Changing Planet

Abby McBride sketching on Enderby Island (Photo by John Ayers)

Return of the Penguins

This is Part Four of “Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin” (See Part One, Part TwoPart Three)

Last explorations of Eden
14 November 2017
Waterfall Inlet and Lake Hinemoa

Today started out pretty OK. Just another morning in the subantarctic, in an impossible cove full of waterfalls, rainbows, and yellow-eyed penguins.

Waterfall Inlet

Eight penguins swam up to and under and around the boat. They disappeared for a while, then came back and did it again. They seemed like a band of mischief-makers.

Yellow-eyed penguins in the subantarctic! Possibly the world’s most endangered penguin.

A post shared by Abby McBride (@sketchbiologist) on

I was the first one on deck this morning, for once, so I snagged the coveted sheltered spot at Evohe’s stern. That selfish act was justly rewarded. Despite the profusion of penguins in the water, there were none on my allotted section of coastline. Nor on Peanut’s section to my right. But Tony to my left was racking them up, and the shore crew got decent numbers too.

On our afternoon field trip we got to visit the nearest waterfall, where the DoC team collected the fish traps they had deployed yesterday. Not too much is known about the freshwater fish in these islands. Even less is known by me:

I used the rest of my free time ashore to scale the waterfall, tier after tier, all the way to the top.

Cruising onward in Evohe, we came upon another paradisiacal cove and another waterfall. This one was more distant and dramatic, pouring toward a valley just hidden from view. We dinghied to land and walked through forests and fields to the valley, inevitably getting lost on the way. Auckland Island gentians were blooming in the open areas.

Auckland Island gentian

Here’s what we found inside the hidden valley: wind-blasted Lake Hinemoa.

Lake Hinemoa

We returned to Evohe and cruised on. Our final stop was to visit some caves.

Musgrave Inlet cave

Then it was time to head back toward Enderby Island, where we started this subantarctic exploration more than a week ago. We’re going ashore there tomorrow morning to do a penguin-monitoring stint. We’ll need to walk to our sites on the other side of the island before sunrise, which means getting up at 2:30 in the morning. Does that even count as morning? I don’t think so.

Twelve Hours of Enderby
15 November 2017
Enderby Island

At the dreaded 2:30 wakeup time I clambered out of my bunk, piled on layer upon layer of gear, shoveled some cereal into my mouth without tasting it, and in a state of great sleepiness lowered myself into the dinghy in the dark. There were five of us, with Hamish as usual at the helm. We sped away from the yellow lights of the portholes, leaving Evohe behind and barreling into the blackness. “We’re going to wake up from this and think it was a nightmare,” Peanut said. “No, a beautiful dream!” said Flo. It really had elements of both.

Once ashore we started the long walk across the island in the dark. Our path through the grass tussocks was lit by dimmed headtorches, and an eery orchestra of seabird sounds emanated from both sides. Little fat diving petrels scurried from the path. At one point I could see the shadowy forms of giant petrels standing on the beach in the dark, with their wings spread high. I was among those traveling the farthest this morning. I continually removed layers and crammed them into my increasingly crammed backpack.

After settling into my spot, I put them all on again. It was 5:15 a.m., and it was going to be a chilly four hours.

The sun rose as I watched two penguins on the beach below. They stood together with their backs toward me, on rocks covered with those white spatters that always look like guano but are actually white lichen. I was struck by the colors: the penguins’ gray backs blended with the gloomy seascape, the yellow horizontal stripe on their heads was an extension of the sunrise straight ahead, and their white-lined wings gleamed like the white-topped rocks.

Enderby view

They both raised their wings slowly and stretched higher, then gave a synchronized shiver, a bit like two dogs shaking themselves. Then they continued on toward the water with their comical gaits, stopping often and looking all around with apparent caution. For the final stretch they slithered on their bellies over the kelp.

As I faced the sunrise, I thought that I must be looking more or less straight across the Southern Ocean, toward the Patagonian ice fields (¡hola, Isaí!). Three skuas flew together over the beach calling like gulls. For a second two of them locked feet and fell through the air. Before hitting the ground they righted themselves and flapped away.

At 7:40 I saw something quite startling: on the edge of the shore some distance away, there was a massive thing—a living creature—on the kelp. My mind was temporarily blown, the same way it had been the first time I saw a moose stepping into the road back in Maine. Like a moose compared with a run-of-the-mill deer, so was this incomprehensibly big elephant seal compared with the sea lions. The whole of its body rippled as it hitched itself up the beach: a few hitches and then a rest, and repeat. It took 15 minutes to reach the grass, 20 meters from the shore.

Sea lions kept coming up to loll on the grass as well. I was grateful that nothing ended up either stumbling into me or seeking me out. The subantarctic megaherbs were megahandy for shielding me from view.

Enderby

Toward the end of my four-hour stint, an Auckland Island tomtit started hopping around in the megaherbs behind me. While I followed its progress I saw a white shape back there: a penguin! It might have been waiting for me to leave before proceeding to the water. So I left discreetly right as my shift ended at 9:00.

On my way out I radioed to warn the others not to step on the elephant seal as they passed through, since elephant seals at rest look more like topography than animals. Then we all met up farther down the beach and compared notes. Enderby Island being a penguin hotspot, some members of the group had logged quite a few penguins. DoC ranger Jolie counted dozens of them, including a line of 15 penguins waddling down to the sea at once.

