Life on Campbell Island
On the map it’s just a speck in the vast Southern Ocean, lashed by the winds of the Furious Fifties. Yet scientists and weather staff queue up for a chance to live in this remote southern outpost. Raewyn MacKenzie went to find out what draws them there.
The watchers have already been up for hours by the time the Daniel Solander pulls into Perseverance Harbour at 5.45am.
As we come into sight of their settlement we can see them through the drizzling rain standing motionless at the window of their dimly-lit accommodation quarters, watching the arrival of the first outside people they have seen in eight months. This is the ship which will take them back to New Zealand after a year on New Zealand’s southernmost meteorological station.
On board is the replacement crew. They too will spend a year here, observing and recording the weather patterns across the grim Southern Ocean. All first-timers except for their leader, Paul Hatfield, they have been well prepared for this sight: the rocky, tussocked hills flanking the harbour, the utilitarian buildings of the weather station huddling under Beeman Hill. But they too are subdued as the Daniel Solander drops anchor a couple of hundred metres across the water from their new home in the murky morning light. The temperature is 7.3 degrees, the wind chill factor reducing it to about zero.
Back out towards the harbour entrance the wind is tearing chunks of the water into wild, spinning loops that dance across the surface. Giant petrels, huge dark birds, wheel slowly overhead and 50m away, oblivious to the ship’s presence, young sea lions are playing in the kelp.
“What do you reckon, Richard?” I ask Richard Ward, the 30-year-old Aucklander who will cook for the team this year.
He looks thoughtfully across to the base, then to the wind-whipped water. He pauses, then nods towards a marker out in the harbour. “I reckon.” he says, “if I sailed my windsurfer into that bit of wind I’d be doing 35 knots by the time I reached that marker'” And he laughs at his neat sidestep.
I had met the crew at Gisborne four days before. Paul Hatfield, Mandy Bishop and Fiona Hill would run the meteorological operation at Campbell, with Richard Ward, Ian Jackson (electrician), Gerard Lynch (technician) Gerard Hamilton (mechanic) as support team.
At Gisborne we were helicoptered on board the Daniel Solander, chartered for the annual supply run by the Ministry of Transport, under whose wing the Meteorological Service operates. It had just returned from Raoul Island. New Zealand’s northernmost weather station in the Kermadec Islands. (Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was to be the last weather team they would take to Raoul—next year the station will be automated.) Now the ship was bound for Campbell Island.
For me, the trip would be an adventure to a part of the world that few people ever get the chance to see. I had arranged to spend a day with Department of Conservation scientist Peter Moore, and his technician Roger Moffat. Peter had been studying yellow-eyed penguins for the year. With Peter and Roger I was planning a day’s tramp to look at the island’s animals and vegetation.
For the team going down it would also be an adventure, testing themselves in a remote area. For some it would be a step up the career ladder as well. And for all it would be a large chunk of money in the bank at the end.
Lying 600km south of Stewart Island, Campbell Island is about the size of Waiheke Island. Hammered by gale force winds for much of the year, it receives an average of 653 hours of sunshine each year (contrast that with Invercargill’s 1600 hours) with less than one hour of sunshine a day for 215 days of the year. Snow can fall in any month of the year, but when it does, it is usually light. The good news is that there is not much difference between winter and summer temperatures—but the mean temperature is six degrees.
Most of New Zealand’s weather comes from the west and the south—and Campbell Island lies right in its path. This makes Campbell one of the most important weather stations in New Zealand, and partly explains why the Meterological Service goes to such expense to staff the station. Whether this remains the case is still to be seen. This year the biological science programme will not be repeated—we’ll be picking up Moore and Moffat, but no one will replace them.
At 520° 53’S and 1690° 10’E, Campbell Island is New Zealand’s only permanently inhabited subantarctic island. It is southernmost of a scattering of islands which include the Bounty Islands (named after the ship which is better known for its mutiny), the Antipodes, the Snares and the Auckland Islands. It was on the Auckland Islands that the General Grant, subsequently much publicised and much sought after by salvagers, was wrecked on her way from Melbourne to London in 1866 with 80kg of gold aboard.
