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Thrills, Spills, and Seabirds in the Subantarctic

This is Part Three of “Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin” (See Part OnePart Two, Part Four)

Endangered(by) Sea Lions Alternate title: Mom, Don't Read This One 11 November 2017 Chambres Inlet

Imagine you’ve sailed 300 miles south of New Zealand to a subantarctic island. You've been dropped off by dinghy before sunrise in a secluded cove, by yourself, to spend the morning counting yellow-eyed penguins. The scene looks like this:

After about two penguinless hours the tide is surging up so high that you decide to move onto higher ground. That means stepping backward into the forest, up onto the little ledge you've been leaning against.

As you're settling onto this low perch, a bull sea lion with chunks missing from his hide materializes on the beach in front of you. You're hemmed in by trees and shrubs and a steep slope behind you.

This is a highly endangered New Zealand sea lion who has possibly never encountered a human before, here on the remote island where he breeds. You've watched him patrolling the waters of this coast for the past couple of hours, but it seemed like he was going to leave you alone.

Not so. In fact, his giant body is now trampling your backpack and sketchbook and emergency radio, which you've not yet retrieved from the ground below. As you crouch there on the ledge, his head—with big liquid eyes and a blunt, whiskered-covered muzzle—is three feet away from yours. The GoPro on your own head, incidentally, is not recording.

You've had some practice dealing with similar animals: specifically, several months of camping with a herd of Galápagos sea lions. So you're not panicking yet. You’re holding a stick between yourself and him, quietly waiting for him to lose interest.

He doesn't lose interest. He roars and throws himself at you.

Do you: (a) wait for the impact of his teeth, or (b) perform a sideways dive through the shrubbery and down to the beach, and start running? I did the latter. He crashed into the bushes that had been behind me a second earlier. I was meanwhile booking it down the thin strip of gravelly shore, in my gumboots and all my rain gear.

The first time I glanced back, the sea lion was emerging back onto the beach, slithering out the same opening in the bushes through which I'd fled. The second time I glanced back, he was charging toward me at a full gallop. I stopped glancing back.

Up ahead, the shoreside trees and bushes gave way to a more open, grassy area. I veered off the rocks and up onto the grass, thinking I could run more easily and he might not follow me up there. But it turned out to be a soggy marsh, and follow me he did. I gave it my best effort, sloshing through muddy ditches and past some scattered bushes, before he caught up.

I had no choice but to turn around, face him, and yell. I told him—loudly and with at least one expletive—that he'd better back off.

This seemed to make some kind of an impression. He came to a halt in front of the stick I was still clutching in one hand. For the next few minutes we played a fun little game. He would lunge forward, I would shout, he would back off, and then he would do it again. The yelling seemed to keep him at arm's length, which a big improvement on the full-body assault that had begun our acquaintance. But now I was more or less stuck, knee deep in a ditch and blocked by bushes, and from here I couldn't even see the ocean. I had no idea if anyone could hear me from their penguin-counting posts way down the coast.

Then came the cruel joke of the morning: I started getting dizzy. (I recently had a minor concussion that involved some dizzy spells. They faded away within a couple of weeks, but apparently being toyed with by a 700-pound carnivore is enough to cause a relapse.) I had to kneel down with one ear to the marsh, still yelling at the sea lion, who was now towering over me. I made a couple attempts to stand up but reeled back over again.

Somehow I had to extricate myself from this ridiculous situation. On the third try I managed to stay standing. I tugged my boots out of the mud. To get back to the beach I would need to move closer to the sea lion for a moment, so I could edge in front of a shrub that blocked my exit.

He lunged at me for doing that, but I growled him down. Feeling disembodied from what was happening, I noticed that my voice sounded quieter but maybe more threatening in tone now. I guess some sense of propriety had bizarrely kicked in, because I had also stopped swearing.

You stay away from me. Don't you come near me.

He continued lunging at me as I continued circling. When I descended from the grass onto the beach, he gave an especially vehement lunge from his higher ground, but stayed up there.

