The last destination on our trip was the Bounty Islands, a small collection of islets and rocks part way between the Antipodes and Chatham Islands. A few nights previous I had sat with one of the guides, Katja, at dinner and quizzed them about what to expect at upcoming islands. Katja said that on the previous trip the Bounty Islands were a highlight, teeming with wildlife at a much higher density to other locations on the voyage. However given their small size they offered minimal shelter, so our excursion there would be highly dependent on good weather conditions. She didn’t want us to get our hopes up in case we weren’t able to spend much (or any) time on the zodiacs, but it was too late for that.
After an overnight steam I headed up to the bridge before breakfast. It was the busiest I had seen it early in the morning, clearly all the other passengers were keen to see what we had in store. The description of a collection of rocks was accurate – there was no vegetation to be seen, and the highest rocks weren’t much higher than the Spirit. Despite the lack of real estate, the islands were swarming with albatross, penguins and fur seals. Most of the Salvin’s albatross population breed on the Bounty Islands, with 41,000 breeding pairs estimated to be there in a 2010 survey. They dominated the sky with few other seabirds in the air, while erect-crested penguins swam through the water in groups, ejecting onto various landing ramps or heading off to sea.
Once again we had good weather conditions and enjoyed a lengthy and thorough exploration of the coastline by zodiac. Up close, the smell and sounds were even more evident, with most of the rocks splashed pink and white from guano or stained brown from fur seals. The Bounty Islands never suffered from human habitation, but the island’s wildlife hasn’t been spared from human impacts – in the early 19th century sealers rapidly killed around 50,000 seals within two years and moved on when the colony was almost wiped out. The fur seal population is now recovering, and thankfully the difficulties of accessing and landing on the rocks mean introduced predators were never established.
The zodiacs were constantly passed by erect-crested penguin rafts heading to and from land. When travelling at speed they break the surface of the water, called porpoising, which was a great photographic challenge to try and capture. My GoPro was also put to use trying to record them swimming under the zodiac. Erect-crested penguins breed on the Antipodes and Bounty Islands, in this case in any space that is not already occupied by seals or albatross. Seals clearly had right of way, with penguins frantically scuttling away if a seal showed interest in their patch or came flopping down a rock face the penguins were occupying. There was obviously a healthy dose of wariness given that seals occasionally ate penguins, but by necessity they all lived within metres of each other. There were several well-used ramps used by various species to enter or exit the water, some requiring more precision than others. With so much wildlife action it took some discipline to pick out and predict action or compositions rather than trying to capture everything I saw. A highlight was a convoy of penguins making their way down a gentle ramp, only to turn and scuttle back up when a seal used the same ramp to exit the water.
Salvin’s albatross were nesting on mud stacks on the higher parts of the island or ledges that other birds couldn’t reach. With no soil or vegetation available they clearly were resourceful with construction materials – they’ve even been reported to utilise animal carcasses. Disappointingly scraps of fishing gear could also be seen built into nests, presumably scavenged from lost trawl nets. While their primary breeding site has no no introduced predators, they’re highly vulnerable to severe weather events or incursions. For this reason stringent biosecurity procedures for visitors is extremely important. At sea they forage in NZ, Australian, South American and international waters, exposing them to threats from various different fisheries. The timing of our voyage meant that there were large fluffy chicks sitting on some of the nest stacks which was a highlight for many.
Amongst the big three there were several other species mixed in – prions zipped past the zodiacs, endemic Bounty Island shags perched on small inaccessible (at least to seals and penguins) ledges, and subantarctic terns hovered overheard. We explored narrow channels and caves, having to shield our heads and we went underneath the lip of the cave to avoid being splattered by guano. Eventually it was time to make our way back to the Spirit, reluctantly as we knew that the next trip off the boat would be disembarking at Bluff. Back on board many passengers lingered on the deck, soaking in the sights and sounds of one of New Zealand’s most remote and wildlife-dense islands. One by one our hungry stomachs got the best of us, then we settled in for a long steam home.