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History of the Islands
Geographical & Meteorological
Flora and Fauna
Birdlife
Seals, Sea Lions and Whales
Introduced Species

Map of Auckland Islands
Information about Anchorages
Timeline of Auckland Islands History

The Auckland Islands

A view of Auckland Island, showing the sub-alpine
shrubland that occurs on the higher points of the Island.

The Amherst Spar, left by the crew of the Brig Amherst in 1867,
to act as a ship's beacon.

The Auckland Islands are one of the bleakest places on Earth, situated in the sub-Antarctic region, 465km south of New Zealand.

The islands are tiny, with Auckland Island itself, the largest island of the group, being only 43 kilometres long by 24 wide - but are nevertheless the home to an amazing variety of unusual and rare wildlife, a number of ancient shipwrecks and some of the most ferocious weather on the planet.

The History of the Islands

Discovered in 1806, by Captain Abraham Bristow of the whaler Ocean, the Auckland Islands have a fascinating history of at least eight known shipwrecks and little human habitation.

When originally discovered, the islands were plotted incorrectly on maritime charts, some 35 miles out of position. This, combined with the fact that navigation in the South Pacitic was a very approximate art usually hindered by poor visibility and bad weather, caused many ships to run aground against the sheer basaltic cliffs on the western coastline. There are many harrowing stories of survival by castaways from ships such as the Invercauld - where 19 of 25 crew members got to shore, but only 3 survived the following weeks, by turning to cannibalism to stay alive; and the Grafton, where the Captain made the mistake of sheltering from a storm in Carnley Harbour - unfortunately, the geography of the harbour concentrated the fury of the storm like a wind-tunnel, driving the Grafton ashore. The shipwreck situation eventually became so bad that for a time each island was checked twice a year for castaways.

In addition, there are many land-based sites of archeological interest - such as the home the castaways of the Dundonald made for themselves on Disppointment Island - that the expedition team will visit and catalogue. Many of these sites being slowly eroded by exposure to the elements, and the expedition aims to chart these sites accurately, and document their condition.

The Auckland islands were a site of the sealing and whaling trade during the 19th Century, with sealers often returning with 2000 or more skins. Today, squid and tuna fishing vessels operate in the vicinity of the Islands.

The Islands were also the site of the shortest-lived attempt to establish a British colony - the colony lasted a total of 2 years and 9 months.

In recent years, the islands have emerged as a valuable wildlife sanctuary, where several endangered species, including the Hooker's Sealion and Yellow-eyed Penguin, make their home. Visits to the the Islands are strictly controlled by New Zealand's Department of Conservation. The Auckland Islands currently get few visitors - generally only those interested in the wildlife, the archeological artifacts or sunken treasure are allowed to go there.

Timeline of Auckland Islands history

 

The Dundonald, wrecked against Disappointment Island in 1907.

Tombstone from the grave of John Mohoney, Master Mariner on board the Invercauld, who died of starvation.
His name is spelled incorrectly on the tombstone.

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The Islands Today

Geographical & Meteorological

Click here for a map of Auckland Islands

The Auckland Islands are the remains of two prehistoric volcanoes. Auckland Island is the largest island of the group, 43 kilometres long by 23 wide. The western side of Auckland Island is almost entirely basaltic cliffs, rising over 365 metres, with only two tiny coves in the north of the island to provide access. The eastern coast has a large number of fjiord-like indentations, which reach a considerable distance inland.

On average, it rains 27 days a month, the winds usually blow harder than 60 hk/h, and temperatures rarely reach higher than 15 degrees Celcius.

An example of the basaltic cliffs that have claimed so many lives.

Caves like this one are common around the coastline. This one has an eerie feel, due to the phosphorescent glow coming off the walls.

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Flora and Fauna

Despite being frequently lashed by hostile weather, the Auckland Islands are home to many species of plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world. Because they are rarely visited by man, the Islands are in near-virgin condition, a situation the Department of Conservation is keen to maintain.

The Auckland Islands have the richest flora of all the subantarctic islands - 233 taxa have been recorded, of which 196 are native.

