Tui De Roy on Antipodes

Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis). Gamming group performing courtship dance, Antipodes Island, NZ Subantarctic.

Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis). Gamming group performing courtship dance, Antipodes Island, NZ Subantarctic.

Tui De Roy shares her experience of Antipodes Island.

The autumn winds are picking up in the Southern Ocean as I write, and my mind inevitably drifts back to one particularly grand windswept island that few people have been lucky enough to set eyes on: Antipodes. I count myself as extremely privileged to have been there twice, each time spending a number of days exploring and photographing the island and its wildlife literally from all angles, hiking over and across it’s magnificent rolling hills and valleys, and sailing our specially outfitted expedition yacht Mahalia into every one of the island’s spectacular storm-carved bays and coves.

Unlike its sister islands to the south, Antipodes does not sport anything that could remotely class as a forest, not even the dense Dracophylum scrub that fills the valleys on Campbell, much less the elfin rata forest of the Acklands or Olearia on Snares. The Antipodes vegetation consists instead of a fascinating patchwork of tussock grasses, ferns and megaherbs creating a thick, undulate quilt in variegated shades of green and ochre.

Here live some of the most unusual species of the subantarctic region, or of the world for that matter: the all-green Antipodean parakeet, the remarkable erect-crested penguin, and the island’s very own albatross, the Antipodean albatross. This is a darker, somewhat daintier version of the mighty wandering albatross, their nests dotting the high plateau of the island.

With the approach of winter, the albatross will be hatching their chicks as I write these lines. In my mind’s eye I can see the fluffy white balls of down well-guarded by doting parents, with often just a stubby little pink foot protruding from beneath soft parental breast feathers.   With tiny squeaks, a wobbly little head emerges, begging to be fed, rewarded by a slurry of concentrated stomach oil — an albatross specialty —delivered cleanly into the tiny baby’s pink bill, still comically bent down from two months developing inside a rather oblong egg.

But peaceful as all this may appear, there’s an enemy lurking here unseen: house mice, larger and well adapted to the colder local conditions, each night chewing away by their millions at everything they can get their little gnashers into. With the summer grasses having just delivered a bountiful seed bank, as winter sets in these hordes will put up a fierce competition for the endemic parakeets, not only the all-green emblematic one, but a unique red-fronted species as well.  And even more chilling is the realization that these thriving rodents could any day turn from scavengers to predators, as they have done on a very similar island far away in the south Atlantic, Gough Island.

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena)

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena)

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena)

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena)

 A few years ago, I was very fortunate to spend several weeks on this sentinel of the subantarctic as well. Like Antipodes, Gough has its own albatross, the Tristan albatross, and like all other great albatrosses, this one too hatches its single chick at the end of summer and raises it through the winter to fledge in the spring. But on Gough there’s a twist: only about 7% of the chicks make it, because most of them are simply eaten alive by hungry mice during the long winter nights!

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena). Critically endangered. Large chick killed by mouse predation. Gony Dale,  Gough Island, South Atlantic.

Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena). Critically endangered. Large chick killed by mouse predation. Gony Dale, Gough Island, South Atlantic.

The first time I visited Antipodes was in November, just as the albatross chicks were beginning to replace their white down with brown feathers, and putting on a burst of growth before leaving the island. I remember sitting there for a long time watching one of these exercising his majestic wings in the breeze.  A chill ran down my back wondering how much longer before the mice here too learn to become albatross killers.

It is thus with unspeakable joy in my heart that I welcome the imminent extermination of the mice from Antipodes, before it is too late. Not only will the albatross and the myriad petrels who also nest here be safe into the future, but with the ecological balance restored, I bet the island’s vegetation and insect life will rebound as well.  I dearly hope I’ll have the privilege to return once again to document this recovery, a rare good-news story in the conservation world.

Click below to see more from Tui De Roy

Tui de Roy. Giant Petrel