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February 14, 2020

It’s been just over a week since I returned from what can only be described as a truly epic trip to the Sub-Antarctic islands of Australia and New Zealand.

The journey started in Dunedin, then headed south-west to Campbell Island, Macquarie Island, Enderby and The Snares before finishing through Stewart Island and back into New Zealand’s magnificent Fiordland. It took me to some of the tiniest, harshest and most remote specks of land on the planet. Few people have ever been to these places, few could find them on a map and the chance of successful human settlement is slim to none.

But it was spectacular. As we left Dunedin, the huge storm system that had been lashing the Subs the week before died down and we had magical sailing conditions. We spotted pilot whales and an unidentified pod of beaked whales while albatrosses glided lazily on the gentle breeze. Considering this is some of the roughest ocean on the planet, it was incredibly gentle to us. 

Although the weather turned and winds started gusting towards 35 knots, we still made a landing at the Australian research base where giant southern elephant seals lay in the long tussock grass, belching and yawning and even having the odd wrestle. These mountainous beasts can be up to 4000 kilograms and can easily be mistaken for rocks (until they fart!). A pair of king penguins met us on the beach and gentoos waddled past us on a footpath. Brown skuas scampered about looking for tasty morsels and menacing-looking giant petrels were on patrol. The base commander served us delicious scones and cups of tea before we headed south to Sandy Bay — home to huge colonies of king penguins and royal penguins.

As we rode the Zodiacs into the beach it was a joy to watch the penguins whizzing through the clear water, and a delight to see them in such huge numbers. When I took a moment to sit and watch the colony, a couple of cheeky royal penguins came up to watch me, but a quick peck on my camera lens made them realise I wasn’t that interesting and they waddled off to report the news to their mates.

The next morning was rougher still, but a few brave passengers climbed in the Zodiacs at Lusitania Bay to get closer views of the thousands of king penguins on the beach. Once again, hundreds were waiting for us in the water around the ship and they seemed almost as curious about us as we were about them. Just as we were back on-board and about to head north, six orca gave us a great swim-by with excellent views for all (even if some passengers had to spring out the shower to see them!). The wind now fully kicked up and the albatross whizzed all round the ship as we made our way towards the Auckland Islands, bound for Enderby.

A beautiful, safe anchorage led us to a calm, sandy beach absolutely heaving with New Zealand sea lions. These raucous and quarrelsome pinnipeds need to take a lesson from their bigger cousins — the far more chilled elephant seals — but watching the sea lions argue and squabble was great viewing. One of the many highlights of these islands is that all invasive mammals have been removed, which is a huge but incredibly worthwhile task (just ask island conservation about it!). It’s great to see thriving populations of yellow-eyed penguins, all the land birds returning and the endemic flightless duck.

We left Enderby with the winds really pumping and the seas a lot bigger and headed to the Snares, an island group named, ominously, for their ability to snare ships. Sadly, the weather didn’t improve so we were unable to do much apart from stare from the ship at colonies of Snares crested penguins and marvel at the flight of thousands of sooty shearwaters and cape petrels. 

And then we were back to New Zealand. We spent a wonderful morning at the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island, followed by spotting Fiordland crested and little blue penguins at Stewart Island, meaning we were now up to nine species of penguin — half of the world’s penguin species! 

After a couple of magical, calm, rainy and sand-fly filled days through the stunning Fiordland national park, we wound up at Milford Sound, where we stared at the huge peaks, admired crashing waterfalls and spotted bottlenose dolphins play on the bow.

A magnificent trip to a wild part of the world and a privilege to experience.