01 of 11
One of the things to love about travel is how it opens your eyes to different places, some of which you might know little about until you actually get there. That's the way I was with a cruise on the Silversea Silver Discoverer expedition ship to 7 of the wild islands of New Zealand and Antarctica. Two of these islands have a handful of residents, the other five are uninhabited, classified as sub-antarctic, and only allow limited visitation. I'm a huge wildlife fan, so I had heard of the islands, but knew little of them. Now, I'm so happy that I got to see and experience the unforgettable environment, bird life, and marine mammals of these wild places.
Our 10 days on the wild islands was the first part of a 16-day cruise that embarked in Dunedin, New Zealand, sailed to these 7 remote islands, and then circumnavigated the South Island of New Zealand, stopping over in fjordland, Picton, Kaikoura, and Akaroa before disembarking in Dunedin. All shore excursions were included, and most days on this first part of the cruise we had a choice of hiking options and/or exploring on the Zodiacs.
Silversea Cruises has two types of ships--five traditional cruise ships and three expedition ships. The Silver Discoverer is an expedition ship, so is more casual and smaller, but still features the outstanding food and service that Silversea has on its more traditional cruise ships.
The Silver Discoverer holds 100 passengers, but we only had 57 on our voyage---30 Australians, 3 Canadians, 2 Chinese, 2 New Zealanders, 9 British, and 11 Americans. Since there were 98 crew, we had exceptional service. The expedition leader, Juan from Colombia, told us the first day that the crew and staff would take care of the service and the ship, and the passengers could take care of the weather! On an expedition ship going to "wild", remote destinations, the weather is an important element.
Embarkation in Dunedin
Like many of the other guests, my friend Claire and I spent the night in Dunedin before transferring to the Silver Discoverer at 12:30 pm the next day. The Scenic Hotel in Dunedin was a comfortable hotel in a great downtown location, and we enjoyed exploring on foot before boarding the ship.
Check-in went quickly, and we dropped our carry-ons in veranda suite #604 before eating a lovely buffet lunch. Our checked luggage was waiting in the room right after lunch. It was a nice suite with a small balcony. Much larger (and grander) than accommodations I've had on other expedition ships, but not as elegant or large as on the traditional Silversea cruise ships.
We got unpacked, had a lifeboat drill at 4:15, and then set sail south for Ulva Island at 5:00 pm. It was drizzly and a little rough, which is common for the Southern Ocean. We had a meeting in the Explorer Lounge at 6:00 pm, where we met the staff and the expedition leaders and lecturers. This expedition team came from all over the world (e.g. Ireland, South Africa, NZ, UK, Colombia, Denmark, Germany, and Australia) and were very knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and fun the entire voyage.
Had a lovely dinner in the Restaurant. Sat at a large table and met some nice cruise mates. Most were past Silversea cruisers and were ages 50 to 70's. Claire and I both had the lamb chops for dinner. Delicious, and the first of many terrific meals on the Silver Discoverer.
The next morning the Silver Discoverer was anchored off Ulva Island.Continue to 2 of 11 below.
02 of 11
Hiking at Ulva Island
After a rocky night sailing from Dunedin, the Silversea Silver Discoverer arrived at Post Office Bay at Ulva Island, NZ about 7 am. Sunrise was at 5:49 am and sunset at 9:27 pm, so we enjoyed lots of daylight in the Austral summer. The Silver Discoverer spent the morning at anchor off Ulva Island while we went ashore in the Zodiacs to go hiking and exploring.
Ulva Island is a tiny island near Stewart Island, where we spent the afternoon after exploring on Ulva Island in the morning. Weather was mostly overcast, but no rain. Temperatures were in the 50's, perfect for hiking.
When the small Stewart Island archipelago was first settled in the 1800's, the postmaster's house was located on Ulva Island because it was the easiest for the mail boat to access. The Postmaster would raise a flag to let the residents of the surrounding islands know when mail was available. They would dress up in their finest clothes, take their boats over to Ulva and have a type of party and gab fest while retrieving their mail. The post office was moved to Oban on Stewart Island in 1921, but the post master's house is still on Ulva and used as an office by the Department of Conservation.
Ulva is a nature refuge where the New Zealand government has spent a lot of money to rid the island of predators, especially rats, in order to protect native species of plants and birds and help them to flourish. Traps are maintained on all the islands we visited to keep monitoring for possible infestations. Although rats are the biggest continuing threat to birds, the government is also trying to keep non-native plant species off the island. So, that meant we had to step in some type of chlorine herbicide type of liquid to kill any plants or seeds on our hiking boots before going ashore.
After breakfast, we had two guided walking tours to choose from. The first was a longer hike that would cover most of the island at a brisk pace, and the second was a shorter hike with more time to bird watch.
