These islands not only play an important role in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, they also have a rich human history—from their discovery around 200 years ago, through an era of exploitation, until finally today, when they are treasured for their intrinsic value as wild and beautiful places.
I picked a copy of this book off a shelf in the small library of the Professor Khromov, the ship we travelled on during our recent trip to Wrangel Island, and was struck by its content and presentation. I made a mental note to track down a copy when we got home to the U.K. I somehow managed not to notice that is was co-authored by the man who was coordinating our trip—Rodney Russ, the founder of Heritage Expeditions, not only owns the Khromov but was on board, running the expedition. His association with the scattered islands south of New Zealand goes all the way back to the 1970s, when he took part in expeditions to the Auckland Islands and to Campbell Island, where he re-discovered a supposedly extinct bird, the Campbell Island Flightless Teal. How cool is that? His co-author, Aleks Terauds, is a biologist and conservationist who has worked extensively in these islands. They wrote Galapagos of the Antarctic together in 2009.
Here are the seven islands and island groups they write about. (For orientation, the large landmass at top centre is the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island.)
So they’re out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve long been interested in places like that, and over the years I’ve built up a bit of a reference library dealing with remote sub-Antarctic and cool temperate islands—but I have nothing dealing with this part of the world except Mary Gillham‘s Sub-Antarctic Sanctuary, the story of a summer spent on Macquarie in the 1960s.
The book’s a hefty hardback, nicely printed on heavy paper. The layout is beautiful—Fiona Stewart is rightly given a prominent credit for her work on the design. Each chapter is introduced with a pretty shaded-topography map of the appropriate island(s), decorated with some natural objects (leaves, feathers) and a painting of a representative bird—the Campbell Island chapter is graced by one of Russ’s flightless teals, for instance. Below the chapter heading, you’ll find a latitude and longitude, an area, and the altitude of the highest point. Each chapter is split into sections dealing with Geography & Geology, Flora, Fauna and History, and is copiously illustrated with photographs. And the photographs are gorgeous—there were some full-page images of albatrosses that I just sat and stared at for while, smiling gently. Photo credits go mainly to Terauds and to Russ’s sons, Nathan and Aaron, and a very fine job they’ve made of it.
Almost all these islands have gone through an initial period in which they were discovered (usually by Europeans), exploited by the sealing and whaling industry, sometimes colonized by marginal efforts at farming, and then a period in which intensive efforts have been made to restore them to their natural status.
The Chathams are an exception, having been colonized by a Polynesian group, the Moriori, in the fourteenth century. And they now support a population of a few hundred people of European, Maori and Moriori descent. My favourite story from the Chathams is of its Black Robin, which was rescued from extinction during the 1970s, when chicks from a surviving population of just seven birds were “fostered out to other species so that productivity could be increased.” I’d like to have heard a bit more about that, to be honest.
The Bounties are a group of rocky islets, home to seabirds and seals and not much else. With them, we first read about the New Zealand government’s practice of setting up “castaway depots” on their remote islands—huts containing supplies to keep any shipwrecked mariners alive for long enough to be rescued by a navy ship. For a while before the invention of radio, New Zealand made regular checks on all these uninhabited islands—otherwise castaways could spend years waiting for rescue.
The Antipodes Islands were originally named the Penantipodes—they’re not quite on the opposite side of the globe from London. (I, for one, mourn the dropped syllable.) They’ve benefited from having very few introduced species—the only successful European invader has been the House Mouse, which is presumably damaging the native invertebrate population, but is no danger to ground-nesting birds.
Campbell Island wasn’t so lucky—it was big enough to attract an effort at sheep farming (which failed to be economically viable). Once the farm was abandoned, introduced sheep and cattle died out in the harsh climate—as did a population of feral cats. But rats remained a constant danger to birdlife until they were eradicated in 2001. Campbell also hosted a French expedition to observe the 1874 transit of Venus—but it was (almost predictably) too cloudy for good observations to be made.
The Auckland Islands are mountainous and deeply dissected by inlets, so can play host to a wide variety of flora and fauna. They seem to have been visited by Polynesians half a century ago, but were uninhabited when the first Europeans came across them. Perhaps that Polynesian legacy was the stimulus for a doomed colonization attempt by Maori and Moriori from Chatham Island in 1842 (they were joined later by Europeans), which left a legacy of feral pigs and cats that are still disrupting the natural ecology. Russ and Terauds mention plans to eradicate the pigs and cats, which still seem to be progressing slowly. The islands also hosted a German transit-of-Venus expedition in 1874, which experienced “the most wretched imaginable” weather—the scientists certainly don’t look very cheerful in the photograph in the book.
The Snares are a paradox—despite their proximity to New Zealand, little effort was made to exploit their resources, they acquired no invasive species, and so are nowadays a teeming and pristine environment with strictly controlled access. My favourite picture from this chapter is of albatross nests in the Snares forest—the only place in the world you find albatrosses nesting under trees.
Macquarie is a long ridge of an island, the farthest south of all the places discussed here, and the only one that belongs to Australia, rather than New Zealand. It has had a permanent research base since the 1940s, run by ANARE—Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. (This is the place that played host to Mary Gillham during the visit she describes in her book.) Along with its long human presence, it has a long list of invasive species, and a long list of eradication programmes. The last cat on Macquarie was killed in 2000. Russ and Terauds describe the huge problem that 100,000 rabbits were causing, stripping entire hillsides of vegetation. Since their book was written, rabbits have been successfully eliminated and the overgrazed vegetation is making a recovery.
That’s been a whirlwind tour of the seven locations that Russ and Terauds spend 224 pages describing and illustrating in detail. The book finishes with a ten-page bibliography for anyone who wants to hunt down more information.
My only complaint is how inexplicably hard this book is to get hold of—it crops up on the webpages of a few New Zealand booksellers, but no farther afield than that. I had to order my copy directly from Heritage Expeditions. I’m glad I did, though.
- If you’re interested in tracking down a copy, you can order one from Heritage Expeditions via the book’s webpage.