An introduction to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands

Here's a glimpse of the rarely seen world of penguins and albatross

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Far off from the bottom south coast of New Zealand headed towards Antarctica, the Subantarctic Islands are about as remote and untouched as you can get, and quite possibly the coolest place you’ve never heard of. Uninhabited, wild and full of birds, it’s obviously paradise for me. 

This past Christmas I swapped my usual yuletide festivities for a soviet-era Russian research ship and blank journal (no wifi at the bottom of the world) and headed due south with Heritage Expeditions, pretty much the only way you can get down there. 

Huge seabird colonies and bright flowering megaherbs combined with quite possibly the worst weather on planet earth, make New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands a VERY unique place.

Combined with a human history that includes Polynesian seafarers, European sealers, castaways, wartime coast-watchers, scientists and failed farmers (honestly, who would think you could farm here?) makes the Subantarctic Islands FASCINATING.

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

Made up of five island groups in the Southern Ocean southeast of New Zealand, the Subantarctics lay between the Antarctic and Subtropical Convergences.

  1. The Snares (smallest in area and closest to the mainland)
  2. Bounty Islands (mostly barren rock, and have no beaches or easy landing points)
  3. Antipodes Islands (the most distant from the mainland)
  4. Auckland Islands (the largest group, with the longest human history)
  5. Campbell Island (the furthest south)
  6. Macquarie Island (technically part of Australia but geographically falls in the same region)

Along with my friend Talman, we headed south to the subantarctic with local kiwi company Heritage Expeditions on their Galapagos of the Southern Ocean trip last December, which included the highlights – Snares, Auckland Islands, Macquarie Island and Campbell Island (my fave).

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

Home to incredible biodiversity, these islands are a forgotten paradise for nature lovers. Offering some of the most unique plant and wildlife on earth, they’re also a key nesting place for about five bajillion penguins.

Oh, and seabirds. Lots and lots of rare seabirds. My fave.

But if birds don’t do it for you, get this – all the Subantantartics (or Subbies by expedition guides/DOC staff) have the highest possible conservation status – they are National Nature reserves as well as UNESCO World Heritage Status, meaning they are literally, officially, one of the best places in the world to visit. And yet, few people know about them. 

The subantarctic region is definitely one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Here’s my first blog and introduction to this incredible place. Enjoy!

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

The Snares

The northernmost set of Subantarctic Islands, The Snares sit roughly 100 kilometers to the south-west of Stewart Island, or basically just far enough to feel like you’re truly screwed if anything happens.

Discovered in the late 1800’s by the Brits, The Snares are bordered by steep cliffs and choppy seas. Interestingly – no land mammals were ever established here – meaning the flora or plant life is in pristine condition.

It’s also the only subantarctic island where we visited where we couldn’t actually land (no one is allowed), rather we had to zodiac cruise around and explore by sea, which was fine by me! I can’t even imagine walking a foot in that dense bush.

One of the great thing about doing guided expedition trips is that often the guides have a lot of experience in the areas we visit, and one of our guides on this trip actually worked a fair bit down on the Snares with Department of Conservation and had some amazing stories to share!

subantarctic islands travel

Eighty percent of the island is covered in giant tree daisy forest, some of it reaching up to five meters in height. There’s also about a million different species of lichen and moss, plus three different types of herbs found nowhere else in the world. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to be looking a type of plant that is literally the only one of its kind. I mean, that’s amazing, right?

Now, the birds.

As there are no introduced predators to eat them, The Snares has a thriving bird population, including several endemic to the island. Nestled into the sides of the steep surrounding cliffs, hundreds share this island with only the wind and seals for company.   

You’ll see mostly Shearwaters, crested penguin and petrels – but if you’re lucky you may spot an albatross or two.  

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

The Auckland Islands

The largest of all the Subbies, the Auckland Islands are nowadays uninhabited, but settlements were attempted in and around 1990. In many ways it reminded me a bit of the Falkland Islands, with no Land Rovers. 

Both wild and beautiful, this wind-worn landscape offers the last glimpse of vegetation before you hit Antarctica.

Thanks to introduced predators, much of the island’s foliage has been eroded, but measures have been put in place to rehabilitate the native flora and eliminate pests. While red rata blooms bright in the warmer months, megaherbs dominate the landscape – can you imagine walking through a field of supersized purple broccoli? Yeah, its weird but magical.