Claire and I chose the longer hike since we wanted to see as much of the island as possible, and were not big "birders". Our group left the ship at 8:30 on the Zodiac and returned at 11:30. It was very nice. We had a local guide who was a native of nearby Stewart Island (population about 400). The group of 10 was accompanied by one of the expedition team, Luke from Ireland, who most recently worked on South Georgia Island in the south Atlantic.
We hiked for about 5 miles on excellent, well-maintained trails and didn't really need the hiking boots. The trail was up and down, but we stopped to look at many birds along the way, most of which we had never seen like the weka, New Zealand robin (black with white breast), kaka, bellbird, yellow-headed mohua, tui, and many others. The forest was alive with the sounds of birds singing, chirping, and calling. Very interesting, and it was fun to hear nothing but the sounds of the forest.
Being a penguin fan, I was thrilled to see blue penguin footprints in the sand on a Sydney Cove beach. They looked a little like the prints a sea turtle makes, only much smaller. Alas, we didn't see any blue penguins, the tiniest of the penguin species, on Ulva Island, but we did see them later on the voyage in Fiordland.
About half of our group got a glimpse of the rare Kiwi, the New Zealand national bird. I saw it for about 5 seconds, but Claire missed it. I knew the second I saw it what it was--this large brown. flightless bird is very distinctive looking. The ones on the New Zealand mainland are mostly nocturnal, but those in the Ulva and Stewart island area are also active in the daytime since they have to forage more for food in order to "attain breeding condition" (according to our local guide). We also marveled at some of the biggest ferns I've ever seen and some huge trees since Ulva has been a nature sanctuary since 1922.
During lunch, the Silver Discoverer sailed the short distance to Stewart Island.Continue to 3 of 11 below.
03 of 11
Hiking on Stewart Island
While we were eating a nice buffet lunch, the Silver Discoverer motored the short distance to another anchorage off Oban, the only village on Stewart Island. Ulva Island was tiny, with only 250 hectares, but Stewart is New Zealand's third largest island (after the North and South islands). Stewart Island sits just 19 miles off the southern tip of the South Island, and most of it is a national park. Like Ulva, volunteers have put out traps to catch any rats that arrive via boat.
We had three organized tour options on Stewart Island. The first was a 1.5 hour bus tour of the Oban township and the surrounding area. The second was a hike along the shoreline from Oban to the Ackers Point lighthouse that sits on a tall hill overlooking the sea. This one was advertized as relatively flat by the expedition team. The third was a more strenuous hike into the bush much like the one we had on Ulva, but tougher. We chose the second option since we would be at sea the next day and felt like getting some more exercise.
This hike from the village to the lighthouse followed the coast road for a while before heading up a tall hill to go to the lighthouse. The hike might have been advertised as relatively flat, but it was much more difficult and longer than the morning hike. The views of the sea and the wildlife (especially a giant NZ pigeon that was roosting on a low tree branch) were amazing. I think everyone on the hike was exhausted by the time we got back to the Zodiac at 4:30--a three hour hike that covered 14,000 steps and 58 flights of stairs on my fitbit. Many of us did both long hikes, so we were strung out along the coast road coming back. Happy to report that Claire and I were squarely in the middle and not the last ones!
The last Zodiac returned at 5:30 and the ship sailed soon after, continuing south to our next port--Campbell Island. We sailed for about 36 hours to reach it, so we had a sea day the next day.
The nightly briefing was at 6:30, followed by dinner. I thought it was an excellent format--each expedition leader presented slides and a short talk (2-3 minutes) about what we had seen and heard that day, followed by a preview of the next day at sea. The whole wrap up and preview took about a half hour, and it was fascinating how each expert enthusiastically shared a piece of the day relevant to their area of expertise.
Dinner was at 7 pm, and it was another good one. I had a tiger prawn for an appetizer, while Claire had a trio of artichoke dishes. We both had the strawberry/baby spinach/nuts salad and the Chilean sea bass for the main course. I skipped dessert and Claire got some kind of tart with cream and fruit topped with pistachio nuts. Nice dinner, but the ship was rocking a lot, so we didn't enjoy it as much as the first night. Of course, we were also exhausted after the two long, strenuous hikes and still jet-lagged quite a bit.
Back to the cabin about 9:30, followed by a Dramamine and bed.Continue to 4 of 11 below.
04 of 11
A Day at Sea on the Silver Discoverer
After all the hiking we did on Ulva Island and Stewart Island, it sure was nice to have a day at sea. And, the weather/sea conditions were about as good as it ever gets down in the Pacific Ocean south of New Zealand (the Southern Ocean). We continued to head for the New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands, which lie between 47 degrees and 53 degrees south latitude. The Captain says the mixing of the seas at the Antarctic Convergence (a curve continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the sub-antarctic.) always causes a rolling swell of about 3 meters (10 feet). So, we rocked and rolled all day, but the brilliant sun came out and we had a high temperature of about 60 degrees where we could sit outside and enjoy the day with just a light jacket.
