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Spotting wildlife on Ponant’s New Zealand Subantarctic Islands Expedition

The pristine islands of the Southern Ocean are home to rich populations of wildlife, unlike anything seen on the Antarctic Peninsula. John Borthwick voyages from New Zealand with Ponant into an untamed wilderness.

Après nous, les penguins.” It’s a throwaway line from Australian author Thomas Keneally, joking about our antipodean neighbourhood. And it’s true — the folks on the next block are penguins. It’s also a fitting thought as our good French ship L’Austral leaves Dunedin’s Otago Harbour, heading seriously south towards the Subantarctic Islands. A few days later, we’re bouncing around in her Zodiac tenders, cruising the wild coast of the Snares Islands. The day is wreathed in mist and blessed by an air temperature of nine degrees Celsius.

This amounts to a brilliant ‘best day ever’ in the Snares, according to our guide. Scanning the islands’ basalt crags and Macbethean fog, I muse aloud, “It must be really beautiful here in midsummer.” The bird-watching woman beside me turns and briskly edits my observation: “This is mid-summer.”

Penguins seen in the Subantarctic Islands with Ponant

Back on board L’Austral, and with champagne flutes held high, we plunge deeper into ‘the Subs’. These remote Southern Ocean groups include the Snares, Auckland, Campbell and Bounty islands — all New Zealand territories — along with Australia’s Macquarie Island. Collectively, they are remarkable havens for millions of birds and sea mammals.

With World Heritage listing, many of the island groups are so pristine that landing on them is prohibited, but from our roving Zodiacs we witness closeup their gothic coastlines and teeming rookeries. Driving each boat is an expert naturalist who knows every subspecie of penguin (rockhopper, king, royal, gentoo or yellow-eyed), pinniped (fur seal, sea lion and elephant seal) and petrel (storm, grey-backed and diving).

Southern Ocean with Ponant

Expedition in style on Ponant’s luxurious L’Austral

Luxurious L’Austral, of the boutique Ponant line, goes in style, with two excellent restaurants (and cuisine and wines to match), bar, gym, theatre, library and spa. Throw in, too, a Russian soprano and Ukrainian pianist, plus a quiver of long-legged cabaret dancers. But should you need a casino and shopping mall, this probably isn’t the cruise for you. Our cabins, most with balconies, are seductively perfect for lazing in between excursions, dining, entertainment and briefings.

With some 160 English-speaking passengers (predominantly Australian) and 30 French-speakers on this cruise, as well as a multinational crew, all announcements are bilingual. Whenever whales appear, Captain David Marionneau alerts us that he is slowing the ship, allowing us to rush to the rails to take photos. During lunch one day, a pod of orcas appears, keeping pace with the ship as we watch them through the restaurant’s water-level picture windows.

We’re now well into the ‘albatross latitudes’, the Furious Fifties, where the islands constitute an astonishing aquarium. The season is (as I’ve been reminded) mid-summer so there’s no snow or ice, but the islands’ joys must still be earned. Our Zodiac forays happen under skies that can range from sunny to sullen, and quickly back again. The vistas are forbidding and thrilling, often simultaneously. Beach landings see us splash ashore where sea lions loll with their harems, or to hike amid redflowered rata tree forests and fields of curious megaherbs.

240,000 pairs of king penguins at Lusitania Bay
240,000 pairs of king penguins at Lusitania Bay

Reaching Macquarie, the largest island on our 16-day itinerary, we strike it lucky. Zodiacs often have difficulty beaching through “Macca’s” swell, but for two days we easily make it ashore for excursions among the scores of elephant seals that, ignoring us, lounge along the shore and dunes like indolent teens.

“This little island is one of the wonder spots of the world,” said explorer Sir Douglas Mawson of the 34-kilometrelong Macquarie Island, which is officially part of Tasmania. We drop into the Australian scientific base where the researchers welcome us with Tim Tams, news updates and hot tea. Later, at Lusitania Bay we see from the Zodiacs some 240,000 pairs of king penguins packed along a broad beach like a penguin glacier. They stand almost motionless, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out to sea for hours.

Southern Ocean hiking

Eden retrieved at the Antipodes Islands

Arriving at the Antipodes Islands, we might reasonably claim to have reached the ends of the earth. These outliers were named because they are at the planet’s opposite ‘pole’ to London. They loom from the Southern Ocean, some 900 kilometres south of New Zealand, with rocky flanks that were once floridly described as “cliffs of vertical horror”.

However, the pinnipeds, shags, ducks, terns, prions and albatrosses that thrive here and in the Subs’ other tiny archipelagos might see their world quite differently. There are almost no humans, and with the removal of the predatory cats, rats and pigs introduced by early mariners, these island Edens have now been returned, almost intact, to the creatures that evolved here.

It’s time for L’Austral to head north again. As our last Zodiac pushes off, there won’t be another human footprint on this beach for many months. Après nous, les penguins, indeed.

This article originally appeared in volume 30 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.