By Alison Ballance
On 4 November we lifted anchor at Antipodes Island, and bid farewell to the penguins, the wandering albatrosses, the pipits, parakeets and elephant seals. The latter gave us a bit of excitement as we were loading gear onto the dinghy in Hut Cove to ferry out to Evohe: a small bull elephant seal had come into the cove, and was lurking in the waves, watching the beach master bull and his bevy of females and their pups. He came in close enough to shore to rouse the interest of the beach master, who went down the beach to scare him away … only the younger male went up the beach instead, and got himself cornered behind a rock, around which was tied our rope for hauling the dinghy in and out of the cove. The beach master came back up the beach, the young bull came flying out over the rock in a panic, and suddenly there were bags flying, several of which ended up under the two fighting elephant seals! The young male made his escape, the beach master settled down again for a snooze and the bags were slightly damp and bloody, but nothing came to any harm. It was pretty exciting for a minute there, though.
Then we were blessed with calm seas and light winds for our trip up to the Bounty Islands, and arrived there at about 2.30pm on Wednesday afternoon, in bright sunny weather. Because the conditions for landing were so good we were all dressed and ready to go ashore before Evohe had even dropped anchor. A team of four, lead by Jacinda Amey, went ashore on Funnel Island, braving a gnarly landing to count erect-crested penguins and Salvin’s albatrosses. The rest of us had a somewhat easier landing on Depot Island, and quickly went to work, marking out the survey plot and setting to with our spray cans and clickers, counting every nesting penguin and every nesting albatross.
We worked until we ran out of daylight, and then on Thursday we were ashore by 5.45am, ready to count every bird on Proclamation Island. The work was made challenging by the New Zealand furseals, which are just coming into the breeding season, and are very territorial. We had a couple of broom handles for protection, and there was quite a lot of shouting and loudly banging sticks on the ground as various male seals came charging towards us, grunting menacingly as they protected ‘their patch’.
The Bounty Islands are astounding: they are a group of bare rocks, just over 130 hectares in area in total, and they are home to an incredible number of albatrosses, penguins and wee fulmar prions, as well as the seals. The ground is covered in birds, nesting just out of pecking distance of their neighbours. This cheek by jowl closeness makes it tricky for any bird arriving or leaving, as they get well pecked making their way to and from their own nest. The noise is incredible, ebbing and flowing as the albatrosses display to one another, and the albatrosses and penguins complain about their neighbours. The little fulmar prions fly around the colony like large butterflies, and chatter quietly to one another under the rocks where they are nesting. The albatross eggs are just beginning to hatch, and it was a delight to see some grey fluffy chicks peering out from beneath their parent atop the nest mound.
As well as counting all the birds – whose numbers have increased since previous counts in 2004 and 2011 – I collected four male Pacificana spiders for the experts at Te Papa. This species is found only at the Bounties, and no adult males had ever been collected; these ones will finally allow the scientists to work out which family they belong to.
Our two days at the Bounty Islands were an exceptional way to end our subantarctic adventure. I know that we’re all looking forward to getting home to see our families, but our memories of Antipodes Island and the Bounty Islands will be with us forever.
Note: Salvin’s albatrosses (or mollymawks) breed only on the Bounties, and on the Western Chain islands at the Snares. Erect-crested penguins breed only on Antipodes and the Bounties. The Bounty Islands have no vegetation, except for a small Lepidium or Cook’s scurvy grass population on one island, and they have no introduced mammals.