ACROSS THE SEA


On an Autumn’s day in 1800, a British naval ship, emerging from dense fog, came across Antipodes Island, a previously unmapped slab of rock. They found a place heaving with wildlife, and a seemingly unlimited bounty.

In the years after its discovery, sealing gangs in their dozens arrived to hunt. At its peak, nearly 90 sealers packed the desolate island at one time, slaughtering seals in their thousands. In the space of just two years, around 350,000
native fur seals were killed, primarily by being clubbed in the head or stabbed with spears.

The extermination at Antipodes, just a few years after its discovery, amounted to roughly one third of all fur seals killed in New Zealand. The sea became so barren seals have only recently shown signs of recovery. Two centuries later,
the fur seal population at Antipodes is still a fraction of what it once was.

By the 1860s, when there were no seals left, hunters briefly killed the endemic erect-crested penguins, which were were used for women’s earmuffs and gloves in London.

Thousands of penguins were killed before it was realised the demand wasn’t high enough to sustain an industry. Large rolls of penguin skins were left in a cave on the island, and remained there more than a century later.

Today, the penguins, much like the albatrosses, are in the midst of a stark decline.

Around two-thirds of the world’s erect-crested penguin population breed on Antipodes. Little is known about the species, except that they are large, with flamboyant yellow eyelashes and booming voices.

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They are one of two penguin species on the island, the other being the rockhopper. Both species have declined rapidly in recent decades. A recent count estimated the population of the two combined had fallen nearly 75 per cent since
1978, and both appear to be firmly on the path to extinction.

Like the albatrosses, the fate of the penguins seems unavoidable. The series of human-caused events – ocean acidification, overfishing, predator introduction – has caused so much damage it may be impossible to claw it back.

A TVNZ documentary about Antipodes Island, filmed in 1981, was titled “Island of Strange Noises” – it begins with frightening, disembodied squawks, like an introduction to an alien world.

The island itself looks extraterrestrial, in part because there are no trees, only enormous, green tussocks on old lava flows, littered with flying birds the size of pelicans and black and white penguins in their hundreds affixed to
rugged brown cliff faces.

After they were plundered, and the sub-Antarctic Islands were forgotten, it seemed unlikely they would attain the status they have now – among the world’s most fiercely protected places.

“It defies expectations, this place,” says Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, who visited the island with the monitoring group.

“Just listening to the seabirds and their chatter all night – it’s not something you’d hear on mainland New Zealand, but it was something that was once on mainland New Zealand.”

The idea that places like this can be saved is a relatively new one, and one New Zealand has been particularly good at pursuing. It’s had more successful pest eradication projects on islands than almost any other country, and its
methods are being used internationally as best practice.

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The idea that places like this can be saved is a relatively new one, and one New Zealand has been particularly good at pursuing. It’s had more successful pest eradication projects on islands than almost any other country, and its
methods are being used internationally as best practice.

“I think New Zealanders really want to see some of these most remote, far away places kept as far as possible in their original state,” Sage says.

“Aotearoa New Zealand is the seabird capital of the world, with a range of different species here. We need to protect all of the places they live.”

In the coming weeks, it’ll likely be confirmed that no mice remain on Antipodes Island, more than a century after they first arrived.

There are already signs of recovery; more snipes and more parakeets bouncing through the tussock than previous years.

In the quest to clear New Zealand of predators, there are much greater challenges ahead. For now, the many species living in this particular conservation fortress will thrive, for the first time since they were found by humans.

“With mice gone, they’ll do completely fine, they’ll have a great time out there,” Stephen Horn says.

“They’re not competing with mice anymore. It will benefit a huge number of species.”



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