This day at sea we had to get ready to step ashore (literally). There are very strict international rules that not only limit the numbers of visitors to the area (sub-Antarctic and Antarctic), but also dictate what you can take ashore. We had a light breakfast, followed by a mandatory 10 am briefing on these rules. We all signed a form to document our attendance and understanding. The ship had a representative of the New Zealand Department of Conservation onboard to monitor the ship's/guests' compliance. He also provided his own insight on these fascinating, desolate islands.
First, we had to take all the outerwear we might take ashore the next day and have it inspected by the expedition team. This included jackets, hats, scarves, gloves, back packs, cameras, binoculars, etc. They called us by deck and we went to the lounge. Many things were vacuumed for possible seeds, which were the main thing they were searching for in clothing. They really went over all Velcro closures. Next, we took our water boots and hiking boots up to the pool deck, where other members of the expedition team scrubbed the bottoms of the boots before another guy washed the bottoms with a chlorine herbicide bleach solution. Since we couldn't walk around the ship with boots with bleach on them, they had lockers for each of us to store these outerwear shoes. After this demonstration by the expedition team, we each inspected our own outerwear before going ashore every day.
By the time we finished preparing to go ashore the next day, it was about 11 am, and the sun was shining and hundreds of sea birds were following the ship. It was uncharacteristically pleasant, so we sat outside with new friends and chatted and gazed at the birds (mostly different types of petrels and albatross). Some onboard are serious birders adding to their "life lists" (different species of birds they've seen), while others were just like us--enjoying the outdoors and the wonders of nature. The temperature was warm and the winds were calm, so we sat outside and had lunch at The Grill (blue cheese burgers with bacon and fries) with two sisters from Adelaide, Australia. They were probably the youngest on board--in their 30's.
We stayed outside until the 2:30 educational presentation on "Seabirds of the Southern Pacific" by Lars Rasmussen from Denmark. Claire decided to nap (she had a Roma coffee to top off her lunch--Kahlua, Bailey's Irish Cream, and coffee, so needed a nap) while I went to the lecture, where we learned about the birds we'd see on Campbell Island and elsewhere in the sub-Antarctic.
We skipped 4 pm tea, but went to the daily briefing at 5:00 pm to learn more about Campbell Island. Richard Sidey, a professional wildlife and nature photographer, did a hour-long presentation on improving our pictures.
The ship had the Captain's cocktail party and official welcome, followed by dinner. Since Claire and I were sitting at the Captain's table, we put on our best duds for the meal (not jeans and tennis shoes, but country club casual wear). Fun dinner. Captain was from Croatia and his English was excellent. He's 45 and has 2 daughters and a wife back home in Dubrovnik. (They also have a home in Zagreb, Croatia). Table mates included a woman traveling alone from Auckland and a married couple from Norfolk in the UK. The British couple were serious birders, so it was great fun for us to hear their excitement and passion for this activity.
Claire had grilled scallops, New England style clam chowder, and a steak the size of Texas for dinner. I had beef carpacchio, chicken satay, and broiled lobster. Of course, we all had sorbet in between (a nightly tradition). All were delicious. We continually were impressed by how well the waiters poured wine/water/whatever in the rocking sea conditions! They also quickly remembered what we liked to drink, how we liked our meat cooked, etc.
After our nightly dose of ginger on the way out of the dining room, we were in bed by 10 pm. The next morning we arrived at Campbell Island, New Zealand's southernmost sub-antarctic island.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11
Hiking and Albatross on Campbell Island
The next day we were almost 700 km (over 400 miles) south from Invercargill, NZ (tip of the South Island) at Campbell Island, NZ. This uninhabited volcanic island is over 11,000 hectares in size covered with scrubby plants and mountains, the highest of which is about 569 meters tall (Mt. Honey). We arrived at the island about daylight and spent a few hours sailing up and down the coastline, waiting for the wind to calm down. The wind was howling at 20-40 knots, with gusts of over 60 knots. We were supposed to go ashore in the Zodiacs at 8:30 am, but were not surprised by the delay. Those huge wind gusts could easily flip a Zodiac.
The wind finally calmed down about 10:30 am, and we went ashore in the Zodiacs at 11 am. The main attraction at Campbell Island was seeing the Southern Royal Albatross nesting on the island. Campbell is only one of two places in the world where these giant albatross nest. It rains well over 300 days a year, so we had a normal day. We donned our rain gear and rubber boots and went ashore. Of course, since they are trying to keep pests off the island (both animals and plants), we stepped into a bio-cyde chlorine bath before leaving the ship. It was a nasty day to hike--still windy and rainy, but in the high 40's.
