Auckland Islands

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Explore NZ's Auckland Islands

Seven hundred and twenty-five kilometres (450miles) south of New Zealand, the Auckland Islands are but an isolated speck in the Southern Pacific Ocean and an interesting stopping off point for those on Macquarie Island tours. They are rich in wildlife as they provide a refuge for thousands of birds and Sea Lions and in history, with a colourful past of shipwreck, treasure and attempts at human settlement.

The Auckland Islands cover some (220sq.miles). There are several in the group, but the main island is 39km (24miles) long and 5 to 40km (3 to 25miles) wide. Other islands in the group include Adams Island to the South, Enderby and Rose Islands off the north-east tip of the main island and Disappointment Island off the west coast. All islands are of volcanic origin and are characterised by high precipitous cliffs with huge sea caves on the western and southern sides. The eastern coast shows the effects of glaciation while deep fjords provide sheltered anchorages. On average, it rains 27 days per month, the winds usually blow harder than 60km/h, and temperatures rarely climb above 15°C (59F).

Sandy Bay

Hooker Sea Lions, Sandy Bay, Enderby Island

Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


Geographical Information:
50º 29’ - 50º 59’S, 165º 52’ - 166º 20’E, in the South Pacific Ocean, 460 km south of New Zealand
62 564 ha
Maximum Altitude: 
667 m (Mt Dick on Adams Island)

The group consists of the main Auckland Island, with Adams, Disappointment, Enderby, Ewing, Rose, Ocean and Dundas Islands and numerous islets and stacks.
Auckland Island is roughly pear shaped, 40km by 27km, with an area of 51,000ha. The west coast consists of an almost continuous line of steep cliffs, backed by hilly terrain with deep valleys. The east coast features numerous bays and inlets. Port Ross in the north and Carnley Harbour in the south are its two natural harbours which offer safe haven to passing ships.

Carnley Harbour

Carnley Harbour

The islands are dominated by two partially dissected basaltic volcanoes dating from the Miocene period (12 to 23 million years ago). These rest on older lava rocks, principally 15 to 23 million years old, within a depression that has been locally exposed by erosion. Many reminders of the group’s volcanic origin and history are evident, particularly the many lava and basalt flows on the island shores. There are some fossiliferous sediments and infossiliferous granites, dating from 95 to 100 million years ago at Tagua Bay and Camp Cove, and the entire group appears grounded on a basement of biotite granite dated at 95 million years old.



Abraham Bristow was the first person to discover the islands, on 18 August 1806, naming them after Lord Auckland. The islands were originally plotted incorrectly on maritime charts some 35miles out of position. This, combined with the fact that navigation in the South Pacific was a very approximate art, usually hindered by poor visibility and bad weather, caused many ships to run up against the sheer basaltic cliffs on the western coastline. There are many harrowing stories of survival by castaways from ships such as the Invercauld – where 19 of 25 crew members got to shore, but only three survived the following weeks, by turning to cannibalism to stay alive; and the Grafton, where the captain made the mistake of sheltering from a storm in Carnley Harbour – unfortunately, the geography of the harbour concentrated the fury of the storm like a wind-tunnel, driving the Grafton ashore. The shipwreck situation eventually became so bad that for a time each island was checked twice a year for castaways.

Since the islands were discovered, several attempts have been made to farm and cultivate the land. The poor nature of the soil and extreme weather conditions have made permanent settlement impossible. Perhaps the most famous attempt at settlement was the Hardwicke Settlement (1848 to 1852), created by the South Seas Whaling and Fishing Company. Two hundred settlers came out from Britain in response to a glowing advertising campaign, resulting in the shortest-lived attempt to establish a British colony, lasting a total of 2 years and 9 months. The director of the settlement was given the title of Lieutenant Governor by the British Parliament, creating in the Auckland Islands, a colony with the same status (at the time) as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Vigorous Enderby

Once Samuel Enderby passed away, the great London-based whaling firm 'Samuel Enderby & Sons' became known as Enderby Brothers, consisting of Charles, Henry and George Enderby. Charles Enderby was a Fellow of the Royal Society; one of the original members, and for several years a Council Member of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. Like his father, Charles Enderby instructed his captains to lose no opportunity for exploration and discovery. Not only were the masters of whaling vessels so directed, but more than once ships were sent out largely, if not wholly, for the purpose of discovery.

About this time, 1838, whale fishing as a British industry began to decline and the Americans had come to monopolise the trade. According to Bullen, Englishmen had never been at home in whaling as were the Americans, who employed many hundreds of ships in the whale fishery. England now had to buy whale oil, with British whalers being unable to supply all that was required.

