Subantarctic adventure part 1 – Auckland Islands

Cambell Albatross

In December 2016 LuminOdyssey are running another photography workshop tour to some of the World-Heritage-listed subantarctic islands south of New Zealand. Like some of our other workshops, we will be travelling on a ship with other tourists. In this case the ship (Heritage Expeditions‘ Spirit of Enderby) carries almost 50 passengers, of which we will be about 40%.

mapThis past December I (David Burren) travelled on the Spirit of Enderby doing the same voyage without workshop clients and thus this series of three posts is a bit of a preview of the 2016 trip, and what you will see is images and stories from the “base” voyage. Next year the weather will probably be different, and we (Michael Snedic and I, who run some of these workshops together) will be overlaying photography tuition into the trip for our group so some parts of the itinerary will be slightly customised.

Of course, click on any image in this post to see a larger version.

Day 1

The 2016 voyage starts in Dunedin on the 4th of December. In 2015 this was the 3rd, and that evening we met up with all the passengers and some of the Heritage expedition team for dinner at a local hotel (the Scenic Hotel Southern Cross right in the centre of Dunedin, and our overnight stay at the hotel is included in the trip). I had spent the day touring the Dunedin area (being taken on a private tour around town by a local friend). Some people took the opportunity to visit to the Northern Royal Albatross colony out at Tairoa Head. I was a solo traveller who was going to be in a twin-share cabin on the ship, and I got to meet my cabin-mate this day as we were also in a twin-share hotel room.

Someone’s going to ask about camera gear so…
On this voyage I used two DSLRs (a Canon 5D Mk.III and a 7D Mk.II) and one waterproof compact (an Olympus TG-4). My lenses included: EF 15mm/2.8 fisheye, Sigma 24mm/1.4 Art, EF 16-35mm/4 L IS, EF 24-70mm/4 L IS, and the Sigma 120-300mm/2.8 Sports (sometimes with a 1.4x).

Day 2

This morning the ship departed the dock at 10 AM (set by the tides) so we had a fairly early start from the hotel. We got bussed down to the ship, and made our way on board.

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The Spirit of Enderby is a Russian ship (her other name is the Professor Khromov). Other ships of the same model include the Polar Pioneer and the Akademik Shokalskiy. I’ve travelled on the Polar Pioneer multiple times (LuminOdyssey took multiple groups to Antarctica and to Svalbard on her) and I found the layout and fitout very similar. There were some obvious differences in the bar, dining rooms, and lecture room, but once I got used to those everything else felt the same.

On this voyage we happened to be accompanied by a small film crew working on some documentary footage. The rest of the passengers were a mix of travellers from Australia, NZ, Canada, USA, Italy, and France (I hope they’ll forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone).

Before we left the dock we had our first on-board briefing, down in the lecture room on level 2 (the main deck is at level 4). We would come back to this room many times during the voyage (for example for pre-excursion briefings outlining our onshore activities).

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Then we were back out on deck to get a feel for the ship and see and photograph the scenery. About an hour and a half after leaving the dock we reached Tairoa Head, the pilot departed, and we headed for the open sea. We went past the albatross colony, with its observation buildings high on the hill. It looked nice, but in light of our later albatross experiences it no longer seems that impressive. We also had the mandatory lifeboat drill.

A2_180581A2_180599A2_180638Tairoa HeadA2_181002

The rest of the day was spent heading south, eventually passing Stewart Island in the evening and on into the Southern Ocean.

Day 3

This day we had been hoping to get to visit an island group called The Snares, but due to the strong westerly weather system we skipped this (we did visit The Snares on our way back to NZ later). Instead the day was spent at sea heading south to the Auckland Islands.

Campbell Albatross

Along the way some of us spent time on deck photographing the birds. Sometimes at the stern of the ship, sometimes from the walkways along the sides.

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There’s no way around it: we’re travelling on the open ocean, with prevailing winds coming from the west (and the closest landmass in that direction is South America) so the incessant rocking motion of the ship is hard to avoid. It did change depending on the local wind conditions, so sometimes was smoother and at mealtimes the captain would sometimes alter course to provide a smoother ride. Some passengers used no seasickness medications and were fine, while some (including me) used meds. Everyone’s experience was slightly different. Sometimes it was affected by what you were doing: people out on deck were usually fine (there was one particularly rough day when the decks were closed for safety) and the ship’s bar/library/lounge is towards the centre of the ship and seemed to have gentler movement. Some people like the bridge (which is open to visitors except when the harbour pilots are on board) although due to its position it does sway a lot more than the bar.

I was fine most of the time, but one day (at sea) in particular I decided that the best thing for me to do was to lie down on my bunk with the window curtain closed and doze through the day. After that I was fine again. Whenever we got to an island group we had good shelter. I did find my sleep during the night was fairly disturbed, waking up every 2 hours or so before dozing off again as I slid up and down my bunk slightly. Working in the bar I was able to do a lot of photo processing during the trip (most of the 10,000+ shots were fully keyworded by the time we got back to NZ) but I didn’t try to spend too much time reading or looking at a tiny screen when on a rough ocean, which can trigger seasickness in some people.

