The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

The Government's released its 2016 consultation document for the management of threats to New Zealand sea lions. Most of the population of the critically endangered species lives in the subantarctic Auckland Islands, but it's in decline.

Isobel Ewing sailed to the archipelago and reflects on the fragility of its wildlife and ecosystems, and what the often-forgotten outpost of New Zealand can teach us about the changes faced by the planet.

They're the last trees you'll see when you sail towards the bottom of the globe.

Gnarled and wind-worn but blooming vibrant red, the southern rata epitomise the contrast of wildness and beauty of the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

Some of the trees on the islands are shaped by the winds (Brendon O'Hagan / Sir Peter Blake Trust)

We sailed here from Devonport on board the HMNZS Otago. It's a four-day voyage, beginning at Auckland to allow voyagers to adjust to the ocean, rather than plunging straight into the southern ocean from Dunedin.

There are 28 of us in the Young Blake Expeditions group, 14 high school age - hand-picked by the Sir Peter Blake Trust for their proven environmental nous and leadership, and 14 of us mentors, including scientists, a doctor, Department of Conservation rangers and media.

In taking these young people to a part of the world dear to Sir Peter's heart and involving them in scientific research, the Trust hopes to continue his legacy: inspire young leaders who share what they learn about climate change and ocean health with other Kiwis.

The departure from Auckland Harbour is serene. On day two, the students hang off the stern to catch a glimpse of dolphins gliding on the wave we cut through the turquoise water.

In the evening a call comes across the ship comms: "The route will pass over the rich fishing grounds of Ranfurly Banks and the vessel will be capitalising on this by loitering in the vicinity. All ship's company wishing to cast a line should report to the bow at 0600 hours".

A gaggle of us are up an hour before wake-up call to watch the Navy crew reel in monster kingfish as the sun begins to touch the horizon.

That afternoon, the last scrap of 3G loads enough Google Map to show our dot sinking south of Stewart Island, and the sea turns hostile.

It's equally exhilarating and terrifying to stand on the bridge, surveying the plunging valleys and peaks of the sea ahead. We cling to anything solidly attached to the wall as the ship crashes down from towering waves and try to yogi-breathe through the nausea.

I ask one of the crew - who we only know as "Chief", a salty sea dog who joined the navy at 15 - what these 8m swells rate out of 10.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

 The Navy's seen bigger waves than this (Brendon O'Hagan / Sir Peter Blake Trust)

"This is a one, mate."

As is in one out of 10. He reckons they had 15m swells three months prior and the ship had listed to 43 degrees. He sleeps on his back and when he woke on his front he momentarily thought they had capsized.

At dinner in the officer's mess the captain lunges with a familiarity of habit as a carafe of water reels towards me.

After minimal sleep in a bunk that jolted like a night-long 4.1 earthquake, we wake to find we'd sailed through the Roaring Forties.

We're in the bottom fifth of the globe's latitude and the sea's quietened in the lee of the Auckland Islands.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

There are only about 10,000 NZ sea lions left in the wild (Isobel Ewing / Newshub.)

Our time is to be spent on the eastern coast - the west is eaten into jagged, inhospitable cliffs by the relentless wind and ocean.

Director of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, Professor Gary Wilson, explains the Auckland Islands are one of the best places in the world to record changes in climate because of their location in the subtropical convergence zone, where the cold water of the Antarctic circumpolar current meets warm subtropical water. They also sit at the boundary of the polar easterly winds and the westerly winds.

The Trust hopes to develop a research station at the Auckland Islands so data can begin to be gathered and future changes in climate and the effects on the ecosystem recorded.

That means monitoring changes in the ocean, the intertidal zone and the atmosphere, as well as picking up any invasive species that may find their way here as the environment changes to form a more suitable habitat.

The first crunch of the stony shore underfoot as we step of the Navy's rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) is a relief after four days at sea.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

The sea lions were curious about the island's new arrivals (Isobel Ewing / Newshub.)

