Subantarctic Islands: The Ultimate Pelagic

These cruises are the ULTIMATE pelagics. There are simply no better trips on Earth for seabirds and seabirding. The New Zealand subantarctic islands offer the highest diversity of ‘tubenoses’ on the planet, and if you do the full itinerary you can expect to see well over 30 species.

South of New Zealand, in a realm occupied only by the hardiest of souls, there is a string of islands that are rarely visited, and some of the wildest and most rugged on the planet. Sitting on the very edge of the Antarctic convergence, and in true Antarctic form, the creatures that inhabit these is-lands are legendarily extremely tame and approachable, often too much so, which results in truly awesome opportunities to get up close and intimate. An added bonus is the opportunity to get up close with these same creatures at massive breeding colonies, including a variety of albatross and penguin species. On top of this the Subantarctic Islands offer up a wealth of other Antarctic wildlife, from an abundance of cetaceans roaming the icy waters, to colonies of fur seals and sea lions, including another giant and formidable species, the impressive Hooker’s Sea Lion; or if you like your wildlife super-sized, how about the gargantuan Southern Elephant Seal.

These voyages are of a truly expeditionary nature; they set out to reach seldom-visited islands like Macquarie Island and Campbell Island, by way of the Snares and Auckland Islands. On the longer trip, from Campbell we move on even further to the Antipodes and Bounties, visited just once per year by expeditioners, and then conclude with a visit to the Chatham Islands, where we search for two of the rarest seabirds on Earth – the Chatham Island Petrel and Taiko, or Magenta Petrel.

Like any Antarctic destination these tours offer much for the non-birding partner and non-birding nature photographer; a wealth of wonderful landscapes awaits, as do some truly close encounters with Antarctic wildlife. No other tours offer the variety of penguins and seabirds possible on such a short cruise, thus boasting the highest diversity and numbers of seabirds of any of our tours. Penguins alone are represented by at least 8 species, whilst the albatrosses are represented by up to 15 taxa.

There are three versions of this itinerary:
“Birding Down Under” is the full length 19 day trip, whose itinerary is given below, which ends in Dunedin.
“Galapagos of the Southern Ocean” is a 12 day trip that visits Snares, Enderby, Auckland, Macquarie, and Campbell Islands, and ends in Invercargill.
“Forgotten Islands of the South Pacific” is the shortest trip at 8 days, and takes in Snares, Enderby, Auckland, and Campbell Islands. It also ends in Invercargill.


Day 1: Invercargill. Today we meet in the small but wellequipped town of Invercargill in New Zealand’s far south. Most of the day is free for you to explore the town but in the evening we will meet for dinner along with the rest of the expeditioners, expedition staff and, where applicable, your Tropical Birding guide.

Day 2: Port of Bluff. Today marks the true beginning of our subantarctic adventure, and one of epic proportions it shall prove to be. We will transfer from Invercargill to the tiny port of Bluff after lunch where we will meet and board our vessel for the adventure – the well-equipped and tastefully refitted Spirit of Enderby, or Professor Khromov. After a couple of briefings on safety and use of Zodiac rigid inflatable boats, our primary method of getting ashore, we will meet on deck or on the Bridge of the ship as we leave port and cross the Foveaux Strait, steaming past Stewart Island. This is often a productive area for seabirds and we will likely see Foveaux Shag (a recent split from the Bronze Shag complex), Spotted Shag, our first prions in the form of Fairy and possibly Broad-billed, Pintado Petrel and our first albatrosses in the form of White-capped, Salvin’s and maybe a Southern Royal if we’re lucky. Little Blue Penguins are often seen this afternoon and on occasion Fiordland Crested Penguin are seen, though some luck is required for the latter

The largest flying bird on Earth, Wandering Albatross, comes in to land
The largest flying bird on Earth, Wandering Albatross, comes in to land (Nick Leseberg)

Day 3: The Snares and at sea. Day 3 of this expedition sees us approaching the rarely-visited Snares in the early morning. Barely more than rocks in the Southern Ocean, these windswept outcrops are actually surprisingly supportive of life and hold several endemic species that we hope to see. Depending on the timing of the expedition we will be met by varying numbers of Buller’s Albatross (few or none in November, hundreds or more in January), but regardless of timing we will be escorted close to shore by thousands of Sooty Shearwater and Cape or Pintado Petrel, dozens of diving petrels including both Common and the undescribed ‘Subantarctic’ Diving Petrel (a split from South Georgian Diving Petrel) and likely several Southern Royal Albatross.