In 1846, Charles Enderby received a letter written on behalf of several men connected with British shipping interests who had become alarmed at this decline in the whaling industry and the consequent dependence of Britain on foreign nations for whale oil. Believing that on such matters there was no more competent authority than Enderby, they asked him to suggest some method of reviving the whaling industry. In response, Enderby laboured to re-establish the British Southern Whale Fishery, and in this he was successful.

The following year (1847) the Crown granted him the Auckland Islands in recognition of their having been discovered by one of his father’s captains – Abraham Bristow – and also for other services rendered under the firm’s auspices in the far south. Enderby’s intention was to make the Auckland Islands a whaling base, and he published a pamphlet stating his reasons for so doing, and also showed the advantages that the islands offered to settlers. In proof of his faith in the enterprise, he proposed going himself to superintend establishing the settlement. “I proceed to the colony,” he said, “with the full support of Her Majesty’s Government, and the assurance from the Admiralty that a vessel of war will visit the islands once in every month. The interests of the general body of the settlers, will, therefore, be amply protected.” It was proposed to use not the usual expensive ships of large tonnage, but vessels suitable for bringing the oil from the whaling grounds to the base at Auckland Islands, from whence it would be re-shipped to England or elsewhere in other vessels “freighted for the purpose in adjacent colonies.” Thus there would always be ships on the whaling grounds, or else returning from thence with produce to the station; “always supplies of oil awaiting shipment to England, and always full cargoes on the way thither.” Already the islands were much frequented by whaling vessels for the purposes of refitting and when waiting for the season to begin.

Though of quite secondary importance, colonisation of the islands was expected to proceed along with the establishment of the whaling station; but it would be a whaling colony, the land being cultivated to supply its needs. Such, in brief, was Charles Enderby’s plan.

In general, Enderby’s proposition met with approval; it was also adversely criticised. A writer in the London Times of November, 1848 strongly condemned the Auckland Islands as a site for a whaling station. Otago was suggested as a much better situation. Enderby was referred to sarcastically as ‘Lord of the Auckland Isles.’ The Times, in commenting on this letter, said that Mr Enderby had been offered facilities for carrying out his scheme, in Australia, Van Diemen’s Land, and New Zealand; and it was only a belief in the peculiar fitness of the Auckland Islands which had led to their being chosen. In view of subsequent events, it should be noted that Charles Enderby had been influenced by the opinion of important men who had visited the islands particularly that of Sir James Clark Ross, who, in 1840, stayed there for three weeks. Ross, in speaking of Enderby’s proposal, said: “In the whole range of the vast Southern Ocean, no spot could be found combining so completely the essential requirements of a whaling station.”

Pending the finalisation of the Auckland Island scheme, Enderby wrote to Sir Henry Pelly – Governor of the Hudson Bay Company – suggesting that Vancouver Island should be made a branch station for the whaling ships from Auckland Island. If this plan were affected, the colonisation of Vancouver Island would be assured. Furthermore, a British possession would reap the advantages attendant on the visits of whaling ships; some of which might be employed in trading to India, China, Japan and other places in the Pacific Ocean, thus extending British commerce, as also connecting British interests in those seas.

The Enderby Brothers handed over their grant of the Auckland Islands to the British Southern Whale Fishery Company, and as Charles Enderby had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of the islands, the company deputed him to act as their commissioner there. By the middle of 1849 arrangements for launching the enterprise were completed. Prior to his departure from England a public dinner was held in Enderby’s honour, with many men of note in attendance.

Founding of the Whaling Settlement

In August 1849, the first ships left. England to found the whaling colony at Auckland Island, bringing with them the Lieutenant Governor, medical men, clerks, a surveyor, a storekeeper, bricklayers, masons, agriculturalists, labourers and 16 women and 14 children. Arriving at their destination the following December, work was commenced at once. A 12 room house provided for Enderby by the company was set up; also about 25 other houses and a store. In due time whaling operations began.

The settlement had been established for some ten months when Enderby wrote to Earl Grey, stating that all on the island (72 in number) were enjoying good health. The fact that gooseberry and currant plants, brought from Hobart Town, were coming into leaf in June, showed that the season had not been as rigorous as had been expected.

In June of the following year Enderby wrote to the Directors of the Southern Whale Fishery Company, telling them that it was his intention to embark on the Black Dog for New Zealand, one object of the visit being to confer with the Bishop on the subject of engaging a clergyman to reside as Chaplain at Port Ross; and also to obtain the services of a medical man who would assist him (Enderby) as secretary in place of Mr King, who had resigned. The Commissioner also stated that 12 persons were about to leave the islands; that the number remaining would be 95; and to provide animal food for these would require 12 sheep weekly. While in New Zealand he would try to buy 300 sheep; failing to do this on reasonable terms, he would proceed to Two Fold Bay, on the east coast of New Holland.