In order to return the island to its natural state (before the Maori and the first European settlers arrived), the New Zealand government eradicated the entire island of rats early in this century (about 2001). We saw a documentary on the ship about the process. They used helicopters that dropped poison pellets all over the island. The Department of Conservation. had to destroy 100 percent of the rats, or the project would be a failure. It was a dangerous project since the island is mountainous and has steep cliffs dropping into the sea. Although we saw a video of the helicopters dropping the bait on the cliffs, I'm still not sure how it filtered down into all the crevices to the rats. The project was a success and is being used as a model for other remote islands with rat infestations.
The island was a seal hunting base in the early 1800's and most of the seals were killed in less than a decade. Whaling replaced seal hunting by the 1830's. Some farmers tried to make a go here, but didn't stay long. The NZ government had a meteorological station at Campbell at some point, but all that remains are some run down buildings that would be condemned back home.
Getting rid of the rats allowed the native megaherbs, birds, and sea lions to thrive. One added benefit from the rat eradication was they transformed the wooden pallets used to store the rat poison into a long boardwalk that goes from the old meteorological station up a hill, along a saddle, and across the island. They call this walk the Col Lyall Saddle Boardwalk. It takes about 2 hours each way to walk the entire boardwalk (8km roundtrip or about 4 miles), which is made of the old pallet wooden boards about 18 inches long covered with chicken wire. Since the boardwalk was relatively narrow, it was moderately difficult, steep and slick (despite the chicken wire) in places, and ascended 850 feet.
We rode ashore on the Zodiacs about 10 at a time. Each group had an expedition leader and the groups were strung out along the boardwalk. The ground was peat-like, muddy, or covered with bushes, so we were glad to have the narrow boardwalk to walk on.
After over an hour, we reached the saddle of the mountain, which was somewhat protected from the wind, and we started spotting the brilliant white huge Southern Royal Albatross on their nests. We spotted about two dozen, but only a handful were within 10 yards of the boardwalk. One was right next to the boardwalk, so we stepped off (they have a 15 foot rule--stay 15 feet from all animals if possible) and went around the bird. Didn't take many photos since it was so rainy, but did get a few that were so-so. All the groups turned around at this albatross since the trail ahead at the summit of the mountain was much windier. With the rain, we couldn't have seen much at the top, and we had seen an albatross nest as close as was possible.
Coming back down the boardwalk, I slipped on a downhill section and fell off the boardwalk headfirst into one of the tall bushes. Not hurt at all except my pride. Just happy it wasn't one of the boggy or muddy places. I had to vacuum off my jacket, gloves, and hat well on the ship the next day before going ashore on Macquarie Island.
Returned to the ship a little after 2 pm and ate lunch. We were supposed to do a Zodiac ride along the shoreline looking for the rare Campbell teal duck, which is world's rarest duck. However, since our original excursion was so delayed, we had to skip that activity. Later in the voyage, we did see an Auckland Island teal duck, which is closely related to the Campbell Island teal, but not as rare. The Captain did sail along the spectacular coastline, but it was too rough, windy, rainy to be outside on the deck.
During the lazy afternoon we didn't go outside because of the inclement weather. Claire and I both took naps before the evening cocktail party and then dinner. I had tempura veggies, mushroom soup, and roasted chicken. Claire had the salmon tartare, mushroom soup, and baramundi. Another delicious meal with new friends, all of whom shared their stories from the time ashore at Campbell Island. I wasn't the only one who fell off the boardwalk!
Bed at about 10:30 or so. It was a very rocky night, followed by sea day.Continue to 6 of 11 below.
06 of 11
Second Day at Sea on the Silver Discoverer
The day after we left Campbell Island was a very lazy day onboard the Silver Discoverer. The small ship still rocked and rolled, but we all seemed to be taking it in stride. After all, we were sailing in the famous stormy latitudes called the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, so none of us were surprised.
Enjoyed a leisurely buffet breakfast with some of our shipmates, followed by a 10 am presentation on the basics of geology by Thomas, one of our expedition team. They have a well-balanced group of scientists onboard to answer all our questions. Claire and I stuck our heads outside after the presentation, but it was too cold and windy to stay without our gear.
At 11:30, we went to the "first time" Silversea cruisers cocktail party. (Although I've sailed with Silversea several times, this was Claire's first Silversea cruise.) They ran a slide show using many of Richard Sidey's photos of places he's been with Silversea to tempt us to book again. If only I could do pictures half that well!
Soon it was time for lunch, and I guessed we had walked about 500 steps--like I said a lazy day! Ate fish and chips, salad, and Claire had some of an Indian dish that was minced eggplant, onions, and other veggies fried like a hush puppy.
After lunch, we checked over our outerwear to make sure we hadn't picked up any seeds or plant material on Campbell Island before going to the presentation on Macquarie Island, our next port of call.