Further south is Macquarie Island, discovered by the same sealer who discovered Campbell Island, Captain Frederick Hasselburgh of Sydney. Hasselburgh discovered Campbell Island in January 1810. Later that year he was to lose his life there when the small boat in which he was travelling to shore capsized in Perseverance Harbour. And in one of those fact-stranger-than-fiction coincidences, the Perseverance itself was wrecked at Campbell Island in 1828—the only ship known to be wrecked there.
Given the gloominess of the weather, you would wonder how the Meteorological Service could find anyone to go there, but almost all of this year’s team have applied more than once to go down—some several times. Paul Hatfield is going for his second term and Roger Moffat, who went down two years ago as a mechanic, stayed on as a technician to help with the science programme. Not far away from Beeman Base there is a gravestone marking the ashes of Leslie Clifton, who led a party to the island in 1942. He loved the place so much that after he was killed in an aircraft accident in 1951 his ashes were returned to the island.
I ask Paul Hatfield what special memories stay with him from his last visit. He replies: “I can walk 100m away from the camp and hear nothing but nature—the sound of a few animals, the wind. I like just sitting there listening to it.”
There’s a pull about Campbell Island which people who have been there before feel, and find hard to explain.
On board the ship there’s a delay while people eat breakfast, stocking up for a day’s work unloading and reloading the ship with the tonnes of equipment needed for a remote post. There’s food enough for a year, replacement machinery, drums of caustic soda and sacks of aluminium filings to make the hydrogen for the weather balloons. There’s a cage of hens with one rooster which has been crowing his heart out for two hours and 250 dozen beer the new team has brought in to while away the long, long winter nights.
Today the sun has come out. It spreads over Mt Honey, across the harbour from the base, and the craggy hills, which look like the hills of Central Otago, are softened by its peach-yellow light into pinks and browns and greens. I get a glimmer of the spell which has made Hatfield say that for him, coming back to Campbell is “like a homecoming.”
The crew at Beeman Base live a spartan but comfortable life. The base was built in 1958, replacing an earlier one built at the start of World War II to house a team of coast-watchers—men whose job was to look out for German and Japanese ships.
The buildings are set widely apart in case of fire. Skuas, large brown gull-like birds (“with disgusting food habits,” says one of the departing team), line up along the roof of the storehouse, keeping an eye on the dining room. They are tame as household cats, strolling around our feet as we stand outside talking.
The main accommodation block is large, with enough spare bedrooms for visitors. There’s a lounge and a library and a darkroom.
Each year the National Library service sends in a batch of new books—the outgoing cook, Wendy Strid, ordered a batch on gardening and from them has been running a marginally successful glasshouse, Then there’s the video, film projector, the gym equipment, the pool table and the dartboard. Over the past year the crew has been taking part in an Antarctic/subantarctic darts tournament.
“During a radio schedule one day Scott Base [the New Zealand base at Antarctica] suggested we play darts with them,” says Rob Crawley, technician for the departing team. “We’d throw, tell each other our scores and write it up on the blackboards.” Eventually the tournament extended to Macquarie Island and Casey (one of the two Australian bases on Antarctica) and the Greenpeace Antarctic base.
For some the year on Campbell is also a time for self-improvement. This year Richard Ward has taken French records to improve his ability to speak the language of his wife Aline, whom he married two weeks before this trip, Gerard Hamilton has brought maths and physics books with him—when he gets back to New Zealand he’ll be using the money he has saved to put himself through a structural engineering degree at university.
Unloading that morning I reach for a small box and almost break my back lifting the 85kg weights Gerard Lynch has brought with him. He tells me if I think that’s heavy I should try lifting the cake his mother has sent down with him for Christmas.
It is a long hard slog unloading and loading the ship, made harder by the swaying motion that those of us who have just arrived are still suffering from. As the boxes of fresh fruit come ashore the old crew, who haven’t seen fresh fruit for many months, stop work to eat apples.
It had not been a trouble-free trip coming down. By lunch on the first day four of the group had gone down seasick, with the ship’s crew keeping a good natured tally and urging us to please use the buckets in the cabins.
Late on the third day we had hit the infamous swells off the bottom of the South Island. This meant that the whole card-playing contingent, sitting on the floor of the recreation room, kept moving two metres in each direction. Gerard Lynch, lying on the floor, was suddenly thrown against a wall, breaking a tooth on the way.
