Wild South: Choosing a New Zealand sub-Antarctic cruise

May 04, 2023
Cruise passengers make a shore landing on Macquarie Island from an inflatable zodiac. Photo: John Gardiner

They are legends, as the few who will ever venture there are legends.

As far south as you can sail and still be in New Zealand waters, the Snares, Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes and Bounty sub-Antarctic island groups have spawned thrilling sailors’ yarns and chilling castaway tales since ships first encountered their wild beauty hundreds of years ago. 

A rare find in today’s world, they are nature’s alone and alone enough to have evolved the rarest of nature. Alone, that is, until the southern hemisphere summer when millions of birds, hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, and a few fortunate cruise ship passengers arrive on their shores.

Next summer, a number of luxury expedition cruise lines offer those lucky passengers a variety of New Zealand sub-Antarctic itineraries to choose from. As you would expect of sumptuous travel to a remote destination, none comes cheap, so it pays to learn a little about these island groups before selecting the best cruise option for you.

New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands

Author, Sue Halliwell, and a Southern elephant sea hang out together on Macquarie Island. Photo: John Gardiner

While each group has its distinct historical and geological significance, it is for the outstanding flora and fauna that most visitors travel here. Collectively, these islands host more than 40 seabird species, many rare and endemic land bird and invertebrate species, migrating great whales, and multiple sea lions, seals and Southern elephant seals populations. Some are found nowhere else in the world, as with many of the plant species, most notably the spectacular sub-Antarctic mega herbs. 

Sadly, the islands’ fragile ecologies all but collapsed in the 1900s at the rapacious hands of whalers and sealers and as humans brought exotic species ashore. The only ones to remain relatively unscathed were the Snares, likely because sea captains gave them a very wide berth.

The Snares / Tini Heke

Their perceived threat to shipping was how the Snares got their cautionary English name. However, at a day’s sail from the mainland, they still present the most accessible option for those wanting a tiny taste of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands.

Home to more sea birds than the entire British Isles, the Snares’ skies are dense with them, especially in the breeding season when around four million sooty shearwaters commute between their nests and ocean feeding grounds. 

Shore landings are prohibited here, but that doesn’t impact viewing. The Snares’ steep granite cliffs plummet deep below the sea surface, allowing ships close viewing of the penguin, seal and bird activity. Even closer inspection may also be an option when weather conditions permit the launching of the ship’s inflatable zodiacs.

Bounty Islands – Moutere Hauriri

Some 940 kilometres east of the Snares sits another bountiful island group – by name and by nature.

The 20 granite islets comprising the Bounty Islands were discovered by the ill-fated Captain Bligh and named for his infamous ship. In total, they measure just 1.35 hectares, yet summer sees every cliff crammed with nesting birds, and the lower slopes heaving with squabbling penguins and seals.

That’s good news for the seals. Two centuries ago only a handful remained, sealers having taken more than 50,000. Thankfully, a zodiac trip around the accessible Bounty islands today reveals varietal and recovered ecosystems, above and below the water. 

Antipodes Islands – Moutere Mahue

Passengers explore the Antipodes Islands by inflatable zodiac and explore the Antipodes on foot. Photo John Gardiner.

More remote still are the Antipodes Islands, a 20-square-hectare archipelago some 900 kilometres southeast of New Zealand’s South Island. First sighted in 1800, the next 212 years would see a sorry tale of mice and men.

Sealers, whalers, shipwrecks and attempts to farm brought habitat destruction and pests, notably mice. The little critters numbered a staggering 200,000-plus by the time the Million Dollar Mouse programme kickstarted in 2012, eradicating every last rodent and giving the penguin, albatross, petrel and parakeet populations space to recover. 

That’s what visitors now come for unless they are Englishmen seeking inclusion on the elite list of those who have stood on the earth position most diametrically opposed to London – hence the Antipode’s name.

Auckland Islands – Motu Maha

A yellow-eyed penguin reception committee greets expedition cruise passengers on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands group. Photo credit: John Gardiner

Sail southwest from the Antipodes and you’ll eventually bump into the Auckland Islands. Historically, many a hapless ship has, ferocious storms and inaccurate early maps accounting for most Auckland Islands’ wrecks, perhaps the most famous being the reputedly gold-laden General Grant in 1866. Numerous expeditions have sought her location and bullion since, with none admitting to finding either. 

Nowadays, most Auckland Islands visitors come seeking natural wealth. Expedition cruises commonly land at the northern Enderby Island, where passengers can explore the sandy beach, twisted rata forests and fields of mega herbs while navigating colonies of New Zealand sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins and nesting albatross. 

Together with Southern right whales and numerous seal species, these animals are the reason the surrounding waters have now been declared a marine sanctuary and marine reserve.

Campbell Island – Motu Ihupuku

Cruise ship passengers walk the Beeman Hill boardwalk to its summit above Campbell Island’s Perseverance Harbour. Photo John Gardiner

Southeast of the Auckland Islands, Campbell Island is the largest of the Campbell group, at over 11,000 hectares. It rises 500 metres at its highest point above Perseverance Harbour, another favoured shore landing location and the site of a World War Two signal station, the grave of the mythical Lady of the Heather, and the loneliest tree in the world. 

Rare native teal and immature sea lion bulls often greet passengers as they come ashore at the wharf, beyond which a well-maintained boardwalk passes an active scientific station, mega herb gardens and nesting albatross to reach the summit of Beeman Hill and its expansive island views. 

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island’s summer visitors witness the spectacle of its millions-strong king and royal penguin colonies and pick their way through basking and battling elephant seals. Photos John Gardiner

While the Campbells are New Zealand’s most southerly sub-Antarctic islands, anyone venturing that far should also consider an itinerary featuring Australia’s amazing Macquarie Island, further to the southwest. 

Its wildlife is matched in the wow factor only by the unique geology, torrid history and incredible conservation success story, to land on Macquarie during breeding season is to be instantly immersed in its colonies of basking and battling elephant seals and the millions-strong king and royal penguin rookeries.  

Getting there 

It is in the breeding, birthing and plant blooming months of December to February that all sub-Antarctic islands are best visited. Of the expedition cruise companies voyaging there in 2023/2024 summer, New Zealand’s Heritage Expeditions leaves port first on 25 November 2023. Heritage’s stellar summer line-up of six sub-Antarctic cruises ranges in length from eight to 17 days and features anything from one island group to them all, plus Macquarie.

To venture to New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands is to go where few will ever go and see what few will ever see. Naturally, you have to love wild oceans, wildlife and wrapping up warm, but you’ll return with remarkable stories to tell, tales that grow the legend that is New Zealand’s wild south, a legend that now includes you.

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