Macquarie is an Australia island (we had to buy $20 visas online) way south of Tasmania. It lies at over 54 degrees south and is the farthest south we traveled. The long, narrow island stretches north to south and has a permanent research station with about 20-40 scientists working and living there at any one time. Like Campbell Island, it has unique geology, flora, and fauna. We went primarily to see penguins, seals, and birds. All of the earth's population of royal penguins nest on Macquarie, and island also has rockhopper and king penguins. The other big attraction are the thousands of elephant seals. Given the uncertain weather of the region, we were glad Silversea allowed two days at Macquarie. With that time frame, we were fairly certain there would be a window when the weather would allow a visit ashore.
After the Macquarie Island presentation, it was afternoon nap time, and we slept right through the tea/trivia time, but did wake up for Olive's (another naturalist) presentation on seals and sea lions. (her passion is marine mammals) She got us all charged up about seeing some of these creatures. Claire and I just stayed in the lounge afterwards and chatted with some of our new friends before the official "recap and tomorrow" briefing.
Had dinner with four other Americans--a first for this cruise. Kind of weird to be an "all American table". I had crab cake, a white asparagus salad, and the prime rib. Claire had the crab cake, white asparagus, and the sea trout. Claire had a chocolate tart with marcopone cream, and I had a pineapplie carpaccio (very thin slices) topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream. Both were delicious.
We had to set our clocks back an hour, which meant the sun came up at 4:45 am and set at 9:49 pm.
Another early night since we had an early day at Macquarie Island.Continue to 7 of 11 below.
07 of 11
A Day with the Wildlife of Macquarie Island
Many of the passengers on our Silver Discoverer cruise chose this itinerary because the ship visited Macquarie Island, Australia. Macquarie is a sub-antarctic Australia island about half-way between Australia and New Zealand. It lies at over 54 degrees south and is the farthest south we traveled on this Silversea Silver Discoverer voyage. The island has been a Word Heritage Site since 1997, but it's not as easy to visit as many World Heritage Sites are. The island usually has fierce winds and cold weather. Visitors must sail hundreds of miles to get to an island that allows a maximum of 1000 guests each year. Why do people come to Macquarie? It has unique wildlife with no fear of humans, much like the Galapagos, Antarctica, and South Georgia island in the south Atlantic.
We first sailed along the eastern coast of Macquarie, stopping offshore near Lusitania Bay, which has one of the largest king penguin rookeries in the world, with over 120,000 birds. Since I had never seen king penguins, this was particularly exciting. Dozens of them swam out to the ship and we got great views of them swimming next to the ship and diving underwater in the clear Southern Ocean.
After about an hour, we sadly left this bay and sailed north for Sandy Bay, where we went ashore in the Zodiacs for about 3 hours. It was an amazing day and worth the long, rocky ride through the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties latitudes. We saw a king penguin rookery with baby penguins, a royal penguin rookery with eggs still hatching, and numerous elephant seals on the beach. All of us agreed that it was one of the major highlights of our trip. Three hours wasn't nearly long enough, but many of us could have watched the birds and mammals for days without getting enough.
We returned to the ship for a late lunch, taking along a few of the team from the ranger/research station. I'm sure it was their best meal in quite a while! The Captain had planned to reposition the ship to anchor offshore the station, where we could tour the facility and get our passports stamped with a Macquarie Island stamp. Alas, it didn't happen. We already knew there was going to be a big storm hitting Macquarie the next day, but the Captain had gotten word it was worse than originally projected. Since the safety of the guests and the ship are his main objectives, he decided we should leave and sail straight for Auckland Island, about 36 hours away. This island has a protected harbor, and we could wait out the storm if necessary. The good news was that the waves and wind were behind the ship and pushed us along, so it wasn't as rough as expected. We did have many waves over 30 feet tall during the sailing, but since we were ahead of them, it wasn't too bad.
Since we didn't go ashore to the research station, we had a quiet afternoon and took a nap while sailing northeast. Had an educational presenations on penguins and another on geology, followed by the evening cocktail party and dinner. Claire and I both got the ahi tuna steak for our main course. It was delicious. In bed by 11 pm since we had to set our clocks up to NZ time--gained back hour we lost on the sail to Macquarie.
Our next day would be a sea day, and we expected high winds and rough seas until we got to the Auckland Islands, another sub-antarctic island group.Continue to 8 of 11 below.
08 of 11
Day at Sea on the Way to the Auckland Islands
Leaving Macquarie Island, we had a rocking and rolling night until about 3 am when the Captain turned the ship and headed with the wind. The following sea didn't feel nearly as fearsome as it looked, and it continued all day. The storm included sunny times as well as rain, sleet, and hail, so was quite entertaining. Of course, the 30 foot waves looked like someone should be surfing right behind the ship!
Claire and I slept in and had a leisurely breakfast before going to a presentation on Chilean sea bass, which are really Patagonian toothfish (who knew?). Interesting to hear about how fisheries biologists are trying to protect this species, which only is found in cold southern waters.
