Curious Campbell – An Introduction to Campbell Island, New Zealand

Exciting news, I am writing an interactive e-book! It’s all set to be finished by Thursday. Because I am impatient and a sucker for procrastination, I thought I would share a sneak peak!

Let me know what you think so far in the comments below! It’s going to be a while until the e-book is published, but I hope that it will be available on the Apple store by early 2013.


Dangerous Discoveries: Charting the Sub-Antarctics

Modern ships struggle in the rough seas of the Southern Ocean, but imagine how difficult it would be to explore the region for the first time without any maps or the luxuries of a modern ship.

The wooden ships used by early explorers were no match for the rough seas and harsh rocks surrounding the Sub-Antarctic Islands, but those that were successful in charting new islands often came away with a name-sake and a fortune from harvesting seals and whales for their skin, meat, and oil.

Let’s take a look at New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands and find out how and when they were charted and the stories behind their discovery.

The Auckland Islands

The Auckland Islands were officially discovered by a whaling vessel named Ocean in 1806, although archaeologists have uncovered evidence to suggest that were settled by Polynesian explorers around the 13th century, which makes the islands the most southerly settlement by Polynesians known.

The Auckland Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Upon their re-discovery, Captain Abraham Bristow named the main island “Lord Auckland’s” in honour of the first Baron of Auckland, William Eden. He also named Enderby Island after his employer, Samuel Enderby, who ran a successful whaling company from the United Kingdom. It wasn’t until 1807 when Captain Bristow returned to the islands that they were officially claimed for Britain.

The Antipodes Islands

Similarly, the Antipodes Islands were visited early on by Polynesian explorers. Visitors to the island in 1886 discovered a shard of what they believed to be early Polynesian pottery, which is now kept in the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa) in Wellington.

The Antipodes Islands as seen from the north (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Antipodes Islands were re-discovered in 1800 when Captain Henry Waterhouse of the ship HMS Reliance charted the region. Captain Waterhouse’s brother-in-law, George Bass heard about the regions rich wildlife and applied to have monopoly of fishing in the region. After securing permission to fish in the region, he set off immediately for the islands, presumably to begin harvesting the large population of fur seals. He was never heard from again, but his eagerness to get to the islands sparked interest in other businessmen and lead to the sealing boom from 1805 until around 1807.

The Bounty Islands

The HMS Bounty was the first ship to discover the Bounty Islands in 1788 with Captain William Bligh at its helm. While the discovery itself was uneventful, the famous mutiny that occurred on-board shortly after the islands were discovered was not.

The HMS Bounty (Photo: Wikipedia)

On the 28th of April 1789, the ship was moored off the coast of Pitcairn Island near Tahiti. It is said that many of the crew were tired of being treated harshly by their commander, Lieutenant Bligh, and wanted to take up residence on the nearby Tahitian Islands. They soon revolted and set Bligh and 18 of his most loyal crew members afloat in a small boat before settling on Pitcairn Island. Eventually, after an epic journey, Bligh made it to  Timor in the Dutch East Indies before returning to England and reporting the mutiny. Many descendants of the sailors that rebelled are still found on Pitcairn Island.

The Snares Islands

The largest of the Snares Islands were known to the Maori as Te Taniwha (which translates to “the sea monster”), but they were officially discovered by two ships working with the same expedition on the same day, but only one captain was allowed the honour of naming them.

The Snares Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Captain George Vancouver of the The HMS Discovery called the islands “The Snares” because of their ability to trap wayward ships with little experience in the area.  The second ship was the HMS Chatham, and while its commander Lieutenant William Broughton didn’t get to name the islands, one was named Broughton in his honour.

Campbell Island

Campbell Island gets its name from Robert Campbell,  the owner of a Sydney based trading company by the name of Campbell & Co. It was discovered in 1810 by the Perserverance, which was scouting the area for new sealing grounds. Its commander, Captain Frederick Hasselborough also discovered the Australian Sub-Antarctic Island, Macquarie Island.

Ironically, Captain Hasselborough drowned in Perseverance Harbour when he launched a jollyboat to check on the barrels of seal oil that he had left on the shore during his first visit.

Campbell Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

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.

The Lone Tree of Campbell Island

The only tree on Campbell Island is a Sitka spruce. All other plants on the island are adapted wind tolerant low-lying shrubs and bushes. Found in Camp Cove, the tree has been used by staff living in the meteorological station until 1958 as the only source of a christmas tree. It is said that every year they would chop the top off and lug it back to the station to celebrate the festive season.

The Loneliest Tree in the World (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Despite these regular set-backs, the tree has grown significantly since the 1960’s when it was first measured. A number of well-known naturalists have taken turns to record the spruce’s height including Sorensen in 1945, Godley in 1969, and Meurk from 1975 onwards. The most recent measurement in 2011 by Alex Fergus, a scientist on the 50 South Trust Campbell Island Bicentennial Expedition, came in at 9.25 metres. Despite the challenging Campbell Island climate, the tree has grown 1.55 metres since it was last measured in 1995.