Enderby arrived at Auckland, New Zealand, on 29 August, sailing later for Australia, where he secured the sheep and also such stores as he deemed necessary. He left Sydney for Port Ross on 16 October.

Enderby’s estimate of the amount of stores necessary for the small colony could have been extravagant. Dr Dakin mentions that in looking through some old letters of Robert Towns – a Sydney ship owner, and also a kind of agent for the London Company – he noted that Towns expressed surprise at the quantities of stores ordered, stating that he couldn’t “think of sending a tithe of the order.”

Failure of the Colony

The Directors of the Company were dissatisfied with the reports of matters concerning the settlement and decided to send Mr George Dundas, a director, and Mr T. R. Preston, secretary of the Company, to visit the Auckland Islands and investigate affairs. In December 1851, Dundas and Preston, furnished with full powers to act as special commissioners, arrived at Port Ross. As a result of the inquiry, Enderby resigned his position as chief commissioner to the Company but refused to leave his house, considering it to be his residence as Lieutenant Governor. However, the house was the property of the Company, and the Commissioners ordered some of the furniture to be removed from it, and later compelled Enderby to accompany them when they left the island on board the Black Dog. According to Enderby, they threatened to put him in irons if he refused to go with them.

Immediately upon the arrival of the Black Dog at Wellington, Enderby brought an action for trespass against Messrs, Dundas and Preston. The case – which occupied three days – was heard before Mr Justice Stephen. The Wellington Independent, after briefly reporting the case, concluded: “The judge ordered that in both cases each party should pay their own costs.”

Enderby appealed to Sir George Grey. Sir George pitied him and showed him much kindness, but felt he had no jurisdiction over Enderby’s quarrel with the commissioners. Later, Enderby wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, seeking redress, but without getting any satisfactory result, as the trouble was entirely between himself and the Company. The Company accused Enderby of mismanagement, while he complained that the mode of managing the Company’s affairs and of conducting the fishery had not been carried out according to the plans he had submitted to the public.

The whaling settlement at Auckland Island was a complete failure – a failure which caused great disappointment both at home and in the colonies; whaling in the South Seas being considered a trade of national importance. Toward the end of August 1852, the Earl of Hardwicke arrived at Otago, bringing the remnants of the Southern Whale Fishery’s staff, crews, and property, including the Governor’s house, which was offered for sale. The Otago Witness ran an article which expressed regret, but not surprise, at the abandonment of the settlement. Some portions of Mr Enderby’s plan were considered well worth adopting, but it was a mistake to have chosen the Auckland Islands as a site in order to prevent the desertion of crews. The result had been that the men regarded the island as a prison. Whales were plentiful enough, but the difficulties attending their capture were so great, owing to the boisterous weather, that scarcely any oil was obtained.

To many people in Sydney the failure of the scheme brought no surprise; the site was not considered a good choice, and the attempt to colonise was folly. It was said that £30,000 had been spent on buildings and improvements at Port Ross, whereas Port Jackson, Newcastle, or Port Stephen would have entailed no more than £2,000 for the erection of a store and dwellings for the labourers. And instead of a Chief Commissioner, who as Lieutenant-Governor required a staff, the seven or eight ships employed could have been managed by any Sydney merchant with the help of an extra clerk. Never again would the Southern Whale Fishery be likely to form a base south of Otago.

Final view of the Colony

The evacuation of the settlement was carried out under the supervision of the HMS Fantôme, anchored at Port Ross. R. E. Malone – an officer on board the ship – wrote an account of affairs in connection with the Company, which, he said, had been misled and had lost heavily. Enderby had at least not over-rated the health of the colonists, for, according to Malone, though for the greater part of the year the weather was wet and windy, the colonists presented a thriving appearance; proof that the climate was healthy. The cattle, too, were in good condition.

In the month of June herbage was springing up in all directions, but it grew only to be stunted by the wind. The farms were failures, nothing growing to any size – the turnips resembled miserable radishes. Malone also notes that three horses, brought to the islands from Sydney, had been useless owing to the swampy nature of the ground. 

There had also been discontent among the whalers. Shortly after the Fantôme’s arrival at the islands, the Hardwicke returned from a four month forage with hardly any whale oil, and the ship’s company in a deplorable state from rebellion, sickness and shortage of food. The captain said he had been beating off the island for three weeks, unable to get to the anchorage.

From all accounts, Charles Enderby was not fitted for the task of governing a colony, planning its food supply and managing a whaling station. Like many other enterprises, the Southern Whale Fishery colony at Auckland Island failed, chiefly through miscalculation.