After the lecture, Claire and I attended the martini tasting, which was fun and lasted until lunch. After lunch we watched a movie on the Grafton shipwreck that occurred on Auckland Island. Five sailors were stuck for 18 months before the Captain and two of the men struck out to sail to the NZ mainland on a makeshift boat. A story of survival and perseverance much like the Ernest Shackleton story from Antarctica, and all survived. Since we planned to visit their campsite on Auckland Island, it was good to get more details of their story.
Many of our fellow guests spent much of the day outdoors, watching the birds and the sea, but it was very windy and cold. I went out for a while, and admit that seeing the surface of the black and white ocean was mesmerizing. Since we had the following sea, the stern was the best place to watch Mother Nature's show. The huge swells pushed us along and would almost catch the ship, and every time I thought a giant wave was going to wash over the stern and fill the swimming pool. However, just before the wave broke, the ship would rise up and glide down the steep slope of the wave.
Claire went to tea while I napped/read and then I joined her for the presentation on penguins, which was very good. How many of you knew there were 18 species of penguins?
Dinner was another good one--steak tartare, tomato bisque, and grouper, with "death by chocolate" for dessert.
The ship arrived at the quiet harbor of Auckland Island during the night, so we had a very peaceful sleep before our visit to the island the next day.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11
A Day Exploring History on Auckland Island
The Silver Discoverer sailed into Carney Harbor of Auckland Island during the night. After our rocking days at sea, I think many of us woke up, but only because the water was suddenly so calm! We had left the 30-35 foot waves behind and were safely out of the wind. One of the onboard expedition team told us he had been sailing on small ships for over 10 years and had never seen waves like the one we experienced. In hindsight, it wasn't that bad, and I think most of us would repeat the journey to have more time at Macquarie Island.
The Auckland Islands are the largest, highest, and biologically the most diverse of the New Zealand sub-antarctic islands. They are only about 300 miles south of New Zealand's South Island, so we were headed back towards civilization. Carnley Harbor is actually an ancient volcanic caldera, but it's not as perfectly round as the one at Santorini in Greece. The Auckand Island group arose from two volcanoes dating back 25 and 10 million years ago. The hard volcanic rock cliffs are spectacular and pounded by the sea and the wind.
We left the ship at 8:30 am on the Zodiacs to go ashore at the site of the wreck of the Grafton, a ship that ran aground on Auckland Island in 1864. The crew salvaged some food, tools, navigation equipment, and other materials from the wreck. Although they had provisions for only about 2 months, the men survived for 18 months on a diet of seabirds, fish, and water before the Captain the 2 crew built a small boat from the wreckage and sailed to Stewart Island (took them 5 days and they had to pump out water 24/7 since they couldn't seal the boat). They didn't try to escape before then because the Captain thought that someone would come looking for them. He finally gave up.
We saw the remnants of the Grafton near the rocky shoreline and then hiked a short distance (about 100 yards) to their encampment. Like most of the places we've visited, the Auckland Islands are still uninhabited, but the tall hills are covered with Rata forest (a type of tree), tundra, and natural bush. The Rata trees have twisted trunks and such thick canopies that not much grows under them except moss and some creepy foliage. After checking out the wreck and campsite, we had a Zodiac tour of the huge caldera, noting the birds, volcanic basalt rocks, and plants along the shore. We sat in the small boats and watched some skuas tear apart a dead sea lion carcass. Skuas are like buzzards in that they are scavengers, but prettier. Claire and I laughed that since it was a common occurrence, we would never stop on a Georgia highway to watch a bunch of buzzards feed on road kill, but attentively watched the feeding skuas with everyone else.
Back on the Silver Discoverer just in time for lunch (can't miss a meal) and then went out again for a hike up to the top of one of the mountains to a "coast watchers hut" built during World War II and maintained as a historic site by the New Zealand government. This was a shorter hike of about 2 miles round trip, but went up quite a bit in elevation and we had to wear our rubber boots since the ground was very boggy in places. Nice hike, but getting from the rocky beach up to the trail was quite difficult for most of us, even though the guides had installed ropes for us to climb up to the starting point. Still good to get some exercise to walk off all the food and drink we were consuming.
We skipped tea and had short naps before going to the recap/briefing/cocktail hour. Claire and I were invited to dine with the Hotel manager Mateo Martini who is Italian. He was quite fun, and we also sat with the serious British birding couple who had dined with us at the Captain's table earlier in the cruise. They were both quite charming and enjoy the out of doors, travel, and wildlife as much as I do.
The dinner had an Italian theme and was quite delicious. Claire and I had the Chilean sea bass, which we now know is really Patagonian toothfish, and it was marvelous. The hotel manager told us that working on an expedition ship was sometimes challenging since it was impossible to get extra provisions. Plus,he felt like he was always competing with the penguins since sometimes the shore excursions run longer if wildlife is particularly exciting. I've heard this same observation from hotel managers on Alaska cruises who must compete with whale sightings.
