Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pinnipeds in Peril and Penguin Paparazzi

Greetings All,
We took our friends Jerry and Cilla's great advice and visited the Catlins. This area lies along the  southeastern coast of the South Island of New Zealand between Invercargill and Dunedin.  Here is a link to a map of the Catlins:

A mosaic of rolling farmland dotted with sheep and cows are interspersed with patches of temperate rainforest along rugged cliffs that drop off to isolated beaches. The area is sparsely populated and remote. You get the sense that this is the way New Zealand was years ago. The big draw for us was the opportunity to see some unique and rare wildlife:  Hector's Dolphins, Yellow-eyed Penguins and New Zealand Sea Lions. We went to Porpoise Bay to look for the Hector's Dolphins. At about 5 feet in length, it is one of the smallest cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and New Zealand's only endemic cetacean. There are only 8000 Hector's Dolphins left in the world. We scanned the bay with our binoculars and spotted dorsal fins in the distance! We went down to the beach and sure enough the Hector's Dolphins were cruising the bay.

We watched as they surfed the waves, leaped out of the water and poked their heads up. Marc was fortunate to capture a few of these moments.

I wanted to get closer but we didn't have a kayak or wet suits. A few brave souls went into the water in batching suits. The dolphins were curious and came to check out the kayakers and swimmers.  Oh, to be so close to such a rare creature!

We visited Surat Bay in search of New Zealand Sea Lions. A short walk through some dunes brought us to the beach. A couple told us there was a large Sea Lion just ahead. We found him half buried in the sand, trying to snooze despite the pestering flies. We continued past, rounded the corner and continued down a long stretch of isolated beach. We came across another two bulls and Marc stopped to photograph them.

I continued on finding a third male and two female sea lions napping together. Marc was still back at the second group of sea lions but I continued on. A group of 5 including a pup were snoozing together.  I sat on a log to watch them.

Marc finally joined me and we enjoyed the sea lions in complete isolation or so we thought. Two guys on dirt bikes came roaring up the beach and stopped right at the sea lions. Incredulous! What did these yahoos think they were doing? They pulled up next to another sea lion and got off their bikes. "What nerve!"I thought. One guy put on these long green rubber gloves. What on earth is he doing? Turns out they were there to pick up a dead pup for autopsy.

New Zealand Sea lions are "nationally critical", the highest threat category in New Zealand.  The death of even one pup is a concern for a species whose population has declined sharply over the last 10-12 years.  This pup may have been abandoned by it's mother or succumbed to a bacterial infection.

The third rare creature that we wanted to see is the Yellow-eyed Penguin. It was now 6:30 PM with just enough time to reach Roaring Bay. At this time of day the adults are returning to their nests to feed their chicks. Yellow-eyed penguins mate for life and always return to their favorite nesting site. There are only a few hundred of these rare penguins living along the Catlins coast. We arrived at a hide just past 7:00 PM. It was full but we managed to squeeze in. A penguin, about a hundred feet away, had already come ashore and was preening itself. A second stood motionless on the beach in the process of molting or maybe a chick waiting for its parents. Two more adult penguins popped out of the surf and headed up the beach. Three chicks came out to greet them begging to be fed.

We watched until they disappeared into the vegetation. I think we saw a total of 7 penguins before heading back to the car.

The next evening we went to Curio Bay to look for more penguins. We got there around 5:30 PM. A single molting penguin was nearby and we could see a second one on a rock far away. I went back to the car to put on more clothes and a penguin had emerged from the water around 6:00 PM, preened itself and started to rock hop to the vegetation where a hungry chick waited.

A guy spotted another penguin on the other side of the bay, high up on some rocks. More people showed up and started to spread out over the rocks, some close to the waters edge. A ranger showed up around 7:00 PM and pushed the crowd back to give the penguins enough space.   The Penguin Paparazzi had now grown to 100!