What would be done about that, I asked Helen Simatos, who organises supplies and equipment to the island for the Meteorological Office. Ah, maybe it could be filed down, she said vaguely. What if it were serious, I asked. She smiled at my dawning dismay. Radio contact could be made with Wellington Hospital for instructions if anything really serious happened, she told me firmly.
It was Gerard’s birthday the following day and by way of compensation the two cooks wedged themselves into the rolling galley, and two hours later emerged with a creditable birthday cake.
“People say you change when you come back from a year like this. I don’t know. But when I worked on Casey one chap had a stutter and we all came back with a stutter.”
So said Gerard Hamilton, the only crew member apart from Paul Hatfield who has spent this long in a place this isolated. Ward has worked on islands, Jackson in mines and Lynch has spent some time on the Chatham Islands, but none of that quite compares with the isolation of Campbell Island.
They will have radio phone contact with the mainland, but with everyone on the same frequency able to listen in, what you can say to family and friends is limited. There should be at least two mail drops by airforce Orions, but with winds gusting up to over 100 knots these often have to be called off. Two of the five attempted air drops over the past year were unsuccessful—and when that happens base members get depressed.
Rob Crawley comments: “If there was even a rumour of a mail drop we all thought about it for days. If it didn’t come, morale would go down. It would take a few days for it to pick up again.” When the mail does arrive, there’s an instant holiday at the base.
There may be visits from other ships. Over the past year a singlehanded yacht called in to make repairs before continuing on its way to the Antarctic. The MV Greenpeace called in on its way through to its Antarctic base and a frigate brought in some Department of Conservation people. It has been a relatively busy year.
If there is a family crisis there is no way back home, and that can be difficult for the crew to handle. Nor can they be there for the celebrations. The partner of one of the departing crew had a baby in June, which meant hefty toll bills.
Only serious health problems will get them a tri p home. Wendy Strid, the cook leaving the island, was here the previous year too until she broke her leg and a Japanese trawler had to be diverted to take her to Dunedin.
It will be Paul Hatfield, as officer in charge of the base, who will have to sort out the inevitable friction which happens in a close knit group. People run out of things to say to each other, get bored and become depressed by the long hours of darkness—from 4.30p.m. to 9a.m. in winter.
“It’s usually the small niggling things which cause the tension,” Hatfield says. “Things like whether you eat noisily, whether someone wears their boots inside the hostel, smoking while someone’s eating.”
Peter Moore tells me that what he has noticed most is the amount of recreation time he has on his hands. “You’re not spending time commuting to work, cooking meals, paying bills, wondering what to wear to work or going out to visit friends. I’d never realised until I stopped doing all those things how much time you spend on them. I tended to fill the time with work.”
On the other hand, once the crew steps on to the island they are stepping into a cashless society—and away from the gloom of the NZ economic situation. Last year’s team managed to avoid the after-effects of the stock market crash and so far Roger Moffat hasn’t had to pay any GST.
The new team are glad to be here. They’re glad to be away from the depressing news pushed at them daily; glad to have the chance to be their own bosses for a year and excited at being in one of the world’s most fascinating wildlife areas.
Paul Hatfield: “They go down as children, into an environment where they have to rely on themselves, and others have to rely on them. The work they do matters. When they come back they’re more confident, more assured. It’s like a year-long confidence course.”
I’ve been wondering what the old crew had been feeling as they watched us come up the harbour this morning. They tell me that they’ve had their heads turned toward home for a couple of weeks now. Most are feeling numbed by the amount of work they have had to do in preparation for leaving—especially as the ship has arrived a day earlier than they had expected.
There’s a slight proprietary tinge to the conversations they are having with the new team as they show them how to use the equipment. And in a good natured but telling comment, the departing senior meteorological officer, Karl Anderson, looks across the table at one of the new team and says: “You’re sitting in my place.”
It is Peter Moore’s 28th birthday the next day—the day of our tramp across the island. It seems fitting that today’s walk, possibly his last over the island, will be done for pleasure just this once.
Moore’s main work has been with the yellow-eyed penguins, checking their numbers and following their breeding success, but as he and Roger Moffat are the only two working specifically on science projects, he has been given a long “shopping list” of follow-up studies for other scientists.