Once we reach the islands, depending on weather and sea conditions, we will attempt to launch the Zodiacs for a cruise of the coast. No landings are permitted on these pristine, predator free islands, but we will see all of its wealth from the Zodiacs. As we approach the shore we will see increasing numbers of Snares Crested Penguins, endemic to these rocks, and though we will have seen them from the ship already, once we reach the islands we’ll be visitors in their world as we bob amongst rafts of dozens and nudge against resting groups of hundreds of birds. As if that wasn’t enough we should have no problems finding the endemic Snares Fernbird and Snares Tomtit (an imminent split, surely), the latter particularly dapper in its all-black plumage. We have on occasion seen Snares Snipe here though it is exceptionally difficult to see, however we may well hear it as we cruise toward the world-famous Penguin Slide where penguins enter and exit the ocean and make their way up to their forest nests.

Leaving The Snares it is well worth being on deck or on the Bridge. Seabirds come thick and fast, and we should see plenty of dashing Mottled Petrels as we cruise south. Albatross numbers should be high and will likely include Northern and Southern Royal, White-capped and Salvin’s and maybe Campbell. We sometimes see Fulmar Prion here, though they require exceptional care to separate from the nearly-identical Fairy Prion.

Day 4: Enderby Island. This day is reserved for a visit to the wild, wind-swept, rugged and often-sunny Enderby Island, part of the Auckland Islands. This is truly a subantarctic paradise, inhabited by rare and endemic flora and fauna, the majority of which are exceptionally tame, in typical subantarctic fashion. We have a full day to explore this island.

Arriving on the beach we will be met by extremely curious, enormous and often intimidating Hook-er’s or New Zealand Sea Lion, whilst along the shore we will find the zombie-like Yellow-eyed Penguin, of which the majority of the world population breeds here on Enderby Island. Making our way through the Rata forest we may find Auckland Islands Tomtit, Red-crowned Parakeet or even Yellow-crowned Parakeet with exceptional luck, and New Zealand Falcon is not unusual here. We emerge onto a slightly more elevated open plateau where Southern Royal Albatross breed, some-times in close proximity to the boardwalk, but the real attraction here are Auckland Island Dotterel (a distinctive subspecies of Banded Dotterel) and the chance of seeing the cryptic Auckland Island Snipe which may take some effort to locate. At the rugged cliffs on the far side of the island (an easy and leisurely walk away) Light-mantled Sooty Albatross survey the coast alongside passing Auckland Island Shags. Back at the coast we’ll look for good photo opportunities with Yellow-eyed Penguins and of course with the flightless Auckland Island Teal, the island’s rarest inhabitant.

Day 5: Auckland Island. The options for day 5 are varied and depend entirely on the weather and sea conditions we are dealt. The aim is to enter Carnley Harbour at dawn and travel down the side of Adams Island. The entrance to this enormous natural harbor, the caldera of an ancient volcano, is spectacular and often includes the spectacle of thousands of seabirds. Sooty Shearwaters abound, but the presence of White-headed Petrels and sometimes Slender-billed Prions are the greatest draw. We have, on occasion, seen the tantalizingly rare Salvin’s Prion here. Our options will be assessed once inside, but will include a landing on main Auckland Island, conditions allowing. This is a good opportunity to see the difference between a pest-free island (Enderby) and an island with pests (Auckland) – the fauna and flora are very different, with most of the endemic birds lacking from the pest-infested islands. On occasion the weather may allow for a visit to the south-west cape White-capped Albatross colony. Leaving the Auckland Islands is often a superb opportunity for close-up views and photos of Gibson’s Albatross, the Auckland Island breeding form of Wandering Albatross.

Day 6: At Sea. Today will be spent at sea on our way south-south-west toward Macquarie Island. At some point today we will also likely cross the Exclusive Economic Zone boundary and enter Australian territorial waters – important for the Aussie listers. Seabirding on this stretch is unusually variable – out over deep waters it is often quiet, and there is time for much-deserved relaxing and photo-editing, but as we leave the Aucklands and as we approach Macquarie the activity can be spectacular. Black-bellied, Wilson’s and Grey-backed Storm Petrels will likely be seen frequently today, along with the many albatross we have become accustomed to and maybe even a couple of new species like Grey-headed or Snowy (Wandering) Albatross. We will be surrounded by flocks of Antarctic Prion today, that much is guaranteed, and the occasional screaming fly-bys by White-headed and maybe Soft-plumaged Petrels will surely garner deserved attention. The race will also be on to see who can find the first of hopefully several Blue Petrels, though this is a tough species to locate.