It was so gusty as we walked through these meadows to visit an albatross colony I about blew over.

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

The Auckland’s are also a protected marine reserve. They provide sheltered breeding grounds for southern right whales and New Zealand sea lions – of which there are only 10,000 left in the wild – making them some of the rarest on earth.

Unlike fur seals, they readily charge you, so we’re told to be on our guard.

Of course, they are also an oasis for mammals of the winged kind – many seabirds rest and nest on its shores before taking flight again. 

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

Macquarie Island

While most of my fellow passengers were puking their brains out on the journey down to Macquarie Island, My face was glued to my portal eagerly watching for seabirds heralding land getting really excited.

Similar to South Georgia, for many Macquarie is the jewel of the trip because of its immense penguin colonies and feisty elephant seals.

Fellow bird nerds – take note – if you want the penguins and the seabirds and the wild antarctic weather without actually going to Antarctica, Macquarie is where it’s at.

At first glance you would be forgiven for being a touch nervous. Towering cliffs give way to turbulent seas, howling winds and about a million penguins. Oh, and the delightful stench of a million penguins. I loved it immediately.

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

The furthest isle from New Zealand on this trip, it sits halfway between here and Australia and is home to a permanent Australian research base, the Macquarie Island Station. Researchers take year-long posts monitoring the wildlife – including the resident albatross population, petrel colony and of course, the penguins.

Giant elephant seals are also abundant here, mixing seamlessly with the resident fur seal and penguin population.

While on the other subantartics, everything is supersized, on Macquarie everything is super small. Foliage rarely grows over one meter, testament to the severe weather conditions.

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

We first visited the Australian research base on Macquarie, getting a tour of the area and exploring around the base in the pouring rain. It was moody and mysterious and really wild, I loved it. Especially being chased by the baby elephant seals called “weaners” as they have just been weaned from their mothers.

Hardly “baby” sized this things guys massive!

Our other main landing at Sandy Bay we lucked out massively with incredible weather, blue skies and sunshine and no wind, it was almost hot!

Unusual in this part of the world where the climate can only be described as “shit awful” we certainly made the most of it!

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

Campbell Island

Our final stop was Campbell Island, which turned out to be my absolute favorite of them all!

Of all the forgotten Subantarctics, Campbell Island has been affected the most by human civilization. It has a dark past, once home to both sealing and whaling operations in the late 1800’s which nearly eradicated the entire population of fur seals.

It was then turned into a sheep farm (seriously – sheep are like the hardiest of animals, literally every remote island I go to has had sheep at one point or another!) before being abandoned during the great depression.

Hello wild sheepies!

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

We all know how much I love mountains, and Campbell definitely delivers! It’s jagged peaks shelter a large colony of nesting southern albatross *jumps for joy* while harsh weather conditions have produced a unique display of megaherbs and giant flowers. It’s kind of like being inside jurassic park. With birds.

It’s also where I got up close with light mantled sooty albatross which are one of my favorite seabirds. They’re so beautiful!

Campbell is also home to the world’s most remote tree, a Sitka Spruce – thought to be over 100 years old. And if you know much about New Zealand’s current conservation programs, this is an invasive species but it can’t regenerate without another tree, so they’ve left it to be instead of killing it. 

That Campbell Tree.

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

There was just something about Campbell Island that I really loved, and it really resonated with me. From the incredible flowering purple Pleurophyllum to the stunning albatross colonies and rugged peaks, it’s beauty was unparalleled.

My few precious weeks spent on the ship exploring this part of the world with Heritage Expeditions reinforced the idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while now: this is where I want to be. I love it down here, I love the wildness and unpredictability of it all. I love being offline.

It’s a pretty special place that should be at the top of everyone’s bucketlists who adore nature.

Have you heard of these islands before? Is this the kind of trip you’d be keen to join in on? Share!

subantarctic islands travel

subantarctic islands travel

Many thanks to Heritage Expeditions for taking me to the Subantarctic Islands – like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own – like you could expect less from me!

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14 Comments on “An introduction to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands

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  1. Great post. I used to be checking constantly this weblog and I’m inspired!
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