The next penguin didn't pop up until 7:25 PM. This got the crowd to it's feet. It was far away. At least another 3 penguins popped out of the ocean during the next half hour. The sun was getting too low for photos and we were getting cold so we left around 8:00 PM.

We had booked a Yellow-eyed penguin tour for the next night but it was cancelled. The tour operator suggested Roaring or Curio Bays. We had been to both those locations and so had most of the other tourists visiting the Catlins. The tour operator mentioned a third place, Long Point. The car park for Long Point was about 11 miles from the main road and it was a 30 minute walk to get to the Point. Perfect, this was the secret, secluded penguin spot that we were looking for. Surely, the Penguin Paparazzi wouldn't follow us here. We followed the tour operator's cryptic directions and found the car park. There were no cars, a good sign. We walked along a sheep pasture on top of a cliff and could see a brown hut below, our destination.

We sat on some rocks and waited patiently for the penguins to arrive. Marc spotted another couple sitting on some rocks 50 yards away. How did they get here?  We had not seen them on the path along the coast.  A penguin popped up about 150 feet away and then another. They took their time preening before slowly heading toward their nests. A third penguin appeared 80 feet away!  It preened for what seemed like forever before it started plodding to its nest.

Its chick popped out of the vegetation and greeted its parent by begging for food. They disappeared into the vegetation and a rabbit followed.

The other couple got up to leave and spotted us for the first time. They came over to chat and we answered in hushed whispers. They told us that we didn't have to be that quiet around the penguins. It turns out they owned the farm on top of the cliff. What an amazing place to live!

After they left, we had the seclusion I had hoped for. We watched as more penguins came ashore, preened then slowly started for their nests.

More chicks had emerged from the vegetation eagerly waiting for their parents.
We could have stayed longer but it was 8:50 PM and we had intruded on the penguins' world long enough. We climbed back to the top of the cliff as the sun was setting over the Southern Ocean.

A full moon rose to guide us back to our car. What a magical evening, one that we will not forget!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Finest Walk in the World"

Greetings All,
We were able to dock at the port in Bluff, New Zealand around midnight on February, 13. The seas were rough and it was raining but we were greeted by a pilot boat. Amazingly they pulled up next to us and the pilot hopped on board! He guided the Orion into port and we docked safely.

We've spent our first week in New Zealand preparing for and doing the Milford Track. Here is a link to a map showing the route:

It is touted as the "finest walk in the world". Time will tell if it lives up to it's reputation. The trek starts with a one hour boat ride from Te Anau Downs across Lake Te Anau to Glade Wharf where we disembarked with our fellow trekkers, trampers as we are called in New Zealand.

There are two ways to do this trek. The first, is to do the walk independently staying in huts with shared bunk rooms, kitchen/dining rooms and bathrooms. You have to carry your own stuff, clothes, sleeping bag, food, cooking pot and eating utensils. The second way is to go on a guided walk. You stay in lodges with private rooms/bathrooms, have gourmet meals cooked for you and carry only a daypack. Guess which method we chose? Wrong, we opted to go as independent walkers. Truth be told, if I knew about the guided option we may have gone that route.

The first day on the trail is an easy one. It's a short 3 mile walk along the Clinton River to Clinton Hut. We took our time enjoying the beautiful beech forest draped in moss and lichen. There are 90+ species of ferns that thrive in these lush forests. Many grow along the forest floor, others are epiphytic growing on trees. Friendly robins flitted around us and paradise ducks swam along the emerald waters of the Clinton River. The weather had cleared nicely and we had great views of the surrounding mountains.

We took a short side trip to a wetland. You had to stay on a boardwalk to prevent trampling the fragile vegetation. Sphagnum moss and sundews carpeted the swamp floor.

We arrived at Clinton Hut and claimed our bunks on the back corner of one of the 20-bed bunk rooms. I have to admit I'm not crazy about sleeping with 18 strangers.

