A Complete Guide to New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands

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Most visitors to New Zealand know that the country is comprised of two main islands (North and South) as well as Rakiura Stewart Island off the south of the South Island, and a number of smaller islands. Few have heard of New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands, though, and in fact, many New Zealanders don’t know much about them either. But the five island groups in the Southern Ocean, between the South Island and Antarctica, are rich with rare flora and fauna and are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although few visitors travel to the uninhabited islands, it is possible to get there on scientific expeditions or specialist small-group cruises.

Where Are New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands Located?

New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands are comprised of five island groups and four marine reserves:

  • Antipodes Islands and Marine Reserve: These volcanic islands are 530 miles south-east of Rakiura Stewart Island, the southernmost of New Zealand's main islands.
  • Auckland Islands and Marine Reserve: The Auckland Islands are 290 miles south of the town of Bluff, at the bottom of the South Island.
  • Bounty Islands and Marine Reserve: The Bounty Islands are 22 granite rocks 430 miles east-south-east of New Zealand. There is nowhere on these islands to put anchor or land, so very few people visit.
  • Campbell Island and Marine Reserve: Campbell Island is the southernmost of all the islands, 430 miles south of the South Island, and 170 miles southeast of Auckland Island.
  • Snares Islands: The Snares Islands are the closest to mainland New Zealand, just 60 miles south of Rakiura Stewart Island.
Tourist ship anchored in Perserverance Harbour, Campbell Island on an overcast day
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History of the Subantarctic Islands

The various groups of the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands were charted by European explorers between the 1780s and 1800s, although South Island and Rakiura Steward Island Maori tribes (iwi) had known of some of the islands' existence for a long time. The Bounty Islands were named in 1788 by Captain William Bligh of the infamous ship the Bounty, only a few months before the ship's Pacific Ocean mutiny. The Snares were spotted by Europeans in 1791, although Maori on Rakiura Stewart Island already knew of the islands, calling them Tini Heke. The Antipodes Islands were charted in 1800 though Campbell Island remained unknown until it was spotted in 1810 by Captain Frederick Hasselburgh on a sealing ship.

The islands were used as sealing stations in the early 19th century, but the harsh environment meant only the hardiest people set up camp there. Tens of thousands of seals were killed across the Subantarctic Islands in the first decade of the 19th century, destroying the seal population so rapidly that the trade ended by the 1830s. After the seal population was wiped out on Campbell Island, whaling took over as the island is a breeding ground for southern right whales

Many ships have been wrecked around the islands over the centuries. On average, a ship was wrecked in the islands once every five years between 1860 and 1900. The most recent was the Totorore, an albatross research vessel, off the Antipodes Islands in 1999.

The indigenous Maori people knew about the existence of the Auckland Islands prior to the European settlement of New Zealand. The Ngai Tahu iwi of the South Island has stories of food-gathering expeditions to the islands. The Auckland Islands were also the site of several failed attempts by Europeans at farming in the 19th century. The introduction of invasive species was very destructive to these islands' ecology, and scientists and the Department of Conservation are still attempting to fix this damage.

The islands are now all uninhabited, although until 1995 scientific staff were permanently located at a meteorological station on Campbell Island.

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How to Get There and When to Visit

The Subantarctic Islands are far from New Zealand's most popular tourist circuits, but travelers with a deep interest in nature and wildlife can visit the islands on a guided tour. Permits are required, and these can be acquired from the Department of Conservation (DOC). Some international and local New Zealand tour operators who specialize in rugged, unusual destinations offer trips out to the islands. Visitors must adhere to strict guidelines aimed at minimizing human impact on the special ecosystems of the islands.

The weather on all islands is typically cold, wet, cloudy, and windy. Being so far south, daylight hours tend to be short in winter and long in summer. Even when the days are long, the rain and clouds keep daily sunlight hours low. The southernmost group, the Campbell Islands, sees an average annual temperature of just 43 degrees F (6 degrees C).

The best—and only—time to visit the islands is between November and March (the Southern Hemisphere summer). Although the conditions are not exactly warm even during the summer, it’s the only time of year when daylight and temperatures make visits possible. The sea conditions can be challenging at any time of year, and tours rarely have a set itinerary: the captain makes decisions about where to go depending on the conditions at the time.

yellow-eyed penguin adult and baby standing in grass
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What to See

The Subantarctic Islands contain some of the least modified landscapes in the world. All are National Nature Reserves, which is New Zealand's highest level of protected status. While some of the islands closer to the mainland suffered from having invasive plants and animals introduced in the 19th century, others are practically untouched. Many birds, plants, and invertebrates live here that can't be found anywhere else in the world.

While the Subantarctic Islands are often grouped together, there's actually a lot of diversity between them. As the islands all lie at different latitudes, there's climatic variety, as well as a variety of plants, animals, and birds depending on each island's geology and history of human contact. While the Bounty Islands are granite rocks where few plants grow (mostly lichens), the other islands are mostly volcanic. The Auckland Islands are the largest of all the Subantarctic Islands, with the richest collection of plants and flowers, the most invertebrates, and some of the rarest birds on the planet.

Seals and Sealions

Although seals were hunted almost to extinction 200 years ago, their population has made somewhat of a recovery. The Bounty Islands are one of the main bases for these. Sealions can also be spotted around the islands, particularly on the Auckland Islands, which is the primary breeding ground of the New Zealand sealion.

Birds

Thirty species of endemic birds can be found here (that means, birds that can't be found anywhere else). So, the Subantarctic Islands are particularly exciting for bird lovers. Here are some of the birds you can see on the Subantarctic Islands:

  • Antipodes parakeet, on the Antipodes Islands, which are green, ground-dwelling, and notable for being meat-eaters.
  • Numerous albatross species, including black-browed, greyheaded, lightmantled sooty, Gibson's wandering, and Antipodes wandering albatross.
  • Bounty Island shags on Bounty Island, the world's rarest cormorant bird.
  • Erect-crested penguins on the Antipodes and Bounty Islands.
  • Sooty shearwaters come to the Snares Islands in their millions in the spring.
  • Snares crested penguins only breed on the Snares Islands, where there are more than 100 colonies.
  • Yellow-eyed penguins on the Auckland Islands.
  • White-capped mollymawks on the Auckland Islands.
  • Campbell Island teal, which was reintroduced to the island in 2004 after the population was decimated by rats.

Other Wildlife

Other interesting creatures include giant spider crabs, New Zealand sealions, southern elephant seals, and New Zealand fur seals. The underwater environments are also very rich in plant and animal life, and while you won't be diving or snorkeling here, visibility beneath the surface in some places is very good. You may be able to see interesting seaweed from your ship.

Historical Sites

The Auckland Islands, in particular, contain a number of interesting cultural and historical sites, including World War II lookout huts, gravesites for the victims of shipwrecks, shelters used by shipwreck survivors, and the remains of Enderby Settlement, an abandoned village on Enderby Island. There's also archaeological evidence of Polynesian voyagers finding Enderby Island in the 13th century.

Wildflowers

Wildflower enthusiasts will be particularly interested in Campbell Island. Here, many large, colorful, herbaceous, perennial wildflowers have adapted to the harsh conditions, providing a visual feast amid the moody gray tones of the island's weather. Nineteenth-century English botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker described Campbell Island as having flora "second to none outside the tropics".

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