The far-flung Sub-Antarctic islands arc southward from New Zealand, crossing six degrees of latitude. Isolated and life-rich, they are considered one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. For nature lovers, birders, photographers, and travelers whose inner explorer begs to venture where few have gone before, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is indeed paradise found.
Five island clusters belong to New Zealand. Macquarie, also part of the Sub-Antarctic collection, is an Australian territory. The islands offer you a chance to explore a wide array of volcanic and glaciated geography—including cave-riddled basalt cliffs, pristine sugar-sand beaches, wind-and-water-chiseled monolithic rock formations, and windswept grassy headlands. Walk through impressively tall stands of rata trees, among giant ferns and into the twisted world of elfin forests—home to melodious songbirds and stunning botanicals found nowhere else on the globe. Along the shoreline, search for the Hooker sea lions, their adorable pups piling atop one another. Snap a group portrait of huge elephant seals lolling about on the beach, and witness the awkward flight forays of young albatross and the graceful soar of their elders.
Cross off an additional eight species from your must-see penguin list on a single voyage to the Sub-Antarctic Islands. Two are found nowhere else in the world: the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin of Enderby and the endemic Snares-crested penguin, which only nests on Snares Island. On Macquarie, the sight of over one million royal penguins and 200,000 pairs of kings will simply knock your socks off.
Whether surveying wild and scenic vistas from the deck of your ship, zipping past craggy cliffs on Zodiac inflatable boats, stepping onto shores only a lucky few have explored, or hiking through forests rooted in the beginning of time, a Sub-Antarctic cruise allows the intrepid traveler a truly privileged glimpse into a magical world.
Note: For travelers wishing to continue the adventure, a Ross Sea expedition travels deep into the Antarctic continent, offering the rare opportunity to observe emperor penguins in their natural habitat at certain times of year. For information, visit the Ross Sea page of our Research section.
No single discoverer can put his name on the collective Sub-Antarctics, and the distance between the widely spread islands is too great for sailors to simply happen upon them. The captain of a whaling vessel made the first European record of the islands on August 18, 1806, thanks to a new shipping route established between Australia and Cape Horn that passed between the five archipelagos. But prehistoric artifacts found on the islands prove that early seafaring Polynesians were there far earlier.
Hundreds of sealers and a few whalers worked the islands, making them the main sealing station in the Pacific until 1812, when the ocean’s seal populations nearly ran out. In addition to the marine plunder, the sealers brought pigs, goats, cattle, cats, rats and dozens more animals, introducing them to the native species of the islands with deadly result—the unmaking of which is still ongoing.
In 1907, the Sub-Antarctic Islands Scientific Expedition conducted magnetic surveys and collected rare and unique botanical and zoological specimens, piquing the world’s interest in these outposts. In 1941, New Zealand sent a contingent of four men to Campbell Island for coastwatching (i.e. keeping an eye on the Germans in the area). Until 1945 they gathered meteorological information that proved so useful that, after the war, permanent bases were established on Campbell and the Auckland Islands became part of New Zealand’s forecasting network.
Geologically the islands are all volcanic in origin, distinguished by dramatic cliffs, caves, winding fjordlike waterways and offshore seastacks. From the harsh yet nutrient-rich terrain grows a mind-boggling array of unique and endemic botanicals—first described by British naturalist Joseph Hooker while sailing with Captain James Ross on his epic Antarctic expeditions. Named “megaherbs” by Ross, the remarkable species of herbaceous perennials include the Ross lily, which can reach six feet in height, and the Campbell Island daisy, whose leaves can extend to four feet across.
The avian statistics alone are reason enough to travel to the Sub-Antarctics—even if you’re not a birder at heart. Millions of seabirds comprise some 40 different species. Most live here permanently; others come from across the world to breed and raise their young. Snares Island alone boasts more nesting seabirds than the entire realm of the British Isles. Almost half of the world’s albatross and penguin species also reside here, including the rare yellow-eyed penguin of Enderby and the southern royal albatross with its impressive wingspan of ten feet. Other penguin species include rockhoppers, erect-crested, Snares, gentoos, kings and royals—about three million of which call Macquarie home.
Each island offers its own lovely habitats and wildlife that thrive in the rarified conditions. In the elfin forests of Enderby, colorful birds—red-crowned parakeets and bellbirds—offer a special soundtrack for hikers. Walking in rata forests and among lofty ferns on Campbell recalls a primeval world lost in time. Its beaches resonate with the barking of Hooker’s sea lions and elephant seals.
Under the protection of UNESCO, the New Zealand Sub-Antarctics (the Snares, Bounty, Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell Islands) along with Australia’s Macquarie Island are being restored to their natural origins. The introduced species of animals are mostly gone now. Though some plants, marine life and wildlife will never be restored, the environment is beginning to resemble its former pristine conditions. Cruise travel to the Sub-Antarctic is the perfect way to enjoy this unique natural wonderland—and to recognize the need to shelter and protect this fragile, exquisite corner of the globe.
Photos: © Wolfgang Kaehler