The next morning the Spirit relocated to nearby Port Ross as we prepared to visit Hardwicke, a historic agricultural and whaling settlement on the main Auckland Island. We boarded the zodiacs in light drizzle, passing a single male sea lion patrolling the bay as we made our way to the beach. By the third zodiac it was taking a more active interest in the visitors and was kept at oars length by one of the guides.
Making our way through the bush to see what remained of the settlement I had to keep checking my map to orientate myself; turns out that the remains of the settlement were mostly only identifiable by reference tags, occasional bricks and depressions in the soil. Probably the most photographed feature of the Auckland Islands, the ‘Victoria’ tree is a rata with a carved message from the crew of the HMCS Victoria whose mission was to search for shipwreck victims on the Auckland Islands. The impressively neat carving reads ‘H.M.C.S. VICTORIA NORMAN IN SEARCH OF SHIPWRECKED PEOPLE OCT 13TH 1865’. The settlements cemetery was still in good condition, in part due to the fence around it to protect from grubbing pigs. Auckland Island is the only subantarctic island that still has introduced mammalian pests. Coming from Enderby Island, the impact of the feral cats, pigs and mice is quickly highlighted by the limited birdsong and understory vegetation.
After returning to the Spirit we slowly cruised down the eastern coastline looking for opportunities to launch the zodiacs, but with 70kt gusts funnelling down the many inlets we would have to wait till the next day.
By the next morning the wind had calmed enough for us to explore North Arm in Carnley Harbour, at the south end of the island group between Auckland Island and Adams Island. First stop was the site of the Grafton, a small boat that was blown aground in 1863. Remains of the ship and the hut they built (“Epigwaitt”) were still visible. I was impressed to learn that in the 18 months they were wrecked there they built a forge to create tools to help them build another vessel to sail north, and after five days of sailing they arrived at Stewart Island to organise a rescue party. No small feat given the distance and conditions. On the way back to the ship for lunch we zodiac cruised around Figure of Eight island, where tui flitted between crimson flowering rata.
I was excited to hear that our “expedition afternoon” would take us up to Musgrave Inlet on the eastern side of the main island, with a bush walk to Lake Hinemoa. After a relatively quiet morning scenery and wildlife-wise I was looking forward to stretching my legs and visiting a location that groups don’t often get to. ‘Route’ is probably an unfair term for the rarely trodden track partially marked with old permolat tags we followed for a couple of kilometres through twisted rata trees. After a few wrong turns and stops to let everyone catch up and avoid getting lost we were greeted to a large lake at the head of a glacial valley, a small waterfall tumbling into the freshwater at the far end. Strong winds whipped off the hills, sending whitecaps across the lake and small waves splashing the rocks at our feet. The way back down to the bay was easier to follow now there were footprints in the soft ground, and only one sea lion surprise amongst the rata.
Following the coastline of Musgrave Inlet we passed a small eastern rockhopper penguin colony and everyone was stoked to quickly see them pull off their signature move. For a small rotund penguin they were surprisingly good at leaping over small gaps in the rocks along the coast, landing safety and continuing their waddle. The Eastern rockhopper population has experienced massive population declines, with the previous stronghold of Campbell Island dropping from 800,000 to 33,200 breeding pairs over 90 years, and Antipodes Island and Auckland Island populations have also declined in recent decades. The main cause of their decline is thought to be low food availability, a result of climate change on ocean productivity which requires birds to travel further on foraging trips. This means young chicks are more vulnerable to starvation, limiting breeding success and recruitment at colonies. Predation by sea lions, fur seals, skua and giant petrels also has an effect; a natural process which has a greater impact due to vulnerabilities caused by human-driven climate change.
As we reached the end of the colony and turned towards the Spirit I expected that we would be heading back to our cabins and was slightly confused when we buzzed across to the southern coast of Musgrave Inlet. Turning a corner in the zodiac we were greeted with a scene that would look at home in the pacific, rather than the subantarctic. A round sea cave, roof long collapsed, lined with rust coloured rocks and hanging mosses. The water, metres deep, is clear enough to see the remains of the roof on the bottom and kelp swaying in the tide. A nearby cave had streaks of white minerals across the roof, contrasting with the greeny blue water. Everyone was stoked with this unexpected surprise , and reinforced an ongoing theme of the trip – you never know what you’ll see on each excursion. After a slow last couple of days, at least for someone with a penchant for scenery and wildlife, this was a clear highlight and great way to end our time at the Auckland Islands!