The Sea Lion and the SLED

You may remember a post that I wrote a few months ago about the New Zealand sea lion. It was about how the largest population of this New Zealand endemic is declining rapidly on their Sub-Antarctic refuge in the Auckland Islands. While writing my e-book about Campbell Island I thought I would head across the road to interview Dr. Bruce Robertson from the University of Otago’s zoology department.

Dr. Robertson has written a number of papers about the New Zealand sea lions; their decline, population structure, genetics, and the bycatch management system. I spoke to him about the use of Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (also known as SLEDs), specifically whether or not they are effective. I was interested to hear about how the government (the Ministry for Primary Industries) have gone about testing these devices to ensure that they are working and successfully protecting this vulnerable species.

Here is his answer:


The Yellow-Eyed Penguin

This week was world penguin day and to celebrate, I thought what better to write about than New Zealand’s own yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho.

New Zealand's five dollar note showing the hoiho. (Photo: Yellow-Eye Penguin Trust)

You may recognise these guys from the reverse side of the New Zealand five dollar note, but did you know that the hoiho was once the rarest species of penguin in the world? While the title is now taken by the Galapagos penguin, there’s still cause for concern when it comes to conserving the yellow-eyed penguin.

It is estimated that there are just 4000 remaining, 1200 of which are found in the Sub-Antarctic Islands – specifically Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands. On the mainland, they are confined to the south-eastern coast of New Zealand and Stewart Island.


Yellow-Eyed Penguins (Photo: © Steve Ting Photography 2012)

They’re by far the most skittish species of penguin I have met and on the odd occasion that you do see one, it will be waddling clumsily to the nearest patch of vegetation in order to hide from people, predators, and even other penguins.

Their lack of agility on land has caused population numbers to decline drastically since the introduction of mammals to Aotearoa. While they are adapted to avoiding predators in the ocean while foraging for squid and fish, they are unable to defend themselves from predators such as cats, rats, stoats, and dogs.

Farming and the removal of vegetation along coast-lines has further threatened this species, as it significantly reduces sheltered spots that penguins would usually use for safe and successful nesting spots when breeding.

Yellow-Eyed Penguins and their chick (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Humans love penguins, and a number of organisations have an active role in conserving the species with the intention of bringing the hoiho back from the brink of extinction. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust actively restores penguin habitat, controls pest numbers around known breeding areas, educates the public, and has an active hand in scientific research.

I would highly recommend taking a look at their website to find out how you can get involved in the conservation of this highly threatened species. They have a range of options for anyone who wants to help out including working at coastal restoration days, volunteering as a ranger, helping with administration, or donating to the project.

So the next time you are holding a five dollar note, turn it over and spare a thought for the plight of this plucky penguin!

A War on the Southern Ocean – The Cape Expedition

After ANZAC day this week, I got thinking about some of the military operations that happened in the Southern Ocean. From 1940 to 1945, a team of men lived on Campbell Island in order to guard the area from German ships and provide ample warning to the mainland of an attack from the south.

The story of how these men came to find themselves on the island began with a single ship leaving the port of Dunedin in August of 1939 with a supposed course for Australia. The 6000 tonne German ship, Erlangen, was rumoured to be using the Sub-Antarctic Islands as a base, removing large quantities of timber for fuel and remaining near the islands, ready to attack New Zealand should the orders come. In 1940 two ships were lost to German raiders, which fueled the rumours and resulted in the creation of a coast-watching team.

The Erlangen being "scuttled" (deliberately left to sink) later in its life. (Photo: PST!)

The coast-watchers, who operated under the code name of “the Cape Expedition” discovered that a large patch of forest had been removed in Carnley Harbour on the Auckland Islands, and so the New Zealand government set up three bases; on Campbell Island, Auckland Islands them up on Campbell Island to guard it from any further attempts by German ships to pilfer the area for resources and alert the mainland of any attempted attacks from the south.

Each team began with four men, but were increased to five in the second year (1941). Many began their coast-watching careers as civilians, but were made privates in the New Zealand Army from 1942 onwards. When they weren’t watching the sea for ships, they researched weather patterns, observed wildlife, and did small surveys. In their spare time, they hunted introduced mammal species such as wild pigs on Auckland Island, sheep on Campbell Island, and cattle on Enderby Island

Remains of the coast-watchers hut. (Photo: Te Papa)

Eventually, the New Zealand government found their data so regular and useful that they began to deliberately place men with an interest in natural history on the islands. These individuals included geologists, meteorologists, surveyors, and naturalists joined the party. While the positions were filled by different men each year, some remained longer by choice such as the naturalist J. Sorenson who remained on Campbell Island for four years.

Once the war ended in 1956, the coast-watchers station was abandoned and used for meteorological research on weather patterns in the area. A large proportion of the information gathered by coast-watchers was later released in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Cape Expedition series of bulletins.