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Thursday 14th November - Monday 2nd December 2013
Unforgettable. That´s a good way of describing our 2013 Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand & Australia cruise. With 48 species of tubenoses seen this year - an all-time record for this cruise - this is surely the ultimate seabirding experience in the World, and it´s definitely a must for any seabird enthusiastic. Quite a selection of rare endemics occur in these remote islands, making it an obligatory visit for the world birder, and given the sheer numbers of wildlife, absolutely stunning scenery and outstanding photo opportunities, any nature lover will also find this a magical cruise. During our epic trip, we visited a succession of famous islands, whose names most of us had heard many times and evoked remoteness and masses of seabirds, but actually never thought we would ever set foot on: the Snares; the Auckland Islands; Macquarie Island; Campbell Island; the Antipodes Islands; the Bounty Islands and the Chatham Islands. Called by Heritage Expeditions ‘Birding Down Under’, our 18-day voyage aboard the Russian oceanographic research vessel Professor Khromov (renamed Spirit of Enderby by our New Zealand tour operator) took us to a series of tiny pieces of land in the vast Southern Ocean and treated us to extraordinaire numbers of penguins, albatrosses, petrels, storm petrels and shags, as well as some of the world’s rarest land birds. Most of these islands are uninhabited, and because of this and their remoteness, the wildlife is not afraid of humans at all. The feeling of having huge albatrosses, funny penguins or massive elephant-seals at your feet, totally unconcerned by your presence, is something really especial and very difficult to find these days, and should be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
In the seabird front, we recorded an impressive 48 species of tubenoses, including 14 forms of albatrosses, 30 species of shearwaters, petrels and prions, including two mega-rare seabirds: the Critically Endangered Magenta Petrel, and the Endangered Chatham Petrel, which have been seen at sea only a handful of times ever, as well as four species of Storm Petrels. On land, we were treated to magical encounters with no less than 9 species of penguins and displaying albatrosses, plus a selection of the rarest land birds in the World. The almost endless highlights of the tour included some absolutely magical hours spent, under sunny skies, with the Royal, King and Gentoo Penguins on Macquarie Island; a “golden hour” on our last afternoon in the Chathams with at-sea sightings of Magenta and Chatham Island Petrels – two of the rarest seabirds in the world, with the latter being a Birdquest lifer-; elegant Light-mantled (Sooty) Albatrosses in their beautiful display flight over a cliff face on Enderby Island; face-to-face encounters with Southern Royal Albatrosses on the nest at Campbell Island; an impressive seabird feeding frenzy right off the bow of our ship, with thousands of albatrosses of 9 species, including hundreds of beautiful Chatham Albatrosses; no less than 9 species of Pterodroma (meaning winged-runner) Petrels; a very rare sighting of a Great Shearwater; a vagrant Chinstrap Penguin in Macquarie which was one of the first records of this species in this part of the world; some seldom-seen shorebirds: the cryptic Subantarctic Snipe on Enderby Island and the recently discovered and very little known Campbell Island (Subantarctic) Snipe on Campbell; the exceedingly rare Chatham Oystercatcher and the strange Shore Dotterel (Shore Plovers) in the Chatham Islands; great views of flightless Auckland and Campbell Teals -surely the rarest ducks on our planet- ; large numbers of delightful Snares Crested and Erect-crested Penguins at their breeding colonies; a total of six species of restricted range shags; great views of New Zealand Falcon on Enderby; Snares Island Fernbird in the Snares and Antipodes and Reischek´s Parakeets in the Antipodes. Mammalian highlights included aggressive New Zealand Sea-Lions in the Auckland Islands and on Campbell Island, a single Subantarctic Fur-Seal in the Antipodes, fighting male Southern Elephant Seals in Macquarie and several cetaceans including Great Sperm Whales, Long-finned Pilot Whales, a small pod of Killer Whales and several Dusky Dolphins. We were lucky with the weather this year, with the seas being fairly calm, for Southern Ocean standards that is, during most of the voyage, although we did get a taste of the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘furious fifties’ during our journey to Macquarie.The tour official started in the late afternoon of the 14th of November, when people from all over the world gathered at the Kelvin Hotel in Invercargill, all very excited with our forthcoming adventure on the Southern Ocean. At dinner we met expedition leader Rodney Russ, who outlined the programme for the next day, and then we all went to bed. Before leaving Invercargill the next day, we paid a visit to Southland Museum in the morning where there was excellent exhibit on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand, and we were also treated to great views and some natural history talk on the Tuataras - a prehistoric reptile endemic to a few New Zealand offshore islands -, that are captively bred in a special part of the museum. After an early lunch we then drove to Bluff Harbour to clear customs and with eager excitement boarded the Spirit of Enderby. After settling in our cabins and wandering around the ship, looking for the best viewing spots, we had our obligate first briefing in the lecture room and a lifeboat drill. We departed at 4 pm, crossed the Foveaux Strait that separates South Island from Stewart Island, and sailed past the eastern side of Stewart I. Despite the overcast weather, most of us spent the whole afternoon in the upper deck, watching our first of the many tubenoses we would see in the following days: Gibson´s, Southern Royal, White-capped and Salvin’s Albatrosses, Sooty and Buller´s Shearwaters, White-chinned and Cape Petrels, Northern Giant Petrels, Fairy and Broad-billed Prions, large numbers of the beautiful Mottled, as well as a few Cook´s Petrels and Bronze (Stewart I) and Spotted Shags.