Sailing the subantarctics

Sailing the subantarctics

Science student Imogen Foote has dreamt of visiting New Zealand’s subantarctic islands since beginning her Master’s research on New Zealand sea lions in 2016. In January 2022, that dream came true thanks to a scholarship from Heritage Expeditions.

Imogen Foote with one of the focus species of her PhD research, the Gibson’s albatross, at the Auckland Islands.

Where are the subantarctic islands? Clue: They’re not in Antarctica

Even as a New Zealander, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of the subantarctics. When I told my friends I had received a scholarship to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to NZ’s subantarctic islands the overwhelming response was “Wow, Antarctica!”. They were picturing ice, penguins, and more ice. In fact, while these islands are home to an abundance of penguins, there is no ice—only rugged landscapes, battered by the elements and swarming with wildlife. The NZ subantarctic islands include five island groups located squarely within the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘furious fifties’ (the powerful westerly winds that almost constantly blow between latitude 40° and 59° south).

Swarms of seabirds and seals at the Bounty Islands. Photo: Imogen Foote

How a scholarship tip-off led to an unforgettable trip to the most remote of places

I didn’t truly became familiar with this amazing part of Aotearoa until I began my Master’s in 2016 studying New Zealand sea lions, which breed predominantly in New Zealand’s subantarctic region. In 2021, I began a PhD studying the Antipodean and Gibson’s albatrosses, which breed exclusively in the subantarctics. Since beginning these studies, I’ve dreamed of visiting the islands to see the throng of sea lion bulls fighting for access on the breeding beach, the plethora of pups piled up safely out of harms way, and the soaring albatrosses making the most of the subantarctic winds. But it always seemed just out of arms reach. Then, a colleague suggested I should apply for the ‘True Young Explorer’ scholarship offered by Heritage Expeditions, a New Zealand-based tourist operator that travels to some of the world’s most remote regions. Every year, Heritage offers opportunities for young people who are committed to becoming advocates for the Southern Ocean to join their expeditions at a fraction of the full cost. In January 2022, I was extremely lucky to receive this scholarship and spend 12 incredible days exploring the subantarctic islands.

A New Zealand sea lion breeding ‘harem’ on Enderby Island. Photo: Imogen Foote

A prehistoric place teeming with wildlife and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been

New Zealand’s subantarctic islands have been granted United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage status, and are some of the world’s least-modified locations. While the environment is not particularly hospitable to humans (many have tried to settle there, few have lasted for long), it is a hotspot for wildlife. The islands are home to many species of plants, invertebrates, marine mammals, and seabirds, including penguins and albatrosses. A number of these species are not found anywhere else in the world. Unlike mainland New Zealand, the subantarctic islands are not home to vast rainforests. Instead, patches of rata forest that can withstand the thrashing winds are interspersed with waist-high hardy megaherbs. On my 12-day trip I saw more wildlife than I’ve seen in my life, giving a glimpse into what mainland NZ might have been like centuries ago. Yet even this remote area of the world doesn’t remain untouched by human impact, with many of the species that we saw now threatened with extinction due to introduced pests, impacts from fisheries, marine pollution, and the changing climate.

An Antipodean albatross in flight near Antipodes Island. Photo: Stephen Bradley

It was an incredible privilege to take part in this trip, and it will motivate me through the toughest challenges of my PhD. I would highly recommend that any young person apply for future scholarships. You can follow Heritage Expeditions on Facebook to keep an eye out for opportunities.

Imogen Foote is studying for a PhD in Ecology & Biodiversity  at Te Herenga Waka’s School of Biological Sciences

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