Every five days, from October to March, Moore and Moffat walked the 4km track from base to Northwest Bay to study yellow-eyed penguins. From mid-October to May they walked 14km to Bull Rock, at the northern end of the island, every 7 to 12 days to study mollymawks. From January to August they monitored 470 royal albatross nests dotted over the island’s slopes, counting the eggs and banding the surviving chicks. And from November to February they did the same with rockhopper penguins.
During the winter months they spent many lonely hours on the beaches counting the penguins moving to and from the sea. On the way to all these places they picked up feathers for mercury testing, searched for plants wanted by botanists back home and counted fur seals, sea lions and the 1100 sheep.
Moffat lost 15kg in the first three months of their work and recalls that they were away from base so much “that sometimes we felt like outsiders when we got back there. Everyone would have their own places at the table and we’d have to squeeze into the gaps.” The rest of the team didn’t see it that way. They welcomed the injection of fresh news into often tired conversations. Said one of the team: “It sure beats hearing someone talk about the generator all the time,”
Today we’ve chosen a route which will mean we’ll see as much of the vegetation and as many of the animals as possible before the ship leaves at 6 p.m.
Perseverance Harbour is an 8km inlet on the east side of the island. At its head it divides in three shallow bays: Tucker, Garden and Camp Coves. Our route will be from Tucker Cove, site of the island’s farming venture, up over Col Ridge where the royal albatrosses breed and giant herb plants grow, then down into the little bays which make up Northwest Bay, on the west side of the island.
With its towering cliffs and gale-lashed coast, the western side of the island is where much of the island’s sad history of shore whaling took place. Happily it is again the winter breeding grounds for an increasing number of the rare and now protected southern right whales. Today we won’t see any whales, though; the last have just left with their calves for their feeding grounds, probably around Antarctica. One bay on this coast, Middle Bay, is where Moore and Moffat have been studying the yellow-eyed penguins.
Today the weather is balmy and humid. There is no wind and at 10 degrees it feels warm—warmer than the miserable Auckland weather I have left behind only a few days ago. It is sweatshirt weather and all the thermal underwear I have brought with me seems like a silly over-reaction. Away from the voice of the camp it is quiet—so quiet—a quietness I can recall only a few times before in my life, in the South Island high country.
Today Campbell Island looks like an idyllic place to live.
Perhaps it was this sort of illusion which made the Government think farming could work on Campbell Island, for in 1895 Campbell was leased to a Gisborne sheep farmer, J. Gordon. He set about building a house, woolshed and store at Tucker Cove. You would hardly know it now, except for the coal range which stands incongruously in the tussock. But there have been arguments about the sheep ever since. The harm being done by the descendants of those first flocks to the island’s vegetation is still evident. The remaining 1100 wild, unshorn sheep are restricted to a small part of the island at its western end, with a solid fence built across the island to make sure they stay there.
The sheep are tough, and apparently resistant to many of the diseases which afflict sheep on the mainland. This makes them interesting genetically and in the eyes of some justifies keeping them on the island.
Life on Campbell soon got the better of the first shepherds, who left as soon as they could. For three years the sheep had to stay unshorn until a new leaseholder, Captain W.H. Tucker, a former mayor of Gisborne, took the ingenious step of advertising in the isolated Shetland Islands. But even the hardy Shetlanders couldn’t bear the isolation so Tucker, obviously a tenacious man, put a proposal to a group of Tory Channel whalers. What about coming to Campbell to catch the whales which came in to mate in the winter months, he suggested. The rest of the time they could earn a living tending his sheep.
It seemed a good idea and the whalers stayed from 1909 to 1916, when all eleven of them enlisted for the war. The farm limped on until the Depression finally killed it. In fact the last shepherds and leaseholders were lucky to get off Campbell. Only lobbying by relatives of the men finally forced the government to send a ship for them. By that time they were using raw sheep hides for boots and sheep tallow for candles and surviving on a diet of mutton and tea and the odd shag.
Walking on Campbell Island is the strangest experience. Much of the island’s surface is peat—metres deep in places. As we walk it quivers.
“When we were camping out I could sometimes feel the ground shaking as Peter moved around in his tent,” Moffat says.
After walking hundreds of kilo- metres over the island over the past 12 months neither Moore nor Moffat notices the sounds of the streams running through the peat below us. I find it slightly unnerving.
