It took 25 hours of steaming for the Akademik Shokalskiy to reach Auckland Island, the first stop on our tour of the Sub-Antarctic archipelagos. Around 6 PM we entered the unbelievably calm water of Port Ross, in the north of the island and after a quick dinner we were ready to land.
As part of the unique natural heritage of New Zealand, Auckland Island has received the most protection the government can provide; it is both a nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main goal of this designation is to avoid the introduction of non-native species that could contaminate the endemic biodiversity. Brent Beaven, the conservation manager for the Southern Islands, briefed us on the importance of bio-security in this region.
Following Brent’s lecture, we were all required to examine clothing, packs and boots for any rogue seeds that may inadvertently find their way onto the island. For a short time the bar was a scene of absolute carnage as all material to be taken onshore were vacuumed in fine detail. No nook was over-looked, with pockets turned out and individual fibres removed from Velcro fastenings. Eventually Brent gave each of us the “all clear” and we were ready to make our first landing.
Three Zodiacs were lowered in the water to shuttle people to our designated landing site, half a mile away from where the ship was anchored. Our first landfall was made at the historical settlement of Hardwicke, an abandoned village originally intended to resupply whaling ships on their way South in the 1850s. Unfortunately for the colonists, whaling in this part of the world ceased to be viable, leaving the settlement unable to fulfill its original purpose. The land itself also proved untenable, leading to the abandonment of Hardwicke after only a few years.
Unfortunately, even if the experience of Hardwicke turned out to be a short-term failure, it was long enough for the introduction of farm animals as rabbits, goats and pigs that, once the village was abandoned, were set free over the island. It took decades to poison the rabbits and shoot all the goats, while a few pigs are still around, a practical demonstration of how difficult it is to eradicate invasive species and thus illustrating the importance of the quarantine that protects these islands
Today the site of the settlement is quite overgrown. Six graves in a tiny cemetery remain intact, but all of the other structures have disappeared beneath the vegetation. The only other signs of human occupation are a pile of bricks and a stump carved by survivors of a shipwreck from 1863. It was quite a magical place, especially on such a beautiful night. As daylight finally began to fade (around 9:30), we headed back to the Shokalskiy for a quick trip to the bar and then bed. Our ambitious science program begins tomorrow!