Rockhopper penguin, Auckland Islands (C) Andy Maloney

Today we passed to the east of Stewart Island and continued sailing south towards an area of sea known to be amongst the wildest on the planet. So far it’s been relatively calm, which is a relief, but also, if dare I say so, slightly disappointing. I’ve heard tales of 10 metre swells and part of me wants to feel what that’s like!

When we think of New Zealand we mainly think of the two or three biggest islands but there is more to New Zealand than meets the eye. If you look at this region on a map you can see a line of small islands running in a long curve starting 600 kms south of Stewart Island, starting with Campbell Island running through the Auckland Islands and up to the Chatham Islands. This line of islands is in fact the peaks of the highest mountains of the sunken continent known as Zealandia. It’s as big as India and, before it sank, it was connected to Antarctica and Australia.

The islands down the bottom of the curve are known collectively as the sub-Antarctic islands and that’s where we’re heading now aboard the Rainbow Warrior.

First to the Auckland Islands group to visit Enderby Island, Adams Island, and Disappointment Island – (yes, that’s a real place - its name comes from the ship wreck of the General Grant on May 14th 1866.  Of the one-hundred-strong crew, only fifteen survived and made their way to the Island, where they waited for over a year to be rescued and not surprisingly dubbed the Island “disappointment”!)  - then hopefully on the way back to ‘the Snares’ so named for their fearsome reputation for snaring ships.

On board with us we have  DOC veteran Jeremy Carroll who’s an expert on the sub-Antarctic wildlife and the Islands we’ll visit. He’s been telling us all kinds of fascinating stories about the weird and wonderful birdlife, but also about the human history in the area – including how to prepare and eat a ‘mutton bird’ or titi believe it or not.

Each island has its own special character and history but together they’re home to millions of sea birds including several species of albatross, a very funky species of penguin known as the Snares crested penguin who look like little feathered punk rockers, sealions and seals. And the Auckland Islands is the only known breeding site in New Zealand for the southern right whale.

The diversity and density of life surviving here is like few other places in the world; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Area (in good company with the Egyptian Pyramids and the Grand Canyon). The water around the islands is a marine reserve and it’s a marine mammal sanctuary. This is a very special place – almost like our very own Galapagos Islands.

But here’s the kicker and the reason why we want to draw your attention to it.  In the Great South Basin off the Dunedin coast Shell and Anadarko plan to attempt some highly risky deep sea oil and gas exploration this year. And there are much larger areas designated for deep sea oil drilling between there and the Auckland Islands. Who knows where it will end and what effect a Deepwater Horizon type oil spill would have here.

It seems likely that it could have very serious consequences for the sanctity of the Auckland Islands and the millions of creatures that call them home.  It’s risky, it’s unnecessary and it can only end badly.

On board to help us tell that story we also have Rob Hamill – yep THE Rob Hamill. We thought we’d ask Rob to join us because he loves our beaches as much as we do, and he’s seen a whole lotta ocean. In fact, he once rowed right across the Atlantic ocean!

Here’s a story I heard from Jeremy that made me think of the choice we face in New Zealand. An attempt was made to set up a whaling station in the Auckland Islands - just as the whaling industry was dying out. More whales were killed but soon after it opened, the station was abandoned, because the whaling industry was already dead. It was a bad idea.

Now in modern times there is a sad parallel about to unfold not far from where we are now. In the Great South Basin, just to the north of the Auckland Islands, New Zealand is about to risk it all with international oil giants Shell and Anadarko drilling for oil in the deep ocean.

We once lit our streets and homes by burning whale oil but we moved on from that. It’s time to move beyond oil. Like drilling for oil in the Arctic, the risks in finding the last drops of oil here in the very deep ocean are just too great.

 Albatross on the Auckland Islands (C) Andy Maloney

File Photos (C) Andy Maloney