I notice what look like small rabbit holes riddling the peat. Moore explains that they are rat holes. The island is plagued with Norway rats which came ashore from the ships of whalers and sealers early last century. They have spread right up to the highest peaks of the island and at the last estimate there were 100,000 of them. Now ships that moor in the harbour are not permitted to run mooring lines to shore in case ship rats, which are fiercer predators than their Norwegian cousins, come ashore.
The rats’ main diet is plants and insects, but they have also virtually eliminated burrowing birds from the main island by eating the chicks. A case in point is the rare, flightless Campbell Island teal which now survives only on Dent Island, a tiny island 2km offshore. There are probably fewer than 50 of these birds left and attempts to rear them back in New Zealand have so far been unsuccessful.
To reach the royal albatross breeding grounds we first have to walk through the island’s distinctive dracophyllum scrub. The scrub—’draco’ as it’s called by base members—can grow up to 5m high and walking through its spindly trunks is like walking through manuka. It extends to about 180m above sea level and looking across it can give a mistaken impression of a gently rolling landscape. In reality the ground under it sometimes dips sharply and as we walk we suddenly drop down into one of these depressions, a gully with a stream, overhung by huge, lush ferns and carpeted with mosses. The light filters through the canopy of dracophyllum and we are suddenly in a magical glade, a fairy story setting.
From a distance the island looks a bleak, forbidding place with its bronze tussock and scrub cover. But it has many surprises. Minutes before we reach the dracophyllum glade, I look down as we cross an open space and suddenly find that I am walking over cushions of moss, of yellows, oranges and lime greens. I’m so surprised by their gaudy beauty that I take photograph after photograph trying to record the memory.
There is only one tree on Campbell Island, a sitka spruce planted early this century by a hopeful Earl of Ranfurly, a former Governor General. It’s no great success as a tree and, after all these years is only 7.5m high. If it were back in its north west American home it would stand 60m at least. But it has gained distinction—in the Guiness Book of Records as the “loneliest tree on earth.” Several seasons ago crew members put it to the book’s editors that the tree was lonelier than the one already recorded. Now there is a letter at Beeman Base from the publishers agreeing.
But it is the megaherbs, the giant herbaceous plants of Campbell, that astound and delight those who visit here. In summer large parts of the island are covered in these brilliantly coloured plants. The fields of yellow lilies, Bulbinella rossii, are so bright that an early botanist, Sir Joseph Hooker, mentioned them as “giving a yellow tinge to the landscape clearly visible 2km from the shore.”
One giant, waist-high herb of the carrot family, Anisotome latifolia has huge mauve flowers; another, Stilbocarpa polaris, with its green-yellow flowers, helped save the lives of castaways on Disappointment Island (part of the Auckland group) after their ship the Dundonald was wrecked in 1907. They baked the roots of the plant, then peeled them and ate them like potatoes.
The metre-high daisy, Pleurophyllum speciosum, is even more spectacular. Its huge corrugated leaves grow up to half a metre wide and act as ‘solar collectors.’ Sometimes they are five to ten degrees warmer than the surrounding air.
I have been trailing behind my companions looking at the mosses and lichens when I hear a call. There they are, up ahead of us, the largest seabirds in the world even larger than the wandering albatross of Ancient Mariner fame.
These royal albatrosses are huge. Their wings are up to 3.3m across. When I get closer I see that they appear even bigger because of their high moulded nests raised well off the ground to keep them above the boggy peat. From a distance the birds look slightly ludicrous, dotted at carefully spaced distances, their large heads peering at us over the tussock.
These chicks are from last December’s eggs. Now they are full sized, although some still have fluffy down clinging to their otherwise immaculate necks. In a few weeks they will leave the island and for four years will circle the Southern Hemisphere before coming home again—first to visit, later to nest and produce their own chicks. Bands from Campbell Island birds have been returned from Tahiti, Chile, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, Brazil, South Africa and Australia.
When the young birds leave they will have to learn to feed themselves and they will be new to flying. But as they tack across the Pacific, skimming the waves towards Chile, their flying will improve. In time, they will be able to fly at up to 115 km/hr.
When they arrive back at Campbell they will not be able to walk for a few days, probably because they have spent those four years exclusively at sea.
The returning birds will not produce their first chicks until they are eight to ten years old, but once they mate they will usually stay with the same partner for life. And life for royal albatrosses can be a long time. One northern albatross at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula is at least 61 years old, and may be even older.