Isabella Younger's Grave

Isabella Younger's Grave



1833 – Unidentified Wreck

Wreckage found in the vicinity of the North West Cape of Auckland Island proved beyond doubt that one or perhaps two large vessels had recently been wrecked there. The wreckage was discovered by a party of sealers from the Caroline stationed on the island. Some suggested that it was the Rifleman. A ship with that name sailed from Hobart in 1825 with a cargo of wool, and that commodity was found among the wreckage. But it seems highly unlikely that the wreckage would come ashore as late as 1833.

3 January 1864 – The Grafton

The Grafton had sailed from Sydney to Campbell Island on a prospecting trip. When this failed, the master decided to return to Sydney via the Auckland Islands in the hope of finding some seals. They anchored in Carnley Harbour on December 31, 1863, unfortunately for them in a very exposed place. During a gale which lasted for two days, the anchor ropes parted and the vessel was driven onto a rocky shore. The five men all reached the shore safely. When the storm abated they were able to salvage a good amount of gear and food from the wreck. The men were to live here at a place called Epigwatt for 19 months, during which time they spent most of their energies in gathering food and firewood to ensure their survival. It became obvious that if they were to be rescued they would have to do it themselves. So they constructed a boat for the purpose by enlarging the ship’s dinghy. Then three of the men set out for New Zealand. For five days they battled high seas and winds. On the morning of the sixth day they reached Port Adventure on Stewart Island. An appeal was launched and enough funds secured to enable the Flying Scud to return to the Auckland Islands to pick up the remaining two members.

10 May 1864 – The Invercauld

When bound from Melbourne to Callao in ballast, the Invercauld struck the north-west corner of the Auckland Islands. The weather at the time was extremely rough. Six of the crew were drowned and of the 19 officers and men to reach the shore, all but three died before the survivors were rescued on 20 May 1865. The survivors had very little food apart from roots and a species of limpet. Fortunately there was a good supply of water and this, along with the meagre food, sustained them for some months. The only shelter they had was a crude hut made from pieces of timber collected from the wreck. One of the stewards had saved a box of matches and they were able to light a fire.

The party split up and five men journeyed to the next bay, where they found traces of human occupation. Here they made a raft and concentrated on collecting food, as by this time the majority of the party were dying from starvation. By the end of August, 186, three and a half months after the wreck only three of the 19 castaways had survived. These three then built a boat and rowed to Enderby Island. Here they fared fairly well, having sufficient to eat and having built a hut to make themselves as comfortable as possible. On 20 May 1865, one year and 10 days after their ship was wrecked, the men were rescued by the Peruvian ship Julian, bound from Macao to Callao with Chinese emigrants.

14 May 1866 – General Grant

Of her complement of 61 passengers and a crew of 22, only 15 people made it to shore from the wreck of the General Grant. Of these, four sacrificed their lives in a desperate attempt to reach New Zealand by boat and obtain assistance, while one of the seamen died after a short illness. It was not until 21 November 1867 that the 10 survivors where rescued – after 18 months of hardship and privation.

The General Grant sailed from Melbourne on 4 May 1866, bound for London. She made good progress until the night of 13 May when land was sighted lying dead ahead. The wind was light but the seas choppy and the ship had hardly any steerage. At about 1am the vessel crashed into the towering cliffs. After this, the vessel drifted slowly astern for about half a mile where she struck again. Finally the vessel drifted into a cave about 200m deep, all masts with the exception of the main were broken off. The main mast struck the top of the cave as the tide rose and had the effect of pushing the ship under. At dawn, attempts were made to launch the boats but by this time the sea and wind were growing more chaotic. In the chaos and confusion that followed, only two boats with 15 persons successfully managed to get clear of the breakers. These two small boats sought shelter in the lee of Disappointment Island for two days before making it to Port Ross on Auckland Island. All their energies there were spent in improving their lot. A rough hut they had found was improved and considerable time was spent sewing clothes from the many seal skins they had collected. The hope of rescue was always uppermost in their minds and they sent ‘messengers’ – rudely carved miniature ships about three feet in length – with messages engraved upon them.

In January 1867 four of the survivors set out for New Zealand in one of the boats. It was a desperate attempt, with no compass or charts: ‘they sailed into the unknown and the unknown took them to itself, and they were never more known to mankind.’

The energies of the 11 remaining on the island where consumed just in surviving. In August one of the sailors, McLellan, took ill and died. When attempts to attract a passing ship failed, the remaining 10 people resolved to shift to Enderby Island where a better lookout station could be established. On 21 November 1867 the whaling brig Amherst sailed into Port Ross, ending many months of hardship.