The hut ranger took us on a walk later that afternoon and pointed out some of the trees and ferns growing nearby. Back at the hut, it a free-for-all for dinner. Forty people scramble to cook dinner on a dozen gas burners.

Fortunately, we had to boil water for a freeze-dried dinner. A Korean family was cooking up a feast complete with fresh meat. After dinner we were shown some glow worms living nearby. In the darkness, they resemble a mini starlit sky enticing moths and other insects into their silky threads. Finally the moment I dreaded - bedtime. I had the top bunk and climbed up for a fitful night's sleep. Wrong!  I dozed off only to awaken to a chorus of snoring. One guy sounded like a jackhammer. How can anyone sleep through such a racket? I left my earplugs down below so stuck my head in my sleeping bag and swore myself to sleep

The sun was shining brightly on day two of the trek. I survived the night and was ready for the 10 mile hike to Mintaro Hut. We climbed gradually along the Clinton River with views of towering granite cliffs on either side. We took a side trip to Prairie Lake and I spotted 6 long black necks in the grass. "What rare flightless New Zealand birds could they be?" I wondered. They shot up and landed in the lake in front of us. To my amazement they turned out to be Canada Geese!

We arrived at Mintaro Hut around 1:45 and I rushed in to select the best bunks. There were two bunk rooms downstairs that sleep only eight so I grabbed two lower bunks in one of the rooms. We had lunch and looked toward Mackinnon Pass our objective for the next day. The weather forecast wasn't looking so great for tomorrow and it was so clear today that we thought about climbing the pass today. Delf, a fellow trekker from Germany was thinking the same thing. He convinced us to go. It was only a 1500 foot climb and another 6 miles round trip but, without a pack. A helicopter was flying back and forth ferrying supplies or so we thought. As we rounded a switchback, there were big white sacks of gravel.

The helicopter was dropping gravel on the trail for maintenance! "Shit!" I thought. They weren't expecting anyone to be climbing Mackinnon Pass now. All we needed was for a half ton sack of gravel to come crashing through the trees onto our heads! No need to fear, there were two Department of Conservation workers on the trail with a radio directing placement of the sacks.

We climbed around the sacks and eventually above tree line. The vegetation became alpine and we noted Mt. Cook Lilly's, the largest buttercup in the world (unfortunately not in bloom) growing along the trail. I could see a large stone cairn with a cross, marking the pass or so I thought. It turned out to be a memorial to explorer Quintin McKinnon.

Strait ahead a path led to the edge of the cliff and a 3000 foot drop! The trail appeared to continue off to the right up and over another bump. Far enough for us. The views from this point were spectacular.  

Delf returned from the pass to join us. He informed us that the true pass was another 15-20 minutes away. We told him we had gone far enough. He perched himself on a rock on the edge of the cliff
After a rest and a snack we decided to make the climb to the top of the pass and for a view of the Clinton Valley.

We returned to Mintaro Hut happy that we had made it to the top of Mackinnon Pass in such great weather. Hurray, little to no snoring tonight! We picked the right bunk room. The couple in the bunks above us were restless and their tossing and turning still managed to keep me awake.

As we feared clouds had rolled in over night and the pass was socked in. We made our second accent in blowing wind and drizzle. Needless to say there was no view from the pass.

We had made the right call yesterday. We stopped in the McKinnon Pass Shelter to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate before making the long 3000 foot decent to our third and final hut, Dumpling. We passed the turnoff to Sutherland Falls, the highest in New Zealand but the trail was closed. A recent rockfall has forced the trail to be re-routed and it won't be complete until next year. We had a nice view further down the trail.

Our fourth and final day of trampling arrived early. The Korean family was up at 5:00 so they could get an early start. They were afraid of missing the 2:00 ferry at the end of the trek. We had eleven and a half miles to go today. It was supposed to be mainly flat but any little incline felt like a hill to me. I was tired from yesterday and my knees hurt. The trail passed through forest along the Arthur River to a historic boat shed. We finally arrived at MacKay Falls and Bell Rock and I crawled under bell rock for a quick look. The roof was somewhat shaped like a bell. The trail continued on past the Arthur River and Lake Ada and climbed to where a cliff had been cut and blasted away by contracted laborers in the late 1800's. They had carved their names in the wall.