The tree has been given a number of informal awards and titles – it was dubbed the loneliest tree in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records – the closest of its kind being some 400 kilometres away in the Auckland Islands. It is also considered to be the most southern tree in New Zealand.

Some have called it Ranfurly’s Tree as it is said that the eccentric Lord Ranfurly, who was the governor general of New Zealand from 1897 until 1904 planted the spruce in 1907. While on an expedition to New Zealand’s outlying islands to collect bird specimens for the British Museum, Ranfurly had the thought to use the island for forestry. On his return visit he brought with him the Sitka spruce seedling and planted it in the cove, where it has since flourished.

Lord Ranfurly (Photo: New Zealand History)

An alternative theory about the trees origins is also floating around the internet, although I question its credibility. This website suggests that a sample taken in 1963 tells us that the tree was germinated in 1922 and so they believe it unlikely that Ranfurly himself planted the tree. If this is the case, where did this tree come from? Was it a relic left behind by those crazy enough to try to settle Campbell Island or did it by some miracle manage make it to the island on its own by hitching a ride on the boot of an explorer?

Either way, it’s a tale of survival. Of a tree that beat the odds to grow up all alone in the wild winds of Campbell Island.

Mega Herbs – The Giants of the Sub-Antarctic

Meet Lorna Little. She has been studying at the University of Otago for the past 7 years. After receiving a scholarship to travel to the Sub-Antarctic Islands she was hooked on the region and swore she would get back there one day. After doing an honours project on invasive species in the mountain of New Zealand and then the Certificate in Antarctic Studies (which saw her visit Scott Base in Antarctica), she decided that the polar regions were for her. Find out what led Lorna to research Sub-Antarctic mega-herbs and what she has discovered about this group of amazing, yet over-looked plants.Tell me about yourself – where do you come from & how did you come to study mega-herbs?

I’m Lorna Little. I’m originally from Whangarei and have been studying in Dunedin for the past 7 years. I decided to do my PhD and emailed some one at the University Centre in Svalbard about plants in the region. She wrote back and is now my supervisor! I also spoke to an old lecturer and she said “hey, I’m going down to the Sub-Antarctic Islands – do you want to do a project on flower colour?” Eventually I realised that I could make it all fit together. In Svalbard, there is a poppy that comes in different variations – there’s a white one and a yellow one. Similarly, the Gentians on Campbell Island come in purple and white so that’s how I came to find my research topic.

My main question had come from the purple and white flowers in the Sub-Antarctic Islands, but I thought okay – maybe I could do something on what the point of having purple flowers is, because it seems to pop up a lot. Then I asked myself well why have purple AND white flowers, then I thought why have yellow AND white flowers? This could be a perfect chance to test in the field and the lab what the effect of these different colours have. So I set up a project looking at flower colour in polar regions! And here I am today, 2 years down the track. So I have finished all my field work now and am in to the writing phase. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster.

Lorna on Campbell Island (Photo: Lorna Little)

Is this the first kind of research that has been done on flower colour in polar regions? I had a look around and I couldn’t find a lot.

There is quite a bit of research on flower colour in general – because you’ve got the idea of pollinator recognition. When it comes to the Sub-Antarctic Islands, there really isn’t much. The main focus of research has been mega-herb restoration, general ecology, and biomass allocation. There has also been a lot of work done on the evolution of mega-herbs, so looking at if they’re related to ancient Antarctic or mainland New Zealand plants. I don’t know if it’s because they’re so far away or if there’s just not enough people who know where the islands are! I get the impression that the general public think “it’s 800 kilometers away – why should we care?” which is really sad because these islands are amazing and worth protecting. It’s also a huge process to get a project up and running down there. Logistics are a massive hurdle. If you go down you have to stay there to do your research. You know you can’t just collect a whole bunch of plants to bring back to New Zealand. That’s not really in line with the Department of Conservations’ non-destructive research methods.

What is the first thing people associate with mega-herbs?

Pleurophylum speciosum is the first species that springs to mind. It’s the poster child of Campbell Island. The way I generally describe it to people is to have them imagine a daisy on their garden lawn and then times it by 100. Then they’re getting close to the size of this -. It’s got huge hairy, corrugated leaves and it was interesting to do thermal images of these because I found that the valleys of the corrugations and the top of the corrugations had different temperatures – the images really look like corrugated cardboard.