In the manifest of the General Grant it was shown that she carried two boxes containing 2,576oz. of gold. Furthermore it was stated that there was in the cargo a few tons of spelter, or zinc, and it was held by some that a good part of what was entered as spelter was really gold. Among those drowned on the General Grant were a number of gold miners and they were reputedly carrying large quantities of gold with them. Many attempts have been made to salvage this gold.

20 March 1887 – The Derry Castle

The weather was thick on the night of 20 March 1887 when the barque Derry Castle ran aground on the northern tip of Enderby Island. The ship broke up quickly and of the 23 crew members, only eight managed to scramble ashore. The survivors found a small hut on the island but were without food and fire. A fire was later lit by exploding the cap of a revolver cartridge which one of the survivors found in his pocket. After being on the island for 92 days, and having been able to see a castaway depot across the water in Port Ross, the survivors found an old axe head buried in the sand. With this they fashioned a punt and two of the men successfully sailed/paddled to the castaway depot, returning with provisions and clothes. Within a few days all of the survivors were established at the Port Ross depot. Here they remained until 19 July when the steamer Awarua put into Port Ross while on a sealing cruise.

19 March 1891 – Compadre

The Compadre sailed from Calcutta on 22 January 1891, bound for Chile with a load of sacks. On 16 March the captain discovered a fire in the after hold. All attempts to extinguish the fire failed, so the ship was battened down and a course was set for Bluff – the nearest port. On 19 March the Auckland Islands were sighted. A tremendous wave broke over the ship, sweeping the decks of everything moveable as well as bursting the cabin – thus giving air to the fire. Further attempts to extinguish the fire failed, and with no hope of saving the ship she was run aground. All the crew managed to scramble ashore but one seaman died during the night, presumably from exposure. The crew found the government provision depot and sustained life until they were rescued on 30 June.

1895 – The Stoneleigh or Mary Alice

On 19 October 1895 the New Zealand Government steamer Hinemoa returned from a trip to the Auckland Islands and the captain reported that a large and evidently quite new iron ship had been wrecked on the north-east corner of Enderby Island. The coastline was littered with wreckage from the ship but nothing was found to indicate its name. All hands were evidently lost, as no trace could be found of human beings. There was some debate in the shipping world as to what ship it actually was. No final decision was reached, but it was determined likely to be either the Stoneleigh or the Mary Alice.

10 February 1905 – Anjou

The Anjou was bound from Sydney to England with a cargo of wheat when it ran ashore in thick fog, at night near Cape Bristow on the Auckland Islands’ rugged west coast. The lifeboats were launched at first light and after a laborious row of 10miles against strong currents, all boats succeeded in making Carnley Harbour. The 22 crew members eventually reached the castaway depot in Camp Cove where they were rescued the following month by the government steamer, Hinemoa.

6 March 1907 – Dundonald

The Dundonald sailed from Sydney on 7 February 1907, bound for England with a cargo of 32,700 bags of wheat. She had been out a fortnight when she encountered thick weather that did not lift. The captain estimated his position on 6 March as 40miles north-west of the Auckland Islands, but this was incorrect and at midnight land was sighted ahead of the vessel. Attempts were made to beat off the shore, but this failed and the Dundonald crashed onto the rocks beneath towering cliffs. Under the circumstances launching the boats was useless, and as the sloop settled the crew were forced to climb the rigging. When the long night finally ended it was discovered that 19 of the crew of 28 had survived, the remainder having perished during the night. Among those that perished were the captain and his 16-year-old son. The survivors clinging to the rigging along the cliff all evidently made it to land and discovered that they had wrecked on Disappointment Island – 11km (7miles) away across a rough stretch of water from the main Auckland Islands and the castaway depot. Disappointment Island is little more than 1½mi. wide and about 3km (2miles) long. One and half weeks after the ship was wrecked, the mate Jabzee Peters died and was buried on the island, later to be exhumed and buried in Erebus Cove, Auckland Island. Nothing but the sails were recovered from the wreck. Fortunately for the survivors, one of the sailors had 11 wax vestas with which they were able to light a fire. These two articles, the matches and the sails, ensured the men’s survival and their escape from Disappointment Island.

After 4½ months on Disappointment Island, a quantity of wood was found and it was decided to construct a boat with this and available canvas. The first party to attempt the crossing reached the main island, but got discouraged with the impenetrable forest and returned to Disappointment Island.