Scientists are unsure whether the paired birds keep contact with each other when they leave Campbell after each breeding season. But they do know that two years later, when they return for the next breeding season, the partners will often arrive on the island within an hour or two of each other.
As we come closer to take photographs they show almost no fear of us apart from clacking their long beaks and making the occasional half-hearted lunge. However, both men show me the scars on their hands to prove that the beaks, when they do connect, are razor sharp.
The island is home to five species of albatross. But it is the light mantled sooty albatross which has a special place in the hearts of the people who have lived there.
Duncan Cunningham, a penguin specialist from Wellington, remembers his second trip to Campbell.
“I was dropped at Penguin Bay by helicopter. The first sound I heard when the noise of the chopper went was the call of the sooty. A lump came to my throat and I fell in love with the place again.”
Today, on his last walk over the island, Roger Moffat’s scientific matter-of-factness disappears into boyish excitement when he sees the first bird of the season—returned home after thousands of miles flying around the Southern Ocean. For years now the sooties have arrived home on the same dates each year.
With their soft purple-grey heads and distinctive semi-circle of white around their eyes, these sensuous birds fly tandem with their mates in an uncanny, perfect unison. And they share an eerie, echoing call which you never forget once you’ve heard it. For some it seems to epitomise the haunting quality of the island itself.
As we walk on I can hardly believe how approachable and unafraid all the animals are. Around the shores of Tucker Cove two sea lion pups follow us like watery spaniels, rolling and splashing along the water line two metres away. I kneel on a rock to have a closer look and one comes right out of the water to inspect me in return before yawning a wide, brown-toothed malodorous sigh and sinking back into the water.
They seem remarkably forgiving considering the fact that this island’s water, like that of the other subantarctic islands, has run red with the blood of slaughtered sea lions, fur seals, elephant seals and, tragically, the now rare southern right whales.
There is still the remains of the whaling operation at Capstan Cove, where the Tory Channel whalers winched the animals ashore to butcher them. Seventy years later pieces of whalebone can still be found around the top of the cove. The southern right, considered the “right” whales for hunting, were killed for their oil and baleen—the three-metre long curtain of flexible bone plates between their jaws through which they sieve their food. The whales died for the same senseless reason that many majestic animals such as these die—to satisfy human whims. Their baleen was used as corset stays, riding crops and umbrella ribs. Between 1909 and 1916 more than 60 whales died here, contributing to catches around the area which almost brought the species to extinction.
Now with total protection, their numbers are slowly growing and one of the tasks for scientists and meteorological staff during their year’s stay is whalewatching. They keep count of the whales and take photographs of the wart-like growths on the whales’ heads as they play in the bay and sometimes leap out of the water. These growths are like the fingerprints of humans, and provide identification of each animal.
Karl Anderson tells of his whalewatching experiences: “The whales came into Northwest Bay in April. There were often eight to ten in the bay at any one time. Several of them would come in to about 50m of the shore, playing and rolling upside down. And the noise! We’d hear them day and night. It sounds like someone blowing through a long drainpipe.”
The dracophyllum behind Middle Bay, one of the small bays in Northwest Bay, is crisscrossed by tracks narrow, deep, mud-filled tracks with steep, rounded sides—and smaller, tidy little paths which branch into the undergrowth off the main routes.
The large tracks are made by sea lions, which lug themselves far up into the hills. I’ve already learned the ‘Beeman Base sidestep’ on this tramp as I cope with sea lions rearing up from behind the tussock, but I’m momentarily unnerved when I meet one in the scrub, high above the bay. Sometimes the sea lions are found on the tops of the highest hills on the island, Moffat tells me. The paths are like hydroslides and I’m warned that sometimes you have to move very fast when the sea lions come down.
The smaller paths are penguin highways, the paths the yellow-eyed penguins walk at sunrise and sunset as they come and go from their nests on their daily fishing trips. Middle Bay is the breeding ground which Moore and Moffat have been studying for 12 months.
While the little rockhopper penguins, the ‘punk rockers’ of the penguin world with their spiked, yellow- tasselled heads and their geranium-red eyes, prefer to live in the teeth of gales at the western end of the island, the yellow-eyeds prefer the relative shelter of the bays and the dracophyllum.