Their flowers are best described as bright purple daisies on top of a huge stalk. The Pleurophyllum speciosum “presents” its pollen inside the dark purple centre. When there is enough sun you will see these flowers covered with yellow spots. We actually sat and watched this one day and basically each of the pollen sacs will just burst open and release this bright yellow pollen, and then the next one, and so on. It’s really quite an amazing thing to see

Pleurophyllum speciosum flower (left) and leaves (right) (Photos: Kimberley Collins)

What are some of the challenges that plants might face on Sub-Antarctic Islands?

To begin with, the soil is very peaty and acidic because there are a lot of sphagnum bogs on the island. The climate itself is very cool – the average temperature is about 4 degrees in winter and 8 or 9 in summer. I was there for 2 weeks in December 2010. It was getting in to summer and so we had three or four days of beautiful clear skies. Then we had a few days of very low-lying cloud, mist, and really high winds – up to 100 knots an hour. At one point I was being blown down the boardwalk and literally had to hold on to the ground to stop myself being blown away. We also had snow for two days – and this is all in the space of 2 weeks. It’s such a huge range of weather and I think that having snow in what we consider summer is quite impressive. So that’s the kind of thing that these plants have to deal with

So explain the thermal imaging technology you were using.

I have a fluke infrared camera, which is a thermal imaging camera. You just point it at the plant, focus on it, and squeeze the trigger so that it takes a picture. Each pixel in the photo equals a temperature so you can analyze it and detect where the hot-spots are and why they might be hot there. The main aim of the research is to look at how much warmer above air temperature (ambient temperature) the plants are.

What can you deduct from the images?

My data shows that when there is a short burst of sunshine, the temperature will rocket and stay quite warm until the next burst of sunshine, when the temperature is boosted up again. I have some thermal time course over a few hours – the longest is 4 or 5 hours. The ambient (air) temperature will stay the same, but the temperature of the flowers is clearly correlated with the amount of sunshine.

Thermal imaging of Pleurophyllum speciosum (Photo: Lorna Little)

So why do you think there is such a big difference between flower temperature and ambient temperature?

The Sub-Antarctic Islands have a very cool, windy, and wet climate. A plant’s growing season is non-existent – there’s not much difference between summer and winter when it comes to temperature. Basically they need to maximize the sunlight oppourtunities they get because it’s so cloudy all the time.

Lorna’s research does a great job in promoting the region as a biodiversity hot-spot. Sub-Antarctic mega-herbs are found nowhere else in the world and I look forward to reading Lorna’s final thesis on this compelling and important topic.

Sub-Antarctic Shark Science.

The usual response to the word “shark” is fear. Especially if the word is screamed within a kilometre of any populated beach area. It saddens me that the view of sharks as man-eating killing machines that might as well have atomic bombs strapped to their backs is still rampant among the general population.

Sharks don’t get a lot of positive press. The media tends to over-exaggerate shark attack stories to the point where people think that a day in the life of a shark involves nothing but swimming around, humming the score from Jaws, and looking for un-suspecting humans to swallow whole. The reality is that you’re more likely to be killed in a car accident than be eaten by a shark. In 2010, there were just 79 recorded shark attacks and of those, only 6 people died as a result of their injuries.

Sharks play an important role in the Sub-Antarctic ecosystem. It doesn’t make them any friends, but some one has to be that guy that eats un-suspecting, cute little seals & penguins (we all have that friend that gets overly upset when they watch this sort of process on nature documentaries).

For all the sharks drawn to the islands by the buffet of seals on offer, the only recorded shark attack on a human was in April of 1992 when a group of researchers were snorkelling in Sandy Bay…

While enjoying a day off, researchers at the meteorological decided to go snorkeling and were enjoying a swim with sea-lions. They didn’t realize that a great white shark was drawn to the area for the same reason.

One of the researchers, Mike Fraser was mistaken for a seal and attacked. As with many victims of a shark-attack, he says that he didn’t see the shark coming – a credit to the Shark’s skill as an ambush predator. Mike’s right arm was torn off and his left badly lacerated and broken. He was pulled from the water by fellow researcher, Jacinda Amey who had no option but to radio New Zealand for help. Mike’s chances looked bleak however, as there was no emergency exit from the island or medical facilities other than a first-aid kit.

The research team carry Mike into the Helicopter (Photo: Te Ara).

After hearing the distress call, a helicopter pilot named John Funnel was in the mood for adventure and agreed to fly the 700 kilometres to Campbell Island from Invercargill. The flight over 1200 kilometres of open ocean had never been done before by a single-engine helicopter and was thought to be impossible at the time.

Luckily for Mike, the helicopter arrived after what must have been a long and painful wait with a paramedic on board to treat his injuries as best he could until they returned to Invercargill Hospital. He survived the journey, and while he lost his arm, he came away with his life.

All in all a very dramatic story, but what struck me was that Mike returned to the island three years later to continue his work as a researcher. To me it suggests that he understands that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many shark attack victims are, and that he may not blame the shark for his injuries.