Back in 1968 I bought a book called “*Macquarie Island*” written by J. S.
Cumpston and published by the Australian government’s Antarctic Division.
>From that day on I wanted to go to Macquarie Island. This year, 43 years
later, I got there; and it was WONDERFUL.
The trip started, as all trips do with the planning, expectations and
homework, this time lasting just on 12 months between when we booked until
we got on the Heritage Expeditions ship, *Spirit of Enderby*, or as she is
formally known to her Russian owners, the *Professor Khromov*.
On 18th of November 5 of us gathered in Dunedin and our trip began. As all
good trips should begin, the sun was out, the water was calm and the
passengers wandered around getting to know the ship and each other. Prime
birding spots such as way up in the bow, on the stern deck or on the top
deck above the bridge were sussed out and assessed for birding potential.
When we went to bed after the first afternoon the forecast was good and
when we awoke we were at The Snares Islands. The Enderby’s crew had
everything under control and the zodiac cruise was better than any
description I had read. It was a magic day of penguins, sealions and
Leaving Snares and heading to Auckland and Enderby Islands the sun was out
and the wind had picked up a bit so that the albatross, prions and petrels
were all performing as they should, gliding smoothly across the wave tops
and arcing high in the blue sky. Magic. On the Islands we enjoyed the long
walk through the megaherbs and stunted trees whilst being beguiled by
cormorants, albatross, snipe, pipits and parrots. Of course the sealions
believe they own the island and charged us intruders, bellowing and
flashing long yellow canines in bright red mouths as they came. All their
bluster ended up as bluff but they were convincing enough to get the
adrenaline flowing. To have half a ton or so of roaring blubber and angry
red-mouthed teeth lurch at you, very fast, until they are only a metre or
so from your leg is quite some experience.
On the trip to Campbell Island the wind continued to strengthen and our
time on the island was enjoyed in misting rain, wind and low clouds. When
we left that afternoon and cleared the cover of the island we saw that
things were seriously different. The blue sky was gone and the strong winds
had increased to gale strength. The portholes on the lower level had their
steel covers lowered and bolted, the deck doors to the bow were locked
closed and warnings came over the intercom to hang on and be careful as we
moved around the ship.
Sadly for the birding we were now largely confined to the bridge, though
occasionally we could find a sheltered corner of the top deck where we
could huddle. This need to try and see birds other than through the salt
encrusted windows caused me my only moment of concern; Detlaf and I were
just going on deck as the ship decided to do a major role. Detlaf was still
in the open doorway and braced but I was just outside on the wet deck and,
as the boat heeled, I grabbed his outstretched arm and a nearby rail while
my feet slid down the deck toward the ocean. As the ship righted herself we
both decided that the open deck was not the place to be. Back in the
relative comfort of the bridge we were told that the wind was blowing to 50
knots gusting to 70 knots and the ship had heeled over 37º!
Late in the evening after nearly three days at sea we arrived at Macquarie
Island. Our first landing was at Sandy Bay where the Royal and King Penguin
rookeries are. It was overcast and rainy but in the shelter of the island
the sea was calm. On shore the magic is hard to put into words. The
wildlife, and it is seriously wild, is totally unconcerned by human
presence, in fact it seemed to count us as much of a curiosity as we found
them a total enchantment. Picture standing on a black-sand beach getting
the briefing and warnings: “Do not go within 5 metres of the wildlife and
do not touch them HOWEVER if they come to you, be calm and respect their
presence”. At this point a sea lion pup had ambled in and was standing, so
to speak, in the middle of our group. While taking off my life jacket I
became aware that a skua was pecking at the toe of my boot. As we walked
down the beach Royal Penguins approached and pecked at our clothes and
camera gear. To sit down was to invite the sea lion pups to waddle up and
cuddle on ones legs. To lie down was to welcome them to climb right up and
peer at your face with the biggest, deepest, heart-melting black eyes you
have ever seen. By now the sun had come out and the view of 1,000s of
penguins in their rookeries and on the beach was spellbinding.
Yes, the trip was as much as I hoped for. The only let down was a surprise
to me, and others, that was there was no one on board from Heritage who had
knowledge of or real interest in the seabirds. I have now re-looked at
their promotional material and we were not on a "birding trip" it seems.
Sigh! The possible upside in the end was that there were only about 10
manic birders on board (we named ourselves the Bridge Club) so we had
plenty of room. It also meant that we worked hard to identify the birds
rather than being "told" what they were. This, for me, resulted in learning
heaps about IDing pelagic birds under difficult conditions. For this reason
I am personally glad that there was no pelagic seabird guru on board though
many of the members of the Bridge Club with less pelagic experience would
definitely not agree with me. Oh, and two members of the Bridge Club were
from Sweden and we learnt that in Swedish “bird watching” is, phonetically,
“fogel skoerdning”. So that was it, all bird watching was abandoned as we
embraced manic fogel skoerdning for the rest of the trip.
Sadly, with no on-board birding support we did not know to look for the
nesting cliffs on Campbell Island so when we passed them at 0500 I was
still in my cabin. I had done heaps of homework before we left so I think
this was the only bad miss I had.
The weather during the trip was so terrible (exciting and fun for me) that
about 40 of the 50 on board never left their cabins or the lounge, with
some 4 or 5 sleeping in the lounge each night. The doctor was giving 3
people anti-nausea injections and a couple of people were wearing cut and
bruised faces caused by falls. Dinner at sea each night was down to 20 +/-
people. It would have been nice if the weather had moderated for the leg
from Macquarie to Hobart so that the birding could have been better, but
The birding highlight for me was having so long in Aus waters, about 140 nm
coming into Macquarie when we arrived, 200 nm as we left and then 200 nm as
we approached Tassie. The only bird I regret missing was Grey Petrel and
only one was seen, as we left Macquarie.
I also found out that none of the field guides show accurate pictures of
the Broad-billed Prion. The bird has a much more pronounced dark brow than
the books show as well as having a black “bridle” line from the base of the
bill to behind the eye. They are quite unmistakable with their large black
bill and overshot forehead. The best representation in a field guide that I
could find is the one in Pizzey and Knight, and even that is just average.
We also twice watched Southern Royal Albatross sitting on the water and
going through their bonding routine of “Sky-calling” while some 500 nm from
their nearest breeding islands. I always thought that these birds that
partner for life only met once a year near the breeding islands. I now
think that they might also travel the southern oceans together in their
monogamous, life-long pairing.
My birds of the trip were the Broad-billed Prions that I saw in Aus waters,
the rest of the Bridge Club selected either Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
or Royal Penguin. Between Dunedin and Hobart I saw 72 species in total and
40 species within Australian territory.
And my trip is still going on as I sort through 3,400 or so photos,
deciding which to keep and which to trash, sending emails, checking field
guides, completing Atlas forms, dreaming of sea lion faces and just
Ah, what a trip. Magic. Fantastic. Enchanting. Exciting. And all the other
superlatives and adjectives that one can come up with. I was not
disappointed after the 34 year wait, but I now need to go back in five or
six years to see what the poor denuded hills look like now the rabbits are
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