A second attempt was made with a new boat, their flimsy craft having been wrecked while landing on Auckland Island, and they had little choice but to find the castaway depot, which they did after a long overland journey. Once the depot had been found their first concern was to rescue their comrades on Disappointment Island. After making a sail for the dinghy, they sailed to Disappointment Island and ferried the more fit survivors to the mainland, who then walked overland to Port Ross. Only the weak and frail made the journey by boat. The men recovered rapidly with the good food and comfort provided by the castaway depot, and five weeks after they had moved off Disappointment Island they were rescued by the Hinemoa.


Despite hostile weather, the Auckland Islands are home to many species of plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world. Because they are rarely visited by man, the islands are in near-virgin condition. The Auckland Islands have the richest flora of all the Subantarctic Islands – 233 taxa have been recorded, of which 196 are native. The island also has the southernmost forests in the region, dominated by Southern Rata, Metrosideros umbellata, and a flowering myrtle. Tree ferns reach their southern limit here.

The Auckland Islands have a distinct altitudinal zonation in the vegetation, which may be summarised as follows: In the salt spray zone there is often herb turf. Above this, in exposed sites, there is a band of tussock land. Higher up, in more sheltered areas, especially in the north and east, the island sports a dwarfed forest dominated by Southern Rata, a species that produces an impressive show of red when in full flower. Up-slope still further, the forest gives way to a very dense sub-alpine shrubland zone, often forming a mosaic with open herb-moor vegetation. The moor is one of the most diverse communities on the islands, with a mixture of dwarfed woody species, herbs, tussocks, ferns and mosses. The alpine tops of the islands support an extensive tussock landscape. 

Inside a Rata Forest

Inside a Rata Forest

On the main Auckland Islands, Southern Rata (Metrodsideros Umbellata) forest dominates to an altitude of 50m. Above this, a board belt of scrub occurs, comprising Dracophyllum longifolium, coprosma spp, Myrsine divaricata, Pseudopanax simplex, Cassinia vauvilliersii with the fern Polystichum vestitum. Bogs of cushion sedge Oreobolus pectinatus are common. Above 300m, tussock grassland of Chionochloa antarctica predominates, giving way to herbfield (dominated by Pleurophyllum spp) and fell field  (of bryophytes, mosses, lichens, sedges) at around 500 meters.

This basic vegetation pattern varies among the islands, largely depending on the extent of modification by man and introduced animals. Adams Island is the least disturbed, and is known internationally for its herbaceous flora. Ewing Island features dense stands of Olearia lyallii. Disappointment Island has a coastal grassland of Poa species. On Enderby Island, grazing has enabled the spread of the herb Bulbinella rossii.

The flora of the Auckland Islands is notable for the occurrence of three species of Pleurophyllum, a genus endemic to New Zealand Subantarctic Islands and Macquarie Island, the existence of southern rata forest, and the occurrence of Cyathea smithii on Auckland Island representing the southern limit of tree ferns in the world.


Auckland Island Snipe: Auckland Island Snipe, seen on Enderby Island in increasing numbers after the major restortation of the island.

Auckland Island Snipe

The Auckland Island Snipe is seen on Enderby Island in increasing numbers after the major restortation of the island.

Over 120 species of bird have been observed on an around the Auckland Islands. Because land masses are infrequent in the Southern Ocean, these islands are a vital breeding ground for nearly 40 species of seabirds, many of which will not have touched land since their last breeding season.

The albatross and their small cousins, the mollymawks, are the most easily recognised of the seabirds. Seven species frequent the islands, including the well-known Royal Albatross, with a wingspan in excess of 11ft.

Several species of penguin, including the solitary Yellow-eyed Penguin and the Rockhopper Penguin, are found on the islands. Crested Penguins breed and moult ashore, but then abandon their breeding islands for about four months during the winter. Where they go has never been determined. In addition, the islands host populations of petrels, gulls, terns and predatory skuas.

Because the Auckland Islands contain a large variety of habitats, they have the largest range of land birds of all the Subantarctic Islands. Thirteen species, including the New Zealand Falcon and the Tui are found on Auckland Island. Many land birds have evolved into forms that are not found elsewhere – the Auckland Islands Teal is now flightless, unlike their genetic ancestors, the Australian Chestnut Teal. The islands are also home to the greatest number of Wandering Albatross and Shy Albatross in the world and forms the breeding ground of 95 percent of the New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lion population.

The Auckland Islands also have a long history of introduced species. Rabbits, goats, cattle, cats, rats, mice and pigs were introduced in the early 1800s and were destructive to the natural ecosystem. Sea lion pups fell into the remains of rabbit warrens and albatross breeding grounds are destroyed by pigs. Rabbits and cattle were eradicated by the Department of Conservation in 1990, and pigs will be eradicated as soon as a viable method of eradication is settled upon.