The Silver Discoverer chef is German, and Mr. Martini joked that they clash much of the time. I noticed that one dessert at our Italian theme dinner had layers of strawberry, vanilla, and pistachio ice cream (red, white, and green) like the Italian flag. I thought it was quite appropriate for an Italian dinner until the hotel manager noted that the colors weren't in the right order. He was sure the chef had them wrong just to annoy him!
Mr. Martini suggested we end our dinner with a glass of very smooth grappa, evidently his favorite after dinner drink. It was strong like moonshine, but went down easier (although it did burn a little). Claire and I had attended the martini tasting and asked him about whether he was related to the Vermouth Martinis. He said no, but he proudly stated he could make a great martini. When we jokingly challenged him on this statement, he promised to make the four of us a "Martini martini" before the cruise was over, and we readily accepted his invitation.
Another early night for us sleepyheads. The next day we'd be at another of the Auckland Island group, Enderby Island.Continue to 10 of 11 below.
10 of 11
A Day with the Sea Lions of Enderby Island
I may be sounding redundant, but our day at Enderby Island in the Auckland Island archipelago was another memorable one. Like the day before, it was warmer--about 50 degrees--and partly sunny. The Silver Discoverer anchored off Sandy Bay on Enderby Island about 6:30 am.
We had two hiking options--the first was a long hike that circumnavigated the island for about 7.5 miles. This hike started at 7:45 and was fast paced, with little time to stop and make photos or enjoy the scenery. Everyone had to sign up the night before, and the expedition staff reserved the right to refuse anyone they felt might slow the group down since it was a one-way hike with no turning back. Well, they scared all of us away except for 5 intrepid hikers. I knew I could do it, but they recommended we wear our rubber boots since the path was very muddy/mucky. My rubber boots are not made for walkin', so I decided to skip. Claire felt the same way, plus option 2 sounded more attractive to us.
This second option included a hike for about 1 mile each way up from the beach to the northern cliffs of the island (it is all towering cliffs except for the Sandy beach landing). This hike was 2 miles round trip, left at 8:30, and we didn't have to be back on the ship until noon, which left plenty of time to explore on our own and/or watch the amazing show of the New Zealand sea lions.
This second option ended up perfect, and we saw all the wildlife and most of the plant life the long hikers did. As we climbed up the cliffside, the vegetation changed significantly due to the altitude and the wind (more wind on top the cliff). Very interesting hike, and one mile each way was enough in our rubber boots and heavy parkas. I especially enjoyed the wildflowers along the trail.
Sandy beach was packed with New Zealand sea lions, and the mile-long trail was littered with a few sea lions and the lovely (and very rare) yellow-eye penguins. One of the expedition guides calls them the "Zen" penguins since they are often seen by themselves, just standing on a rock, trail, or grassland and staring into outer space like statues. Most other penguins are in huge, noisy social groups of thousands of other penguins, and they are always making noises or hopping around, not standing like statues.
The expedition team taught us "sea lion" defensive measures before going ashore, and although we saw some of the guides use them (stick your walking pole or backpack in front of you and stand your ground--no running or turning your back), Claire and I were able to just give the SAMS (sub-adult males who are the most aggressive) ample room and had no problems. The females only mate with the large adult males, and the SAMS (like teenage boys or young men) are sexually frustrated and will take their anger out on others since they don't stand a chance of shagging (a British term used by one of the expedition team) a female until they are older.
After our hike, Claire and I stood with some of the others in our group for over two hours watching the "soap opera" of sea lions on the beach below. We stood on a small cliff about 7-8 feet high overlooking the beach, which provided close up views without our getting in the way of all the action. It was very voyeuresque!
We watched the giant mature males (called beachmasters) guarding their harem of 1 to 12 cows (adult females) while the younger SAMS or other large adult males tried to raid the harem. Also, some of the females tried to leave to go feeding in the ocean or tried to join a new group as they came ashore. Throw in some huge males trying to mate with the tiny females, a few babies, and it was one of the best shows any of us had seen in a long time. Claire and I agreed that if there was such a thing as reincarnation, we definitely would not choose returning as a female sea lion. They have a rough life--pregnant or nursing most of the time and harassed by males who pay no attention to them except the few days a year they are not pregnant.
Returning to the ship at noon, we all agreed it had been a marvelous morning. We had enjoyed the Macquarie Island penguins and elephant seals, and now we had this fantastic day with the rare New Zealand sea lions. After lunch, we had a 2.5-hour Zodiac tour of the bay and surrounding area, where we saw more penguins, sea lions, shags, ducks, and the amazing kelp that looks much like huge spinach lasagna or fettucine noodles. Enderby is a volcanic island, and the cliffside had towering basalt rocks that stood like pencils in a box.
