I was glad I took those sea sickness meds. A last-minute check of the forecast showed that we would be heading straight out of Bluff into hearty swells which would stick around for several days, so I popped to the nearby pharmacy to get a pack of sealegs and knocked two back before we sailed. As predicted, as soon as we left the shelter of port the 70m Spirit of Enderby/Professor Khromov began to roll. We sheltered near Stewart Island/Rakiura for the first of many delicious meals by the chefs, then it was off to bed to try get some sleep on the way to the Snares/Tini Heke in anticipation of our first zodiac cruise the next morning.
The Snares are a small island group around 100km south west of Stewart Island. Unlike most of New Zealand they have never had introduced mammalian pests so have avoided the process of predation, eradication and ecosystem regeneration seen at some of the other subantarctic islands. They are a major breeding site for sooty shearwaters, and also have colonies of Buller’s albatross, Snares crested penguins and smaller petrel species – among others. We also hoped to see some of the three Snares subspecies of land birds found nowhere else in NZ; tomtit, fernbird and snipe. Megaherbs are also a feature of Snares fauna, something for us to look forward to seeing up close when we land on Campbell and Auckland Islands.
The breakfast bar was quiet; we had been rolling all night, and the slower progress meant that we were still a few hours away. As we got closer to the sheltered eastern side of the island group more passengers emerged from their cabins, eager to see what our first island group would have in store. We had received a briefing about zodiac cruising beforehand, and everyone that wasn’t still suffering from sea sickness was keen to begin exploring the coastline. The Spirit had five zodiacs on board, manned by guides and crew. Loaded in, our zodi buzzed the short distance from the Spirit of Enderby to the SE corner of the main island, North East Island.
Things started slowly, with a solo red-billed gull the first sighting. “Is that it?” someone joked. Excitement grew as we spotted our first Snares crested penguin/pokotiwha. Soon single sightings grew to groups, and as we moved up the coastline camera shutters were bursting away and everyone was professing their amazement at the amount of wildlife condensed onto the coast. With limited introduction to above-water predators, the penguins showed little outward concern at our presence.
Something moved under the water, and I half passed it off as a fur seal taking a break from lounging on the rocks with the others we had seen. Suddenly a giant stocky head popped up near the boat in a huff – a New Zealand sea lion/rapoka. They mostly breed on Auckland and Campbell Islands, with small populations on Stewart Island/Rakiura and southern NZ. I hadn’t seen any since I lived in Dunedin, where I studied wildlife management and learnt about the natural and human threats contributing to their ongoing decline and the difficulties managing these impacts. It was exciting to see them again, especially from the safety of a boat. During the morning we had several close encounters by sea lions, while the penguins may have appreciated that they were no longer the primary focus of their predators attention.
Moving up the coast we nosed into small inlets, always looking around to see what wildlife would appear next. Golden syrup-like kelp slowly swayed in the swell with a background soundtrack of penguin squawks. One moment we were watching a female sea lion hiding behind a hebe when a Snares tomtit appeared on an Olearia branch metres from the front of the boat. Unlike other tomtits in NZ, the Snares subspecies is entirely black. At the same time, a Snares fernbird appeared to the side of the boat. Members of the tomtit and fernbird fanclubs called out their sightings to eachother, not knowing which one to look at or photograph.
Finally we rounded the last corner and were greeted to The Slide – a massive slope covered in hundreds of Snares crested penguins. The bottom of The Slide was fringed in kelp apart from a section cleared from the constant movement of little penguin feet constantly coming and going from the water. We watched as small groups would work up the courage to move towards the water edge, waiting for a brave leader to take the first plunge before they followed. Other penguins had different approaches, skulking amongst the kelp deciding how best to make their ungraceful entry.
With time up we reluctantly headed back to the boat buzzing over our first taste of the subants. It set the bar high and has us all eagerly looking forward to exploring the other islands. As the Snares/Tini Heke slowly disappeared and were replaced with open rolling ocean, passengers retreated to their cabins to begin downloading photos and keep their stomachs under control.