New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lion

New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lions are the rarest and currently the most endangered of the five species of sea lion in the world. They have a very limited distribution and range, and can be found breeding at only a handful of sites in the Auckland Island group. They also breed in small numbers on Campbell Island and Stewart Island, but 95 percent of pup production occurs on the Auckland Islands. This species is endemic to southern New Zealand, with a population estimated to be between 11,600 and 15,200.

Hookers Sea Lion

Adult Male Hooker's Sea Lion

As with all otariids (fur seals and sea lions), the New Zealand, (or Hooker’s) Sea Lion has marked sexual dimorphism. Mature males are blackish in colour with well-developed black manes reaching to the shoulders. Females are lighter, varying from buff to creamy grey with darker pigmentation around the muzzle and flippers. Pups of both sexes are chocolate brown with paler areas around the head. Juvenile males can resemble adult females in colour and size in their first year. In the past, they were hunted for their hides and the oil rendered from their thick, insulating blubber.

Adult male sea lions grow to at least 450kg (1,000lb.) and over three metres (10ft.) in length. These behemoths fight aggressively for the favour of females during the mating season. Females grow to 160kg (350lb.) and two metres (6ft.) in length. Sea lions favour sandy beaches as haul out areas. On warm summer days they will flick sand over themselves to try to keep cool. Females with pups will often move well inland using vegetation for shelter.

Squid have been shown to be an important dietary component for sea lions in the Subantarctic Islands, but not for sea lions in the mainland region. Other prey species include teleosts, elasmobranchs, octopus and various other invertebrates. Sea lions have also been reported to occasionally prey upon fur seals, elephant seals, penguins and various seabirds.

New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lions may travel up to 175km (109mi.) from the coast to feed. They regularly dive to 250m (820ft.) when foraging for food, and can reach up to 600m (1970ft.) in depth. Most dives last four or five minutes. Diving is almost continuous when at sea, with female New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lions diving deeper, longer and covering a greater area and distance in a single foraging trip than any other fur seal or sea lion species.

Females appear to be benthic feeders with high foraging site fidelity. Lactating individuals forage across the edge of the continental shelf, usually within 100km (60mi.) of breeding sites. Research indicates that New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lions in the Auckland Islands may be operating at their physiological limits when foraging – a factor that may have prevented population growth at this site.

Although age of sexual maturity is unknown, it is believed that females mature as early as four years old. Life expectancy is similarly unclear, but some research has shown maximum ages of 23 years for males and 18 years for females. Males are able to hold a territory from eight to nine years of age.

Breeding occurs over the summer months, a time when males are highly territorial and aggressive. Females form harems of up to 25 and are attended by a single dominant bull. Challenger and bachelor bulls remain around the periphery and occasionally challenge the dominant bull. In the Auckland Islands males occupy a beach in late November and pregnant females congregate at nearby haul outs. Several days prior to giving birth to a single pup, females move to a breeding beach.

Pupping begins in the first week of December and may last until the third week in January, at which time the remaining bulls disperse and the harems breaks up. Pups are born on the beach, but are moved by their mothers to nearby vegetation after about six weeks. The females then spend the next year alternating between foraging trips to sea and periods on land suckling their pups. Pups form pods near the periphery of harems while their mothers are at sea. Pups are dependent on their mothers for milk and protection for the first year of their lives. While mothers are at sea feeding, pups are particularly vulnerable to disturbance, so please keep your distance. Females give birth to a single pup every one to two years.

Wandering Albatross

The Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, is from the family Diomedeidae, meaning the great albatross. The Wandering Albatross is the largest member of the genus Diomedea. It has a circumpolar range throughout the Southern Ocean. It was the first species of albatross to be described, and was long considered the same species as the Tristan Albatross and the Antipodean Albatross. In fact, a few authors still consider them all subspecies of the same species. Together with the Amsterdam Albatross, it forms the Wandering Albatross species complex. It is also one of the best known and most studied species of bird in the world.

The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, an average of 3.1m (10.2ft.). The longest-winged examples verified have been about 3.7m (12ft.), but probably erroneous reports of as much as 5.3m (17½ft.) are known. As a result of its wingspan, it is capable of remaining in the air without beating its wings for several hours at a time, travelling 22m for every metre of drop (or 72ft. for every 3.2ft.). The length of the Albatross’ body is about 1.35m (4.4ft.) with females being slightly smaller than males. They typically weigh from 6 to 12kg (13 to 26lb.). Immature birds have been recorded weighing as much as 16.1kg (35lb.) during their first flights. Plumage varies with age, but adults have white bodies with black and white wings. Males have whiter wings than females with just the tips and trailing edges of the wings black. They also show a faint peach spot on the side of the head. The Wandering Albatross is the whitest of the Wandering Albatross species complex, the other species having a great deal more brown and black on the wings and body as breeding adults, very closely resembling immature Wandering Albatross. The large bill is pink, as are the feet.