Back on the ship just in time for the nightly recap and briefing, followed by dinner. Nice dinner at a table for 8 with 2 of the long hikers who filled us in on their day. Although their group saw more of the island, Claire and I agreed we liked our morning better since they didn't get time to do much other than hike-hike-hike in order to complete the 7.5 miles before noon.
I had French onion soup and beef short ribs for dinner. It was another great meal. I returned to the cabin to read my book and go to sleep, and Claire stayed on to have a Baileys and socialize with some of the fun folks we had on the cruise.
The Silver Discoverer continued its northern course as we sailed towards The Snares, another island group that is a national park. No one is allowed ashore on these islands, so we toured via Zodiac.Continue to 11 of 11 below.
11 of 11
A Day at The Snares - Penguins and Sea Caves
It was a gorgeous sunny day when the Silver Discoverer visited the Snares Islands of New Zealand. An added plus were the quieter winds, which facilitated exploring. This tiny island group (total land area of only 1.4 square miles) lies about 120 miles south of New Zealand's South Island and 60 miles south of Stewart Island. The Snares are the closest sub-Antarctic archipelago to the "mainland" (the South Island). The New Zealand government does not allow people to go ashore anywhere on this island group (ships can't even tie up to the bank), but visitors are allowed to use small boats like our Zodiacs to explore the shoreline and the many sea caves. We used the Zodiacs to explore the east coast of Northeast Island, the largest Snare island. The first Zodiac left the ship at 7:45, so it was an early start.
The Snares are unique because they are the only forested group of islands where mammals were never introduced (not even mice). New Zealand has only two endemic mammals, and both of these are small bats. When mammals were introduced either by plan or accident, they quickly became pests, and many of the ground bird species (and even some sea birds and flying birds) who once inhabited the country are now extinct. I have a much better understanding of the government paranoia about non-native plants and animals coming into the country now. They have spent millions trying to get rid of pests like rats, mice, rabbits, and deer.
Our morning in the Zodiacs was memorable because of the many birds and marine mammals we saw, but also because of the spectacular caves we were able to explore. Plus, having clear blue skies and sunshine always makes everyone cheerier. Those of us who are penguin fanatics (and most onboard were) got to add yet another penguin species--the Snares Crested Penguin--to their life list. There are 18 worldwide species of penguins, and after this trip, many of us who are well-traveled (most of the passengers) will have seen at least a dozen of them. (Note: New Zealand has 7 or 8 species of penguins, most of which are only seen in NZ.)
In addition to the sunny day, we also had relatively calm waters, making it possible for the Zodiacs to enter the sea caves. Richard, one of our expedition team, had visited The Snares four times previously and never been able to board a Zodiac to tour due to high winds and seas. He was as thrilled as the rest of us. The granite ceiling and walls of the sea caves were covered with pink and/or green algae. Very picturesque and photogenic. The rocky cliffs were covered with sea lions and penguins, and flocks of sea birds flew overhead. (We all quickly learned to not keep our mouths open when looking up.)
We returned to the ship for lunch, and the Captain sailed north for Bluff on the South Island, where we made a technical stop (no guests ashore) to pick up a boat pilot, which is required for Fjordland National Park, our next destination. He also topped off the water and fuel tanks, and added a few supplies. There was a joke going around the ship about shortages of Guinness beer, diet coke, and champagne--but it may just be that those were the most popular drinks.
Before arriving at Bluff, the afternoon was filled with two presentations (one on whales and the second on sea bird identification), and then we had the briefing and recap at 6:30. It was a gorgeous evening, so many of us chose to eat outside at the "hot rocks" grill next to the (empty) swimming pool. Claire and I got a reservation for 4 with a fun couple from near Perth, Australia. It was a fun evening, and I loved using the personal hot rock (a flat black slab they put in a very hot oven and leave for a day) to cook my 6 oz filet mignon steak. Claire had the tuna, Madge had the salmon, and Jess got a rib eye. We each got two large prawns on the side, a delicious salad, baked potato, and a skewer of Mediterranean veggies to grill while cooking our meat. We had apple pie a la mode or a fruit salad for dessert.
We had a table protected by the wind, but by 9 pm, many other hot rock diners were wrapped up in blankets provided by the ship. It was still a fun evening.
The first part of our Silver Discoverer adventure came to an end. We had visited and explored some remote, desolate islands, not seeing any ship traffic or other humans for days. It was a truly magical, memorable cruise. The next six days, the ship completed the circumnavigation of the South Island of New Zealand that we had started 10 days before in Dunedin. Everyone I spoke with on the ship was thrilled to have visited these wild islands that are such a unique part of our earth. Now, they looked forward to some more traditional New Zealand cruise destinations--still lightly visited and filled with diverse wildlife, but much different than the islands of the Southern Ocean.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.