Rockhoppers breed at Campbell from October to March. Remarkably, no one knows where they go in winter. Yellow-eyed penguins remain around Campbell all year.
The rockhoppers are garrulous birds who like being together. They come ashore in their hundreds in a great commotion of foamy waves, flippers and feet, then crowd together on their rocky homes, squabbling in voices so loud that a base member describes the noise as sounding like a construction site. Yellow-eyed penguins, on the other hand, are loners.
On the mainland breeding sites around the Otago Peninsula, Catlins and elsewhere in Southland—breeding pairs of the yellow-eyed penguin are declining. Nearly two-thirds of the birds on the Otago Peninsula disappeared between this last breeding season and the previous one. Was this also the case on Campbell, the scientists wondered?
The two main tasks for Moore and Moffat have been to see how many birds there are on Campbell, then by studying one area and following the progress of the chicks, to check their survival rate.
Yellow-eyed penguins prefer not to see each other when they’re nesting. So every five days Moore and Moffat had to crawl through the dracophyllum and the sheep and bird excrement to visit the 40 scattered study nests.
“We got pretty good at it after a while,” Moore says. “We had the area mapped out; turn right here, so many paces to this nest, turn left there… you can usually smell them anyway.”
The work told on the men’s bodies. Even in summer, during the wet and cold weather Moore’s hands became covered in cuts and chilblains and Moffat’s knees caused him problems.
When it came close to the time when the chicks were ready to leave the nests they would wander away from home, which meant the two men had to crawl in ever-increasing circles looking for them. Then there were the chicks which ran away when they saw the men coming to weigh and measure them.
“I reckon I could beat anyone in a 50m hands and knees dash,” Moore says.
Parent J9170 was such a vicious kneebiter that its chick was eventually excluded from the study.
Moore estimates that there are probably about 2000 yellow-eyed penguins on the island. “That’s about 40 per cent of the total population.” They seem to be doing well. And that’s the biggest difference between the rockhoppers and these birds, for the rockhopper numbers are decreasing so markedly that scientists are very concerned.
In fact, the picture is not good for a number of animals on Campbell Island. There has been a severe decline in elephant seals and in two of the albatross family—the New Zealand black-browed and grey-headed mollymawks—as well as the rockhoppers. Photographs of the mollymawk colonies in the 1940s showed thousands of birds—now there are just a handful in some colonies.
On the way down to Middle Bay we had stopped to look at a newly born elephant seal pup. This pup would be one of only about five born on the island this year. In 1947, nearly 200 pups were born here numbers have dropped by 95 per cent. And since the 1940s there has been an equally staggering 90 per cent decline in rockhoppers, from over a million then to just over a hundred thousand now.
Dr Phil Moors and Duncan Cunningham, from the Department of Conservation, Wellington, have been testing and discarding theories on why this should be. Now they think that climatic changes leading to diet changes may be the explanation. Over the past 40 years the surrounding sea temperature has risen by one and a half to two degrees. With this in mind the scientists studied the birds’ diet. They found that unlike the rockhoppers in most other parts of the world, which eat krill, the birds at Campbell eat fish while they are around the island. In February, after the chicks leave the nest, the adult birds go to sea for up to two months before the stressful moulting season begins and the birds stop eating.
The two men found that the penguins, which weighed about two and a half kilograms before moulting, “were just little bags of bone at the end,” weighing only 800 to 900 grams.
Duncan Cunningham puts the dietary and climatic pieces of information together. “We are suspicious of what is happening at sea—is there enough good quality food out there to enable them to survive the following winter after the moult?”
Moors and Cunningham are now looking at a theory that as the water warmed, the krill moved further south, forcing the birds to expend precious energy reserves chasing it. Or, unable to go so far to find the krill, the birds have been replacing it with food less suited to their body needs.
Why are the penguins, mollymawks and elephant seals declining? It can’t be a coincidence that these animals are facing the same fate. I find myself wondering whether, given the cutbacks on spending, scientists will ever be able to finish the work needed to answer the questions raised.
As the Daniel Solonder pulls out at dusk, dozens of penguins on their way home for the night leap out of the water. The seven people we are leaving buzz the ship in their small boat, the Aurora, in a cocky show of bravado. Then as the ship moves up the harbour towards the boisterous Southern Ocean, we watch them turn back to take up their solitary 12-month custodianship of this special island.