The Wandering Albatross feed on squid, small fish and on animal refuse that floats on the sea, eating to such excess at times that they are unable to fly and rest helplessly on the water. They only lay one egg. It is white, with a few spots, and about 10cm (4in.) long. At breeding time they occupy loose colonies on isolated island groups in the Southern Ocean such as the Crozet Islands, South Georgia, Campbell Island, Auckland Islands, Marion Island, Prince Edward Island, Kerguelen and Macquarie Island. Their nests are large cones built of vegetation that are one metre (3ft.) wide at the base and half a metre (1½ft.) wide at the apex.

Sailors used to capture the birds for their long wing bones, which they manufactured into tobacco-pipe stems. The early explorers of the Southern Ocean cheered themselves with the companionship of the albatross in their dreary solitudes; and the evil fate of him who shot the ‘bird of good omen’ with his crossbow is familiar to readers of Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The metaphor of ‘an albatross around his neck’ also comes from the poem and indicates an unwanted burden causing anxiety or hindrance. In the days of sail, albatross often accompanied a ship for days, not merely following it, but wheeling in wide circles around it without ever being observed to land on the water. It continued its flight, apparently never tiring, in tempestuous as well as moderate weather.

Yellow-eyed Penguin

The Yellow-eyed Penguin, Megadyptes antipodes or Hoiho, is native to New Zealand. Previously thought to be closely related to the Little Penguin Eudyptula minor, molecular research has shown that it is in fact more closely related to penguins of the genus Eudyptes. Like most other penguins, it is mainly piscivorous.

The Yellow-eyed Penguin usually nests in forest or scrub, among Native Flax, Phormium tenax and lupin Lupinus arboreus, on slopes or gullies or the shore itself, facing the sea. These areas are generally sited in small bays or on the headland areas of larger bays. It is found in New Zealand, on the south-east coast of South Island, Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island/Rakiura, and Auckland and Campbell Islands.

Yellow Eyed Penguin

Yellow-eyed Penguin

The Yellow-eyed Penguin is currently endangered, with an estimated population of 4,000. It is considered one of the world’s rarest penguin species. Main threats include habitat degradation, introduced predators, as well as environmental changes. It may be the most ancient of all living penguins.

In spring 2004, a previously unknown disease killed off 60 percent of Yellow-eyed penguin chicks on the Otago Peninsula and in North Otago. The disease has been linked to an infection of Corynebacterium, a genus of bacteria that also causes diphtheria in humans. It has recently been described as diphtheritic stomatitis. However, it seems as if this is just a secondary infection. The primary pathogen remains unknown. A similar problem has affected the Stewart Island population.

The Yellow-eyed Penguin generally forages 7 to 13km (4 to 8mi.) offshore, travelling on average 17km (11mi.) away from the nesting site. Birds leave the colony at dawn and return the same evening during chick rearing, although they may spend two to three days at sea at other times. Average depth dived is 34m (112ft.).

The Yellow-eyed Penguin pursues prey in 20 to 60m (65 to 200ft.) dives. Around 90 percent of the Yellow-eyed Penguin’s diet is made up of fish; with cephalopods such as the arrow squid Nototodarus sloanii making up the remainder. Fish species consumed include the blue cod Parapercis colias, red cod Pseudophycis bachus, opalfish Hemerocoetes monopterygius, and New Zealand blueback sprat Sprattus antipodum, all between 2 and 32cm (1 to 13in.) in length. Cephalopods make up almost half (49 percent) of the diet of immature birds.

Whether or not Yellow-eyed Penguins are colonial nesters is a matter of on going debate. Most Antarctic penguin species nest in large, high-density aggregations. In contrast, Yellow-eyed Penguins do not nest within sight of each other. They come ashore in groups of four to six or more individuals, then disperse along tracks to individual nesting sites out of sight from each other. The consensus among New Zealand penguin workers is that Yellow-eyed Penguin nesting areas are best referred to as ‘habitats’ rather than ‘colonies’.


Wise's New Zealand Guide (4th ed.) (1969). Dunedin: H. Wise & Co. (NZ) Ltd.

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked At the Edge of the World (2007) by Joan Druett - an account of the Grafton & Invercauld wrecks

Sub Antarctic New Zealand: A Rare Heritage by Neville Peat - the Department of Conservation guide to the islands


Download our latest brochures Sign up for our free newsletter
Latest news & specials Kayaking available
Heritage Expeditions on youtube