Auckland Islands have a distinct altitudinal zonation in the vegetation:

The roots of the Southern Rata, a knarled and twisted  tree that gives the Rata forests of the Auckland Islands a haunted atmosphere.

The pleurophyllum genera is endemic to the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands

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Birdlife

Over 120 species of bird have been observed on an around the Islands. Because land masses are infrequent in the Southern Ocean, the subantarctic islands, this Islands are a vital breeding ground for nearly 40 species of seabirds, many of which will not have touched land since their last breeding season.

The albatross, and their small cousins the mollymawks, are the most easily recognised of the seabirds. Seven species frequent the islands, including most well known, the royal albatross, with a wingspan in excess of 11 feet.

Several species of penguin, including the solitary Yellow-eyed penguin, and the rockhopper penguin are found on the Islands. Crested penguins breed and moult ashore, but then abondon their breeding islands for about four months during the winter - where they go has never been determined.

In addition, the islands host populations of petrels, gulls, terns and predatory skuas.

Because the Auckland Islands have a large variety of habitats, they have the largest range of landbirds of all the subantarctic islands.  Thirteen species, including the New Zealand falcon and the Tui are found on Auckland Island. Many landbirds have evolved  into forms that are not found elsewhere - the teals of Auckland Island are now flightless, unlike their genetic ancestors, the Australian chestnut teal.

Rockhopper penguins form large colonies on
the Auckland Islands.

The Royal Albatross, a bird unique in the world.  With a wingspan of 3.3 metres, it can fly non-stop for weeks, and rarely visits land except to breed.

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Seals, Sea Lions and Whales

Four species of seal are regular vistors to the Auckland Islands - Hookers sea lion, the New Zealand fur seal, southern elephant seal and the leopard seal.

Fur seals, with their valuable pelts, were hunted regularly from 1807 to 1894, although licences were issued sporadically between 1913 and 1946. Fur seals were almost completely exterminated by sealers, and today the current population is estimated at 50,000.

The Hooker Sea lion, considered the worlds most endangered sea lion, occurs on the island, but is falling prey to the nets of squid trawlers, which drown an estimated 70-100 sea lions in their nets each summer. In the past, they were hunted for their hides and the oils rendered from their thick, insulating blubber. Adult male sea lions grow to at least 450 kg and over three metres at length, and aggressively fight for the favour of females during the mating season. Females grow to 160 kg, two metres in length.  The Hooker Sealion dives continuously to 250 metres when foraging for food, and can easily pass 450 metres.

Elephant seals are found throughout the subantarctic, although there is no established breeding colony on Auckland Islands. Elephant seals are of particular interest to researchers as an indicator species - researchers believe that the trends shown by their populations reflect the general health of the Southern Ocean. Breeding of elephant seals (on Campbell Island) is down 97% since 1947, although some colonies appear to be sustaining their numbers. The elephant seal is the champion diver among seals, having been recorded below 1200 metres.

Little is known about leopard seals, as they mate at sea and do not form colonies. They are regular visitors to the Auckland Islands, and the only seal known to eat warm-blooded prey, such as penguins.

The baleen whales - fin, sei, right, blue and humpback, as well as sperm and killer whales, are sometimes seen around the subantarctic islands. In addition, southern bottlenose and dusky dolphins are sometimes sighted. Killer whales are one of the principal predators of seals and small whales in the region.

A Hooker sea lion, considered the world's most
endangered sea lion species. This pup has been tagged as part of a Department of Conservation monitoring programme.

Sperm whale diving, after surfacing to breathe.

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Introduced Species

The Auckland Islands also have a long history of introduced species. Rabbits, goats, cattle, cats, rats, mice and pigs were introduced onto the islands in the early 1800s, but have since been largely destructive to the natural ecosystem. Sealion pups fall victim to the remains of rabbit warrens, and Albatross breeding grounds are destroyed by pigs (which is particularly serious, as an Albatross takes only one mate in a lifetime). Rabbits and cattle were eradicated by the Department of Conservation in 1990, and pigs will eradicated as soon as a viable method becomes available.