auckland Islands. These islands lie right in the middle of the Antarctic Polar Front, where the icy polar waters mix with the warmer waters flowing from the north. This creates weather, you’ve probably heard of the roaring 40s, well the Snares and the Auckland Islands sit in the furious 50s.

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, ahead of the storm

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, ahead of the storm

There’s a very good reason for heading down to these tiny specs of islands, despite the generally horrendous weather it’s the disproportionate wealth of wildlife that they hold that is the alure. Penguins, albatross, seals, sealions not to mention whales and a wealth of endemic mega-herbs and marooned snipe, parakeet, fowl and other little birds all evolving their way to flightless island specialization.  These islands are the last stronghold for many of these species yet, despite their isolation, all is not as it should be. Sealion numbers continue to dwindle and the more we learn about albatross and penguin population trends the worse the picture gets.

The Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) or Hoiho chick

Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) or Hoiho chick moulting into its adult plumage

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, gliding over waves

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, gliding effortlessly using pressure pockets created by wave driven air movements

 Exactly why these species are declining is unclear. Commercial over-fishing for squid and other oceanic resources and climate change are fairly high up on the suspect list. In an effort to at least gather good data on these processes and shed a little public light on the situation, a team from New Zealands Department of Conservation and the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust are making their way down to the islands for a week of survey work. What makes this trip special is that rather than just send a boatload of crusty conservation biologists, this team also consists of volunteers, keen and enthusiastic individuals who have paid handsomely for the privilege of assisting the conservationist team in their effort. Some folks might spend their holiday savings on a trip to the Gold Coast or some other environment developed precisely to satisfy the consumer, but not these people. They’re keeping a blog of their progress, Alison Ballance in updating it daily so you can follow their progress, I certainly will be following as my better half is on the voyage. You can go to the source:

or read on:

Wahoo – the weather forecast is looking more promising that it has for quite a while, we’ve finally all met one another, and we’re off!

We’re a varied bunch, that’s all I can say. We range from a retired engineer to a mid-20s woman who works for Ravensdown and spends her days talking to farmers. And that’s just the penguin team – the yacht crew is an equally eclectic group of folk (more on them tomorrow). But what unites us all is a shared passion for the subantarctic and its wildlife, especially yellow-eyed penguins. Some of us are subantarctic newbies, while others of us find ourselves returning again and again.

The team of conservation professionals and eager volunteers before the sea-sickness set in.

The team in the quarantine office in Invercargill ready to set sail: (back row from left to right) Marcy, Sharon, Leith, Jo, Rachel, Dave H., Dave A., Megan; (front row from left to right) Alison, Katie, Alistair, Alan

Expedition leader is Jo Hiscock from the Department of Conservation in Invercargill. She’s been the one sweating all the details for the last few months – letting everyone know what they need to bring, deciding just how much food to put in the emergency buckets that go ashore with each party on the off-chance they can’t get back on the yacht, working out the survey methods, and worrying about the weather forecast.

Leith Thompson is a ranger with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in Dunedin. He and Jo are veterans of the 2009 expedition which laid the groundwork for this trip. He’ll be dropped off, along with the Department of Conservation’s Dave Houston, to conduct an intensive nest survey on Enderby Island. That will involve lots of time on hands and knees under the scrub, looking for nests, and in the case of Leith, keeping a constant eye out for sealions (he had some memorable encounters on his previous trip!).

Dave Agnew from Dunedin and Megan Willans from Te Anau make up the remainder of the DoC team – they are both wildlife experts, with lots of experience working on remote islands.

What makes this trip unique is that it is not just made up of wildlife professionals. Working alongside them will be six volunteers, who have each paid to come along on this ‘trip of a lifetime’. Alan Magee is a retired Invercargill engineer, who has spent time in Antarctica, and has a strong interest in history – he’s keen to visit some of the historic sites that relate to shipwrecks and Second World War coast-watching.

Katie Underwood works as a real estate agent in Wellington but fills every spare hour with conservation volunteering – she is an eel feeder, kiwi counter and night guide at the Zealandia sanctuary, and following a stint weeding on Raoul Island she’s looking forward to adding to her growing list of islands.

Formerly from the UK but now living in Australia, Rachel Downey is an Antarctic biologist more used to working on creatures such as sponges. After her time on the ice I’m betting she’ll find the subantarctic weather positively mild!

I’m also betting that Sharon Kast won’t have any problems living on the yacht and coping with the trip down – she’s already got more than 10,000 sea miles under her belt, having sailed from her native USA to New Zealand. New Zealand dotterels are her passion, but she’s already feeling a strong affinity for yellow-eyed penguin, reporting that when she has all her thermal layers on she waddles a bit like one!

Alistair Robinson is a weekend yacht racer in Sydney but he reports that being a keen sailor doesn’t mean he has good sea legs. By day he is a funds manager, and the rest of the time he’s involved in organisations such as the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. He’s been ‘in training’ at the Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin to get his fitness up.

Marcy Taylor was brought up on a farm, and spends most of her day talking to farmers on the phone. It’ll be interesting to see if hoiho supplant kakapo as her favourite bird by the time this trip is over!

The trip down should take us about 48 hours, and for much of that time most of us will be in our bunks keeping to ourselves. But one thing is certain – once we get to the islands and in the confined living conditions of the yacht we’ll very soon be much more closely acquainted with one another!

~ by motolorax on November 13, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: