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Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin

The latest numbers say that yellow-eyed penguins are still heading toward extinction on mainland New Zealand. Their only other breeding habitat is a handful of islands hundreds of miles to the south. In this four-part story I join a surreal voyage to the all-but-inaccessible Auckland Islands, where we're trying to find out how this gravely endangered penguin is faring in the subantarctic.

Part One: Hellish Passage to Paradise (See Part Two | Part Three | Part Four)

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Shipping Out 2 November 2017 Dunedin

I stood next to my car at the Fryatt Street dock in Dunedin, looking for a ship called Evohe. She was bound for the subantarctic Auckland Islands, 300 miles south of New Zealand.

My slot on the crew had fallen into place at the last minute. Since this was more or less the chance of a lifetime, I begged my feeble station wagon, Indy, to take me from Auckland in the North Island to Dunedin in the South Island in three days. With a slight assist from the Interislander Ferry, Indy pulled through.

A 25-meter sailing vessel sounds big, but when you see it in real life and contemplate your imminent departure toward the Antarctic Ocean, wow does it look small.

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The captain and the rest of the crew showed up an hour after I did: they had been at the grocery store buying five trolleys‘ worth of produce (five grocery carts, in American). We transferred copious amounts of fruits and vegetables onto Evohe, squirreling it all away in compartments under floorboards and cupboards built into bunks.

Then we went back to the store for five more trolleys of dry goods.

The other three crew members are local, and apparently we’re not actually departing until tomorrow, so they’ve gone home and I’m the only one in the aft crew cabin this evening. I’ve crawled into my coffin-like bunk on the port side. Waves are slapping on the stern.

Bound for Bluff 3 November 2017 Dunedin (and underway)

The vaguely lobster-shaped Auckland Islands are ridiculously remote, have globally unique wildlife, and hold a reputation as a stronghold of the yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho in Māori), possibly the most endangered penguin in the world.

This species is well on its way toward disappearing from mainland New Zealand, thanks to a host of threats on land and at sea. Nobody is really sure how the rest of the population is doing on the subantarctic islands, because they're so hard to access. That's where this voyage comes in, the sixth of its kind in as many years.

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I had the ship to myself all morning. Later I learned that skipper Steve spent the morning flying to Wellington and back to take care of paperwork for the voyage. Eventually he and the other crew members reappeared.

Our first stop will be in Bluff, the southernmost port of the South Island, where we will pick up two graduate students, four Department of Conservation rangers, and six penguin-monitoring volunteers. Then it’s off on the harrowing journey through the Southern Ocean. It’s much easier to get to Antarctica than it is to New Zealand's subantarctic islands, I'm told.

First we had to get out of Dunedin. It seemed we were almost ready to embark. Just for good measure we went back to PAK'nSAVE for yet another five trolleys full of food.

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At last, as the sun went down, we motored through the long, skinny Otago Harbour, leaving my car behind on the Dunedin dock to rest (and possibly lose all of his battery charge, based on recent experience). So long for now, Indy.

A rainbow stretched across the craggy landscape along the water, rainbow-adorned scenery being the norm in these parts. Just before getting out to sea we passed the famous northern royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the only mainland albatross colony in the southern hemisphere.

When we approached the red and green lights marking the channel, the mnemonic “red right returning” leapt familiarly to mind, before I saw that red was actually on our right as we departed. Everything just has to be different in New Zealand...

Ready About 4 November 2017 Underway to Bluff

We were underway all night, and still chugging along the coast until afternoon, passing the Catlins and other landmarks of the South Island. In the afternoon we arrived in the port of Bluff.

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This fishing vessel (“Cold Heart, Hot Bootie”) was in our spot, so Steve found us another.

As we approached the dock I was assigned to leap from the boat and grab the lines. On cue, the skies opened up and poured. A few minutes later, when we finished tying up, the sun shone as if nothing had happened.

We spent the rest of the day washing the deck, refueling, cleaning the interior, and making up bunks. I went below to make potato leek soup and salad. Meanwhile the boat was moved three times, until we were finally in our rightful berth. Ready for tomorrow’s guests and final departure.

All Aboard 5 November 2017 Bluff to Port Pegasus

At 9:00 a.m. the penguin-monitoring group arrived, with a van full of "fish bins" (which seem to be a standard packing container here in New Zealand) and duffel bags.

We made a human chain from the dock to the boat to get everything aboard. The rule was not to put anything on the ground, because it had all just undergone intensive quarantine, to make sure there were no stray seeds or other living things that could hitch a ride to the vulnerable Auckland Islands.

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The volunteers are mostly retirees. There's a family doctor, an engineer, a pilot who introduced herself as Peanut, a forestry guy, and an American expat. There's also a mid-career teacher from Tolaga Bay Area School, sponsored by the Sir Peter Blake Trust. There's a Ph.D. student and master's student from Massey University, who will stay out on one island for the whole New Zealand summer. Then there are the Department of Conservation rangers, four intrepid women from a few different towns in the southern South Island. On the crew are a retired captain who is a trustee for the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, a deer farmer, a recent university graduate, and me.

Yes, it’s a colorful group. Several people are wearing rainbow-striped tights under their shorts.

Leading us is our distinguished captain Steve, originally from England. He purchased this ship in 1984, having never set foot on a sailboat before, and has since built a life and career around Evohe.