We were moving slow today. I really wanted to stop for a break. My feet and knees were killing me. It was difficult to enjoy the beauty along the trail when you're in agony.

I held out until the Giant Gate Falls where we broke for lunch. A Weka, one of New Zealand's flightless birds that has survived the onslaught of introduced predators, crossed the trail to check out someone's pack laying on the ground.

The Falls were pretty but not spectacular. The last 2 miles of the trail were constructed by a prison labor gang from 1890 to 1892. Finally we arrived at the end of the track at Sandfly Point!

We had done it, trekked 40 miles with backpacks in three and a half days! It was around 1:35, plenty of time to catch the 2:00 ferry. Given the great weather affording spectacular views and the amazing flora, I would have to agree, the Milford Track is one of the "finest walks in the world"!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Campbell, Island of Rarities

Greetings All,
High winds and waves have impeded our journey north.

We were running out of time so were able to visit only one of New Zealand's Sub-Antarctic Islands. The captain chose Campbell Island as it was directly on our route and we would arrive mid-day. We cruised into Perseverance Harbour. The steep cliffs along the Harbour were lined with columns of basalt testament to the island's volcanic origin.

Flocks of Sooty Shearwaters bobbed on the surface of the water or swirled around us in brown clouds. They were joined by Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Giant, Wilson's Storm and Cape Petrels, and Campbell Island Shags.

The captain gave the order to drop anchor and the first zodiacs were launched. Amazing, three curious Yellow-eyed Penguins, one of the world's rarest penguins, came to check out these intruders in their remote realm.

I was eager to get ashore and to walk on terra firma after so many days at sea. Fortunately, we were in the first group to go ashore. A large Hooker Sea Lion was on shore to greet us. We joined Richard's team to make the climb to a lookout on a ridge 900 feet above. We picked our way past an abandoned research station keeping a close lookout for the sea lion we saw from the Zodiac. I spotted him in the tussock grass. We passed quickly and quietly and he paid us little heed. We passed singe file on a boardwalk through the forest. The tallest species of plants, the grass trees (Dracoplyllum) grow here. There is a long-leafed (left) and short-leafed (right) species growing 3 to 5 meters tall.

Leathery green ferns grew along the path. Friendly little New Zealand Pipets hopped along the boardwalk in front of us.

As we climbed higher, the forest gave way to the grasslands. Richard pointed out the tiny orchids and gentians growing along the way.

All three species of Pleurophyllum, members of the daisy family, grow on the island. One has large flat leaves with tall flower stalks. The flowers have gone by and only brown balls remain. The second has large flat leaves that are more grooved and shorter flower stalks. As we climbed higher some of the plants were still in bloom with showy purple flowers.

We could see Southern Royal Albatross soaring above. As we got higher we could see some birds nesting in the tussock grass. Then amazingly one was nesting right next to the boardwalk. We had to divert off the boardwalk as not to disturb the bird. Being this close you really get to see just how large a Royal Albatross is. They have beautiful pink bills that have a hook on the end and a black line along the bill that differentiates them from other similar Albatross. They are of the purest white and have gentle black eyes.

We passed by many more nesting Albatrosses before reaching the end of the boardwalk. The wind was gusting up to 40 mph and blew me off the boardwalk a couple of times. The view over Northwest and Cattle Bays to tiny Dent Island was spectacular.

We headed down with Eric and encountered a pair of Albatross preening each other.  Both the male and female take turns incubating the egg and they were in the processing of changing.

Back at the harbor, we hung out hoping to see more sea lions. One showed up along the shore rubbing against the rocks and rolling over. A second approached the wharf and popped up his head to check out these strangers invading his landing beach.