Weather conditions permitting, there will be lectures today by the naturalist staff possibly including a detailed seabird identification session.

Days 7-8: Macquarie Island. We have two days set aside for visiting the wildlife mecca that is Macquarie Island. A long strip of the Earth’s crust sitting above the surface of the ocean, Macquarie is one of the most difficult to reach islands on the planet. Our itinerary will vary from trip to trip depending on weather conditions, but will likely include several different landings. The ANARE base at Buckle’s Bay is interesting, but for the birders it presents the unique opportunity to see Gentoo Penguin on this side of the world – and these birds do not venture away from Macquarie and have morphological differences to those on the Antarctic peninsula – a split waiting to happen. Another highlight here is the presence of a small breeding colony of Eastern Rockhopper Penguins, another split waiting to happen. Along the beaches we will also find King and likely the endemic Royal Penguin, plentiful Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, the endemic Macquarie Island Shag, Antarctic Terns and dozens of gigantic Southern Elephant Seal. We have also seen Leopard Seal here in the past.

If we can make a landing at Sandy Bay it will likely be the highlight of the trip, and a highlight in most people’s lives more than likely. Here we land amongst a thriving and bustling throng of pen-guins, thousands of King and Royal Penguins show off their curious nature by coming and sitting with you on the beach, often touching us and offering us pebbles as tokens of interest. A short doze or relax on the beach may also see you make an intimate friend in a young Southern Elephant Seal – an experience not quickly forgotten. Photographic opportunities here are amongst the best in the world.

As we cruise down the coast of Macquarie we will assess conditions at Lusitania Bay at the south-west corner of the island, home to an incredible 70,000+ pairs of King Penguin. If weather condi-tions permit, we will attempt a Zodiac cruise here.

Day 9: At Sea. Today will be spent at-sea on our transit toward Campbell Island. Seabirding is likely to be out-standing with many of the species we’ve seen before in good numbers, as well as boosted chances of seeing Grey-headed Albatross, Soft-plumaged Petrel and rarer birds like Blue and Grey Petrels. Campbell Albatross could be numerous.

Day 10: Campbell Island. Awaking in the calm of Perseverance Harbour we will spend the day at the pest-free Campbell Island. There will be several options for you to choose from today but they will include a Zodiac cruise around the harbor to look for wildlife including Campbell Island Shag and Campbell Island Teal (one of the rarest ducks in the world) and a walk up the Col Lyall saddle to a superb Southern Royal Albatross colony. Here we can have intimate and life-highlight-quality experiences with these lofty-winged giants. Spending an afternoon with these birds is worth the entire journey in itself, according to some guides and passengers alike. The chances of encountering Campbell Island Snipe are very good, whilst Campbell Island Pipit is abundant.

Docking with penguins will be a regular feature of our time in these rich islands
Docking with penguins will be a regular feature of our time in these rich islands (Heritage Expeditions)

Day 11: At Sea. The journey toward the Antipodes can be very productive, with many individuals of our familiar travelling companions. Subantarctic Little Shearwater can be common on this stretch and we should encounter Fulmar Prion in good numbers closer to the Antipodes. Antipodean Albatross is almost guaranteed as we approach the islands.

Days 12: Antipodes Islands. These are some of the least-visited, most-rugged and little-known islands in the world. No landings are permitted so we will attempt to cruise the coast in search of its endemic treasures. Both Antipodes and Reischek’s Parakeets are usually seen, unique for being flesh-eating parrots, along with our first Erect-crested Penguins, arguably one of the most difficult penguins to see due to its isolated breeding core. We should also get good views of Eastern Rockhopper Penguin, the An-tipodes subspecies of New Zealand Pipit and likely Subantarctic Fur Seal too.

Day 13: Bounty Islands. If you thought the Snares was rugged, wait until you see the Bounties. Large rocky outcrops in the middle of the Southern Ocean they are surprisingly well-inhabited. In fact, the sight of these islands covered in thousands upon thousands of Salvin’s Albatross is a sight to behold, along with the rarest shag in the world – Bounty Islands Shag – and thousands of Erect-crested Penguins. On the 2016 BDU expedition Tropical Birding guide Lisle Gwynn declared these his favorite islands of the trip for the sheer spectacle of seabirds.