Almost immediately we have company - two smooth heads break the surface and beady black eyes peer at the foreign visitors. Roughly 70 percent of the New Zealand sea lion breeding population is at the Auckland Islands and unlike shy fur seals, they readily approach you. We're told if they charge - raise an arm in the air rather than attempt to flee. I do have occasion to test this technique and sure enough the boisterous juvenile male stops in his tracks and makes a waddling retreat.

The Government's threat management plan for sea lions is currently open for submissions. The main threats are identified as disease and bycatch from fishing, and the industry has introduced devices designed to push sea lions up and out of the nets before they drown. However there's increasing concern from scientists that these might be masking the deaths by either injuring them or allowing their dead bodies to be released from the net unaccounted for.

With just 10,000 left, they're the rarest species of sea lion on earth. Scientists think they could be wiped out by 2035 if their protection isn't improved.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

(Brendon O'Hagan / Sir Peter Blake Trust)

Days are spent undertaking various scientific work; gathering data from a NIWA weather station, taking sediment core samples from the islands and floors of the glacial fjords, dragging a net for plankton and surveying the intertidal zone.

Marine scientist Rebecca McLeod picks out a bay tucked behind the aptly named Shag Rock, exposed to the open seas which means bountiful flora and fauna to examine.

We clamber ashore across slippery blankets of giant kelp just metres from where a fur seal colony doze. Aside from perhaps a sealer 100 years ago, it's likely we're the first to set foot on this particular stretch of coastline, and certainly the first to examine what lives here. Some of the algae we gather are bound for Te Papa's National Herbarium Collection, and Dr McLeod suspects some may be new species. The possibility we are making a new discovery feels remarkable in a world where virtually every peak and tiny cay has been explored. And it's a reminder of the mystery that still shrouds this archipelago, how much we can learn from it.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

(Isobel Ewing / Newshub.)

The students find out the last Blake Expedition crew went swimming, that is, they jumped from the flight deck into the 5 degC water. This prompted a lot of pleading with the captain to let them do the same, so after every safety measure had been extended, including a RHIB in the water for potential rescues and a Navy crew member in position with a shark rifle, a gaggle of shivering teenagers (and myself) are clinging to the outer railing. I'm slightly worried my body might shut down upon total immersion, and for a few seconds after the plunge the signals from brain to limb seem to shut off, before jerking back to life and I claw my way to the surface, gasping and grabbing for the rope ladder.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

(Brendon O'Hagan / Sir Peter Blake Trust)

Our final day is spent on Enderby Island, the only island in the group that's entirely pest-free. It's known for its megaherbs, giant fleshy plants related to carrots and celery. Sadly we've missed their prime, the landscape's peppered with dead, wilted flowers. But we are here at the right time to observe the lively courtship rituals of young male albatross, shrieking at the sky and swooping overhead like a demented puppet show.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

(Isobel Ewing / Newshub.)

Sea lion pups play in a stream while their mothers gather food at sea. It's entertaining to watch them flop and roll in the mud, but sobering to remember many will starve when their mothers are attacked by sharks or caught in fishing nets. Down the far end of the beach a line of tiny figures totter up the hillside. They're yellow-eyed penguins, another species in decline on the mainland with disease, set netting and suspected changes to their feeding areas due to climate change to blame. If they die out in New Zealand, scientists think it unlikely the population here in the subantarctic will fortify the species, it's simply too far away.

The Auckland Islands: A journey to an isolated kingdom

One of the few signs of the presence of humans is an old coastwatchers hut (Brendon O'Hagan / Sir Peter Blake Trust)

The only sign of past human endeavour other than the cluster of DOC huts at Enderby is the old coastwatchers hut at Ranui Cove, on the main island. A sea lion lolls inside one of the sheds and the thick canopy of rata is a chorus of kakariki, bellbirds and pipits. These islands are a treasure. I'm acutely aware of the privilege it is to be one of the few New Zealanders to make it to this southern outpost, and I look forward to seeing what it teaches us.

Isobel Ewing sailed to the Auckland Islands with the Sir Peter Blake Trust and the Royal New Zealand Navy.

Newshub.

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