Hooker or New Zealand Sea Lions are the rarest Pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in the world. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining due to disease and commercial fishing.

Don, our expedition leader, spotted a Teal swimming along the wharf. The teal was a drab brown color, but turns out to be one of the world's rarest duck. Wow, what luck to see the world's rarest seal and duck within a matter of minutes!

It started to rain so we headed back to the Orion, thrilled with our experience. Now another race has started. We need to get back to the port at Bluff, New Zealand before bad weather sets in. High winds, gusting to over 50 knots are in the forecast. If this happens, the port will be closed. At this point, I'm in no hurry to get back. Others have flights to catch and are more eager to get ashore. We'll see what happens when we arrive late tonight.
We hope all is well back home.
Marc and Peggy

Here is a map of Campbell Island:

Friday, February 08, 2013

Treasures of the Ross Sea

Greetings All,
Well we made it back through the pack ice in record time. The ice had dispersed while we were in the Ross Sea and we had a wide escape route. Before we left the pack ice entirely, we stopped to do a zodiac cruise. Slipping through the ice at zodiac level is a much different experience that crashing through in a 4000 ton ship.

We headed toward a brown blob on the ice. As we approached we could see it was a Crabeater seal taking a nap. Crabeater Seals don't actually eat crabs. They eat krill which like a crab is a crustacean. I guess Crabeater sounds better that Krilleater. They can weigh up to 400 kg and can dive to depths of 250 meters. The global population is estimated to be 15 million. They are the world's most numerous large mammal after humans. She was heavily scarred on one side. No doubt she had a close call with a Leopard Seal or Killer Whale.

Speaking of Leopard Seals we found one sleeping soundly on an ice floe. He lifted his head wearily to check us out. It's a good thing we aren't on the menu.

Leopard Seals are one of Antarctica's top predators. They hunt penguins and other seals. Males are actually smaller than females. The global population is estimated to be around 220,000. They can live up to 26 years and can wander as far north as the Great Barrier Reef.

As we headed back toward the Orion, our Zodiac driver spotted a whale! We were able to get within 50 meters before the whale would porpoise and disappear under the surface.

We followed him to the open water where we we treated to several views of his tail fluke.

As we returned to the ship, passengers had crowded onto the deck to photograph us and the whale. We talked to Olive, the expedition's whale expert and she told us it was a Humpback Whale. She was interested in Marc's photos of the underside of the whale's tail. They can be use to identify the whale. Olive will compare Marc's photos with a database to see if this whale has been identified.

Humpback whales are filter feeders. They sift great quantities of krill out of the water with a sieve-like structure called a baleen. They can consume up to 2 tons of krill per day and can weigh as much as 40 tons! There are around 16,000 Humpback whales. The ones we are seeing migrate 5000 km each year from their feeding grounds in the Ross Sea to the warm tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef where they mate and calf.

With all these great mammal sightings it was easy to forget about the seabirds. They were doing their best to get noticed. The Cape Petrels were bobbing on the surface of the water and flying around the ship.

The Southern Giant Petrels were present in both forms, the more common brown form and the less seen white form. They too were flying around the ship and landing on the water.

The Albatrosses had also returned. We were seeing Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and Black-browed Albatross of which Marc got a great photo.

As we head north out of the Ross Sea we feel so prvileged to have seen such a remote and pristine place.

The world's oceans are under ever increasing threats such as overfishing, pollution and oil exploration. The Ross Sea is the planet's last undisturbed large body of water. Unfortunately, we learned today that this is changing. New Zealand has started a commercial fishery here. They are fishing for Antarctic Toothfish. We know it as Chilean Sea Bass. Please do not eat Chilean Sea Bass from the Ross Sea. Take my word for it - this place is a natural wonder and one of the last largely unexploited places on the globe. Let's keep it this way. The penguins, seals, whales and the myriad of ocean dwellers will thank you.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc