Adventure, wildlife, and climate change in New Zealand’s subantarctic islands

New Zealand’s Sublime Subantarctic Islands

Written by Pow Volunteer, Jessie Bard

In this month’s blog post, POW NZ’s advocacy initiative is exploring New Zealand’s remarkable Subantarctic Islands. Lying between 47 and 53 degrees latitude south in the Southern Ocean, these islands are home to an incredibly high level of biodiversity, wildlife population density, and endemism among unique flora and fauna. Emerging between the Antarctic and Subtropical Convergences, these rugged islands may as well be on the edge of the Earth. Notable for their diversity of penguin species and pelagic seabirds,  the Subantarctic is wildly spectacular. This past week, POW volunteer, Jessie Bard had the honor of traveling with Heritage Expeditions to three of New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands through their True Young Explorers Scholarship. An awe-inspiring trip to Snares Islands, Auckland Islands, Campbell Island, and Australian territory Macquarie Island left over 100 citizen scientists onboard the Heritage Adventurer in utter disbelief. 

POW Volunteer Jessie Bard onshore with King Penguins at Macquarie Island

With the holiday season approaching, it is the perfect time to learn about the native residents who call New Zealand’s frosty Sub Antarctic region home. Even though they live far from the North Pole, Subantarctic penguins and seabirds are worth discussing this Christmas! The region’s remoteness has allowed penguin populations to adapt to harsh climates and breed in largely untouched environments. Four penguin species are found on New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands, including the yellow-eyed penguin, and three species of crested penguin, including the Snares crested and erect crested penguins are endemic to the region.

Penguin Slide, Snares Island, featuring Snares Crested Penguins

New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands are home to some of planet Earth’s least-modified vegetation. The islands evolved in geographical isolation from mainland New Zealand and from each other, shaping their remarkably distinctive island ecosystems complete of marine algae assemblages, fish, marine mammals, plants, birds, and invertebrates. The protected marine environment encompassing the region serves as a critical breeding area for over 95 percent of the world’s population of the New Zealand sea lion and the Southern right whale. The islands host the most diverse breeding community of seabirds within the Southern Ocean, with 40 species, of which eight breed nowhere else in the world. Ten of the world’s 22 pieces of albatross are supported, and close to 2 million sooty shearwaters on Snares Islands.

Megaherbs on Enderby Island, Auckland Islands

New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands are protected by a World Heritage status, safeguarding marine ecosystems up to 12 nautical miles from each island group. These islands include Snares Islands/Tini Heke, Bounty Islands, Antipodes Islands, Auckland Islands/Motu Maha, and Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku and the islands surrounding it. Maintaining the conservation of marine ecosystems is crucial to the region’s management by the Department of Conservation. Including a total land area of 76,458ha, the marine reserve takes in 1,400,000 ha, constituting it as one of New Zealand’s most remote protected natural areas, regarded under the country’s highest conservation status.  DOC assesses present risks to the wildlife while managing tourism and strategizing long-term protection plans for the islands. The impact of alien mammal species on the islands has been addressed, with multiple eradication projects initiated to remove pests. The Department of Conservation hopes to serve as a model for oceanic islands globally as it works to remove all pests from the islands.

Sun-tanning New Zealand Sea, Lion Whakahao Bay, Enderby Island, Auckland Islands

The incredible presence of biodiversity on New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands was nearly threatened to extinction by whalers and sealers in the early 19th century when millions of New Zealand sea lions, Fur seals, and Southern elephant seals were hunted for their skins and oils. Increased protection measures over the past century have expanded their populations steadily. The regulation of human interference in this region has proven the power of nature’s resilience when we give wildlife the space it needs to thrive.

Home to some of the world’s only remaining unspoiled landscapes and wildlife, New Zealand’s Subantarctic region deserves our attention and respect. Wild, rugged places like these islands are constantly under pressure from human behavior and global warming. Rising air and ocean temperatures are impacting the unique flora and fauna, making it easier for invasive species to thrive, fewer frosts are causing soil stress, impacting plants and insects, which in turn impacts the whole ecosystem. We can work to protect these precious island ecosystems together by extending our energies towards their continued conservation. Environmental advocacy can be as easy as discussing humorous penguin behavior in the wild over dinner with friends and family. This holiday season, consider adding the Subantarctic to your reading list. Protect Our Winters to protect our precious penguins!