Sidling away with one eye still on my nemesis, I was mildly alarmed to see a second sea lion head approaching in the water. This one made a beeline not toward me but toward the first sea lion, to my great relief. They started fighting with each other, and I took that opportunity to run the final stretch toward my stuff. I dodged into the tangle of branches that sprawled out from the forest's edge, grabbed my radio from the ground, and dodged out.

Just then I saw the dinghy approaching. Apparently penguin monitor Alan, posted some distance down the beach, had heard my expletive-strewn shouting and radioed for assistance (his comedic line for the rest of the day: "I've never seen a sea lion blush before").

Dinghy helmsman Hamish circled in. He saw me on one end of the beach and a couple sea lions on the other, said “All good?," and spun around to leave again. I had to say um well not exactly and could you possibly take me back to the boat now. I was pretty sure everyone would think I was overreacting, but I was too rattled and dizzy to care. Much.

Before climbing in the dinghy I picked up my backpack and all the pages of my sketchbook, which had been pulverized. Today's penguin count: zero.

On the dinghy ride back to the ship, we passed a thin leopard seal draped on the beach not far from where I'd been sitting, its reptilian head barely raised to look at us. Hamish said they’re quite vicious—in contrast to, say, the sea lions. I took this as a pointed remark.

According to those with experience in these islands, New Zealand sea lions rarely follow through on their aggressive gestures toward humans. They're usually just messing with you. No doubt that's true, and hooray for having no bite marks to contradict it.

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Here is a female sea lion, who would have been a more pleasant beach companion this morning.

The next few hours I spent back in Evohe’s main saloon with my shipmates as they conversed about a range of topics in history and science (speculating wildly about everything, thanks to the glorious lack of internet in the subantarctic). With this dose of humanity and a large amount of chocolate, I recovered my equilibrium.

Albatrosses in Peril 12 November 2017 Magnetic Bay and Victoria Passage

“Today’s going to be a good day,” said crew member David, as we all got ready for penguin counting in the 4 a.m. darkness. He was right.

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We started out in Magnetic Bay. I was lucky to be among those dropped off on Adams Island, the farthest south island of the archipelago. Adams has never been colonized by pigs or rodents or any other sort of terrestrial mammal, so its native flora and fauna is particularly pristine.

The landing site was full of birds and bird sounds in the dark. A pair of native teal startled in my headtorch, fleeing at a leisurely pace on webbed feet over the rocks. The bellbird chorus was a stream of short, sharp, sweet piccolo wisps. I could hear the purrs of petrels in the dark, and later see petrel silhouettes flying from shore to sea.

I spent the next four hours failing to observe any penguins but successfully avoiding the notice of the resident sea lion patrolling the shoreline. His snorty breaths warned me, from some distance away, to keep especially still every time he swam by. After yesterday's little incident, I suddenly feel a distinct kinship with the prey animals of the world.

The world slowly lit up. Just visible through binoculars across the water, on the main Auckland Island, was a finger post. Finger posts were installed in the late 19th century to point castaways toward shelter and provisions. I guess it was all too common for ships to run aground here en route from Australia to Cape Horn.

Though we weren't allowed to explore protected Adams Island, we were in for an excellent afternoon adventure on the main island. Evohe cruised down the channel dividing the two islands, all the way to Victoria Passage, the narrow western opening to the sea. There we all went ashore in two dinghy trips:

Once safely on the rocks, we scrambled along the beach toward the peninsula marking the passage. On our left was the channel between the islands. In front of us, a broken chain of land between the two islands. And on our right, the Tasman Sea. Evohe has sailed through this dramatic passage before, to circumnavigate the main Auckland Island, but only in ideal conditions. On this trip we would be making a U-turn and heading back the way we came.

Waves crashed spectacularly on the cliffs and long tendrils of kelp danced in the surge below.