We all gathered in the outdoor cockpit behind the enclosed wheelhouse. “It’s going to be rough ride,” Steve told the group. We departed the South Island and headed into Foveaux Strait, where a weirdly blue-gray sky loomed over an aquagreen sea.

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I watched seabirds with binoculars until the boat motion became prohibitive, and then I lapsed into opportunistic birding, which is an interesting experience in these conditions. An albatross would pop into view alongside the boat, at eye level and practically within arm’s reach, before disappearing as abruptly as it came. Then we’d heel over and suddenly I’d be looking straight down at two cape petrels sitting on the water.

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After a few hours we came alongside Stewart Island and its satellite muttonbird islands, the final outpost of “mainland” New Zealand before the wide open sea. We pulled into Port Pegasus in the evening to spend one more night in a sheltered cove.

I keep having the slightly disorienting experience of arriving and leaving places while sequestered in the galley below. This time I missed our arrival because I was making chocolate chip cookies. The New Zealanders were not terribly familiar with this type of baked good, but it put me in good standing with the other American on board.

In our nice calm cove, shipboard life seemed pretty pleasant. Little did we know what was in store for us the next day.

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Onward from Pegasus 6 November 2017 Port Pegasus (and underway)

It all started benignly enough: we passed a peaceful hour in the cove by Port Pegasus, with terns diving to catch fish and Salvin’s mollymawks coasting around the boat. We even glimpsed our first yellow-eyed penguins and got excited to see more of them on the Auckland Islands.

" A post shared by Abby McBride (@sketchbiologist) on Nov 25, 2017 at 10:05am PST   "

And then...the passage began.

Evohe departed Port Pegasus with two sails up and the motor running for maximum speed. She immediately encountered rollicking seas, all day long and into the next, as we headed in the direction of Antarctica—into an immense, frigid ocean with no other boats. It didn't take long to start thinking that maybe this whole thing was a crazy idea.

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At one point crew member David catapulted across the wheelhouse and silently returned to his seat. “What are you doing, Dave?” asked fellow crew member Hamish, facetiously. David gave a sort of rueful shrug with his eyebrows. “You could ask the same of all of us."

The boat adopted a permanent 45-degree average tilt to port, compounded by a lot of rocking as a confused sea smashed into the starboard beam. In the bathroom mirror I noticed my hair was also standing at a 45-degree angle, as was the towel hanging on a hook on the wall.

“It’s just part of the adventure, I suppose,” said DoC ranger Juzah, unconvincingly, as we braced ourselves against the thousandth lurch of waves crashing into the beam. “You have to deserve the penguin monitoring,” agreed fellow ranger Flo.

Everyone started out on the upper deck, in the cockpit and the wheelhouse, enjoying the view and fresh air. But numbers dwindled as people made their way below to their bunks, with varying degrees of control over their stomach contents.

Even people who had never been seasick before found themselves ill, including the retired sea captain. Supposedly there were only five of us who didn’t throw up.

A one-minute excerpt of a many-minute voyage

Knowing I had to get up in the middle of the night to go on watch, I went to bed early. Getting into that bunk felt great.

I did my best to ignore the loud clangs of pots and dishes in the nearby galley, and the disconcerting phenomenon of my bedside porthole going underwater every now and then. Whenever there was a particularly violent tilt, I spent a few seconds wondering if we would come back up again.

At 11:57 p.m. I fell out of my bunk (more or less intentionally) to begin my watch.

Hellish Passage to Paradise 7 November 2017 Underway to Port Ross

As midnight struck I staggered up to the wheelhouse. The ship was pitching wildly and pitch black, but for some colored lights blinking on nautical devices. I spent the next four hours doing my best to stay awake and maintain control over my vivid visions of capsizing.

It had been hours and hours since we'd encountered another boat. We kept ploughing headlong through a vast, dark ocean toward nothing but some tiny islands, still hours and hours away.

At one point my watchmate, Hamish, and I realized the autopilot had stopped working and we’d been going the wrong direction for a minute or two. Fortunately it had just blown a fuse.

It was indeed a hellish night. By the end of the watch the seas seemed to have calmed just slightly. At 4:03 a.m. I fell back into bed and slept for most of the eight hours until my next watch, at noon.

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Anxiety levels currently stable

A million years later, sitting lethargically around the wheelhouse, we finally saw land. “Land ho?” said volunteer Sharon, hopefully, looking around at the rest of us for confirmation. “Land! Land!”

And what interesting land it was. The rolling hills appeared to be coated with an unbroken canopy of large broccoli: rātā trees. I didn’t expect such a profusion of vegetation here.

I bundled up and went out on deck, feeling the keen breeze of the subantarctic and the keen relief of leaving a confined space. A delicate red-billed gull glided around the boat twice, within arm's reach as it passed. We were in a cove encircled by the main Auckland Island, with smaller Rose and Enderby Islands off to the north. The afternoon sun illuminated the nearby mountain called “Sarah’s Bosom."

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Then a whale spouted—my first southern right whale! They breed here in Port Ross, but this was the first time the crew had ever seen one at this time of year.

Now the sun is low in the sky and the cold blue-green-gray landscape is warmed with yellows and pinks. It’s a subantarctic paradise, a place that few people ever reach. I feel almost like a real naturalist explorer.

Stay tuned for Part Two (when we meet the yellow-eyed penguins of the subantarctic)...

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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