Bottom line: yes the sea moves. Yes I felt unwell a few times. But yes I would (and will!) do it again: the islands (and the pelagic seabirds) are well worth it!

Day 4

This morning we woke up at Enderby Island, at the northern end of the Auckland Islands group. We headed ashore by Zodiac, and spent the whole day here. A quick note about Zodiac operations first. These rigid-inflatable boats are used for ferrying ashore as well as for cruising around some shores where we don’t have permits for landing. All the islands we visit (both New Zealand and Australian) are protected nature reserves, and we can only land with the permits that Heritage organises for us. These permits restrict where we can land and what we can do ashore, as all these locations are very sensitive. Whenever we go ashore we first clean our boots/etc at a washing station the ship has set up on the deck (just in front of the ship’s smokestack) and when we come back we clean again. Not just to avoid taking contaminants to the next landing, but also to avoid tracking mud/etc into our cabins! That includes things like tripods and hiking poles which can get quite mucky. During the voyage we also go through a series of quarantine cleanings, making sure we don’t have dust/seeds hiding in jacket pockets and velcro seals.

To board the Zodiacs we head down the gangway. This gets a little exciting when there’s a swell and the Zodiac is bobbing up and down, but there are crew members at the bottom of the gangway and in the boat to help get you on and off safely. You can see in one of these photos the line of passengers ready for the next Zodiac (having come past the boot-cleaning station).

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On the 2016 trip there’ll be one difference in Zodiac operations, and that’s just for those outings where we spend a lot of time in the Zodiac cruising along the coast (in some locations we can’t get permits to land, but there are still many photographic opportunities without landing). Our aim is to have the photographers together in a couple of boats, with Michael and myself in each to provide guidance to those who need it and to work with the Zodiac drivers.

On landing operations where we’re essentially just shuttling to/from shore, there’ll be no particular need to stay with your photography group as we’ll meet up on shore anyway. On shore operations where we head off in groups, we’ll probably want to stick together (obviously Michael and I can take two separate groups).

Enderby Island

Overall I felt Enderby Island was a great introduction to the NZ subantarctic islands. The expedition team had arranged two options. After landing we walked via boardwalk over to the other side of the island, seeing lots of flora and fauna along the way.

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A2_181738From there we could choose to either head back down the boardwalk and spend some time around the landing area before returning to the ship, or to head out on a ~14 km trek around the coast back to the landing area (but once you had started walking you were committed to going all the way). Of course I took the long option, and I’m so glad I did! We got close views of a lot more wildlife, even though at times it was a hard slog through the tussock grass. The vegetation varied a fair bit along the coast, but overall most people came away talking about the grass (I fell over several times, and it was quite comfortable!).

We stopped for lunch along the way (the chefs had provided packed lunches for us, with a production-line operation in the morning as we selected the contents of our lunch). The walkers ended up quite spread out along the way (there was no “track” to speak of: just keep the coast to your left) although you often ended up clustered with a group of fellow walkers. When we returned to our landing area, there were Zodiacs shuttling people back to the ship every hour or so as walkers trickled in.


A2_181946Auckland Island Banded Dotterel

As well as some of the megaherbs that were starting to flower, along the way we saw and photographed animals including: the endemic Auckland Island species (Banded Dotterel, Red-crowned Parakeet, Shag, Pipit, Tomtit, Subantarctic Snipe, and Flightless Teal) as well as Yellow-eyed Penguin, Light-mantled Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross, New Zealand Falcon, Northern Giant Petrel (including chicks), Brown Skua, Redpoll, Hooker’s Sea-lion, and a lone fur seal.

A2_181927A2_182436Red-crowned ParakeetGiant Petrel chickSnipe

The snipe is a secretive bird, and hard to get a chance to see if you’re with a loud group. Usually your best chance was when walking by yourself and then suddenly almost tripping over one or two of them.

It was a very long and tiring day, but exhilarating!

Day 5

Overnight the ship repositioned itself to Carnley Harbour at the south end of the main Auckland Island. We landed at a location where most of the group headed off on a track up the hill through the forest to where in WWII the Coastwatchers had their base. Some of the buildings are in ruins, although one has been restored. Coming back down the hill the group encountered a sea-lion in the forest. They don’t always stay in the water!

However I didn’t go on that walk on this trip. I stayed in the forest just behind where our Zodiacs were tied up (with some people on the beach below me) and spent my time photographing the forest itself. I did have one sea-lion come up from the beach and start following me, but crossing a stream seemed to put me in his “uninteresting” category and he moved off.

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This morning produced an image I’m especially happy with (I’ve already got a client looking at a huge canvas print of this):

Forest pathway
Forest Pathway. Taken with EOS 5D Mk.III and 15mm fisheye

It was a pleasant change working with the tripod in the forest and taking my time to frame and refine shots, using bracketing to cope with the extreme dynamic range (in fact the Forest Pathway image is a blend of four exposures). Quite slow and contemplative compared to the more-hurried and opportunistic world of wildlife.

In the afternoon the ship left the harbour and headed southwest towards Macquarie Island.
That will do for part 1. Now head on to part 2!

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