Next came my favorite part of any hike: an arduous climb up a steep mountain. This involved improvising a path that connected hundreds of rambling pig trails, winding around grassy tussocks and muddy ravines. As I ascended I kept hearing a wild, hoarse, wailing call, and seeing light-mantled sooty albatrosses fly hauntingly by on tapered wings.

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At the top, we dropped down over the other side and looked out at another cliff face, dotted with white spots. Here at the end of the earth, a creaky frog sound filled the air: the cry of New Zealand white-capped mollymawks. Dozens of these albatrosses were in the air, cruising on updrafts along the cliff. Hundreds were seated on nests.

With their dark furrowed brows, and bodies oriented in random directions on their cylindrical nests, the mollymawks seemed to be lost in thought. Steve told me that they usually nest on flat ground, but were driven to this vertical cliff by the invasive pigs—introduced to feed castaways, but now wreaking havoc on native plants and animals.

" Sketches of New Zealand white-capped mollymawks, nesting on Auckland Island in the subantarctic A post shared by Abby McBride (@sketchbiologist) on Dec 8, 2017 at 3:43am PST   "

“There's a pig there now,” said Steve suddenly. It was way down near the base of the cliff, a barely visible dark form. With alarm we watched it move along among the scattered white shapes of the birds. Then we saw another pig, and another. The albatross colony has shrunk dramatically just in the past few years, and this is one reason.

Pending the results of a recent mouse eradication effort in the Antipodes Islands, Auckland Island may be the last of New Zealand's subantarctic isles to have pests: not just pigs but cats and mice as well. It's also the largest of those islands, so it will be a massive job to eradicate all of the invaders. But that's the plan, and here's hoping it happens soon, for the sake of these albatrosses and a host of other endangered species.

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I needed help holding my flag (it was windy up there). Mollymawk nests visible on both sides.

Wreck and Near-wreck 13 November 2017 Grafton wreck

Today the only penguin monitoring was from the deck of Evohe, so I skipped it and slept in—all the way until 5:15. I became so engrossed in writing up notes and backing up footage that I somehow missed a late morning excursion to the island, to look for the ruins of a camp. I caught a second trip ashore with skipper Steve and Hamish.

Ruins are okay, but I was more interested in the very odd appearance of this forest. A thick layer of even-length branches coated the ground, mostly aligned in one direction, as if someone had thatched the entire forest floor. I suppose it's caused by the top branches of the dense canopy crashing around and breaking off in the relentless subantarctic wind. We returned to Evohe and the ship moved on.

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I almost missed the next shore excursion because I'd been recruited to make a cake. But I finished frosting it just in time to go see the famed wreck of the Grafton.

Of all the crazy castaway stories from these islands, this one might be the craziest. Surviving for more than a year on the island, the five Grafton castaways eventually gave up on being rescued. They used debris from their wreck to make a bellows and forge. They forged tools and outfitted a dinghy with a deck and sails. Only three of them could fit onboard, but those three miraculously made it to Stewart Island (at the south end of New Zealand) in five days. The two left behind, best buddies, were no longer on speaking terms when they were rescued some weeks later—that’s how fellow penguin monitor John told it to me yesterday, anyway.

Today the Grafton wreck was the site of a memorable performance, when Richard led three shipmates in a haka, a Māori war dance:

After the haka, we discovered firsthand that the Grafton castaways had been smart not to overload their dinghy. For the short trip back from the wreck to the boat, we piled everyone into a single dinghy load. Water poured over the stern as we backed away from the shore, making the dinghy even heavier. Even after we faced forward and got up speed, the ocean continued flooding in over the stern, and in waves over the bow. By the time we reached Evohe I think some people were starting to get worried.

As the final event of the evening, in the main saloon of the ship, I gave a presentation of sorts to my shipmates about my work. I handed around the business cards that have been sitting in my backpack all this time: authentic sea lion-trampled limited edition. Very much the worse for wear.

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Stay tuned for the gripping conclusion of our yellow-eyed penguin expedition...

Photo by Edin Whitehead

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

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