White-capped Albatross breeds in the Aucklands
White-capped Albatross breeds in the Aucklands (Nick Leseberg)

Day 14: At Sea and Pyramid Rock. For the birders (which is most expeditioners on this trip), this is a special day indeed. The day begins at sea in an area made famous by this trip as being productive for one of the world’s least-known seabirds – the Taiko, or Magenta Petrel. Indeed on the 2016 expedition, at the crack of dawn, this ultra-rare beast made an appearance for the pre-breakfast risers. Not only is this a very real possibility, we also make a visit to Pyramid Rock. At first glance this rock looks like an impressively-weird stack in the ocean, however it is especially appealing to those of us with birds on the mind because it is home to the entire world population of Chatham Island Albatross – arguably one of the best looking of the ocean giants. Rivalling Chatham Albatross is Pacific (or Northern Buller’s) Albatross, seen here in great numbers along with the giant Northern Royal Albatross.

This evening we make a special effort to search for the Taiko and Chatham Island Petrels. We have had excellent success in the past with both of these species. Chatham Island Shag is often seen in these waters.

Day 15: Main Chatham Island. Today we will spend the day ashore on the main chatham island where we will go in search of all available endemic birds, including Chatham Island Warbler, Chatham Island Pigeon, Chatham Island Oystercatcher, the endemic subspecies of New Zealand Fantail, Tui and Red-crowned Para-keet, and there is sometimes the chance of visiting a Taiko and/or Chatham Island burrow at an extra cost which is donated directly to the conservation efforts for these species – though this is unconfirmed at this stage and will only be confirmed either way much closer to the time.

Majestic King Penguins on Macquarie Island
Majestic King Penguins on Macquarie Island (Heritage Expeditions)

Day 16: South East Island and Mangere Island. This morning we plan to Zodiac cruise at South East Island, sometimes dubbed one of the world’s greatest nature reserves. Here we should see Chatham Island Oystercatcher and Pitt Island Shag, but the real draw is Shore Plover. Though Black Robin occurs on the island, the chances of seeing this bird are very low given their deep-forest dwelling nature.

Royal Albatrosses breed on Campbell Island
Royal Albatrosses breed on Campbell Island (Heritage Expeditions)

Days 17-18: At sea. We have two final days at sea to get last views and photos of our familiar travelling companions, but there is also the chance of new species in these waters like White-faced Storm Petrel, Cook’s and Pycroft’s Petrels, Grey-faced Petrel and Pink-footed Shearwater. The Chatham Rise, which we will travel along, is particularly productive for cetaceans and could produce a surprise or two.

Day 19: Dunedin. After an epic journey through some of the world’s most inaccessible and least-visited islands we finally arrive back to civilization in the lovely city of Dunedin, home to many artisanal bakeries and boutique breweries and coffee shops. Otago Shag may well be the final new bird of the trip within the harbor itself.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Although there will be plenty of down time on this expedition, the repeated outings in sometimes cold and damp weather can be tiring. This is the Southern Ocean and its reputation as a rough stretch of ocean is sometimes well-earned. There is the very real possibility of rough weather on these trips which can mean the ship rolling and pitching to a large degree. The ship is extremely tough, one of the toughest afloat, and the crew and staff extremely experienced, so it is always safe. On one or more days we will take a packed lunch ashore, but on all other days lunch will be had onboard. World-class chefs prepare superb meals aboard our floating home every night and cooked breakfast is available every day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. A general level of good health and fitness is required to enter and exit the Zodiacs at the gangway which can sometimes be rising and falling with the swell. If you are susceptible to seasickness, medication is an absolute necessity. On shore, excursions are mostly physically easy. Some more strenuous hikes are often available but are strictly optional. The hike to Col Lyall must be described as moderate as it is inclined and approximately 3 kilometers, but anybody of moderate fitness will find it no problem.

CLIMATE: The climate for this expedition is difficult to predict as it is so variable. Highs of 18 C (64 F) could be encountered on Enderby and Chatham, however it is wise to pack for freezing temperatures at Macquarie. Rainfall is regular though not particularly long-lasting. Zodiac trips can be very wet and quite cold so pack to be very waterproof (including waterproof over-trousers!).

ACCOMMODATION: Throughout the expedition we will stay on the Spirit of Enderby, a 50-passenger 22-crew ice-strengthened converted hydrological and meteorological research vessel. Accommodation is comfortable and homely. There is a bar/library area, sit-down restaurants with world-class chefs, a lecture theater where informative talks are regularly given, and even an onboard sauna in which to warm up.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Photographic opportunities are among the best in the world, with subjects being particularly obliging. A 100-400 or similar lens is often more than adequate and in some situations far too much. A wide-angle lens is a wise addition.