Enderby cliffs

It was now an uncharacteristically brilliant sunny day in the subantarctic, as we continued hiking all the way around the perimeter of Enderby Island. Banded dotterels scurried over the grass and giant petrels cruised the sky. At one point I saw three giant petrels take off in the distance ahead of us, and ten minutes later we came upon their giant fluffy chicks near the cliff edge. We gave them a wide berth so as not to make them vomit up their most recent meals.

Giant petrels are indeed giant, but toward the end of the walk we passed some truly enormous southern royal albatrosses. There were several of them seated on the ground, courting and maybe sitting on eggs.

Sunbaked and bird-dazzled, we finally made it all the way around the island. While waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, we hung out with the resident grad students—whom we had dropped off last week—in front of their huts. Chris and Rebecca have started right in on their summer work, getting up close and personal with the Enderby penguin population. Their nest numbers are down from last year, just as our morning count numbers are down. But last year was an especially good year. It will take more data and more work to determine a population trend.

I hoped we would get a chance to follow Chris and Rebecca to some of the penguin nests they monitor. But we’d been on land for twelve hours, and everyone was starving for lunch, so we returned to Evohe.

Today’s survival challenge: what to do when the water tank unexpectedly runs dry. I washed the lunch dishes with a bucket of seawater, which was fun but took at least twice as long as usual. Captain Steve cautioned me not to spill any (“a boat rusts from the inside out”). It was good that he did, because it took considerable effort to keep water off the floor.

Meanwhile Steve and Hamish spent an hour or so obtaining two dingyhfuls of water from a creek on the main island. They literally filled the dinghy with water, due to a lack of other available containers, and pumped that directly into the ship’s tank. (I could see some of the proceedings through the galley porthole.) We shouldn’t end up needing this delightfully brown fluid for drinking water, since we have a few backup bottles of that, but it is providing extra flavoring in the tea.

Word on the ship is that there’s supposed to be another vessel visiting this region tomorrow. If I’m overhearing the post-dinner conversation correctly, the penguin-monitoring volunteers are talking seriously about boarding it like pirates. Maybe it’s for the best that this voyage is almost over.

Day 15: Cabin Fever
16 November 2017
Aboard

What happened today? Next to nothing. The morning weather was too bad for penguin counting. According to a few repeat volunteers and staff on the project, I’ve lucked into the chilliest, stormiest penguin-counting trip to date (sounds like something I would do). Nobody even followed through on the pirate plan, though we could see the other ship in the distance.

Amidst today’s inactivity I did accomplish one thing: making a carrot cake for DoC ranger Juzah’s birthday. You wouldn’t think that experience as a pastry chef would be especially useful in the average scientific enterprise, but let me tell you, it comes in handy all the time.

Shipboard cake

Day 16: Aucklands Farewell
17 November 2017
Rose Island (and underway)

Eight days after the first count on Rose Island, we set off for another one on the same island—our final count of the trip. A bunch of us hopped into the dinghy and zoomed away in the dark.

Low tide meant a high climb onto the rocks compared to last time. “Find lots of YEPs,” someone said as we dispersed, referring to yellow-eyed penguins. The obvious reply was “yep.” This being New Zealand, both times it was pronounced yip.

Rose Island

Maybe it was the calm water or maybe the ease of experience, but everything seemed to go uncannily smoothly. I even got to return to my original tussock.

Just as before, I had barely settled into place when an adult penguin appeared. It popped out of the grass right in front of me. A minute later, I saw a second penguin at the base of the rock ledge jutting into water. I bet they were the same two from last week.

The first penguin called, shrilly (bringing to mind its Māori name, hoiho, which means “noise shouter”). It crossed over to join the second penguin and they both toddled out to the end of the rocks, entering the water at 5:35, exactly like they did a week ago.

Then the Rose Island sun rose, right in my face. Suddenly I couldn’t see very well. But I did get blissfully warm.

That was the end of penguin counting. We had just one more recreational dinghy trip ashore.

Actually, the dinghy never made it: the slope was too gradual to land properly. Several people’s boots filled with water as we waded the rest of the way in. On shore we found a few buildings, abandoned decades ago, but with some furniture and supplies intact. There was even a guest book. If you ever end up there yourself and flip through the book, keep an eye out for the page with former New Zealand Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry’s name signed at the top and mine at the bottom.

The buildings were surrounded by ancient rātā trees, their wide trunks growing nearly horizontal along the ground before rising up into the canopy. We walked through the trees and up the mountain. Strung along the whole length of the path was a rusty old wire, with which the former tenants had communicated between the top and bottom of the hill. And at the top of the hill was a little shed with a platform on the roof.

Was there a ladder going up to the platform? When I went around the back to check, I nearly tripped over a sea lion tucked in behind the shed. This gave me a start, but it was a small female and she stayed calmly in place. She must have spent hours climbing up there. I’m told they do that kind of thing to escape the attention of males.

The GoPro footage I got wasn’t very good, so here’s a third-party perspective on the scene. The sea lion is hidden on the left. Turned out the only “ladder” was that two-runged thing on the front, but it worked fine.

Auckland Island (Photo by John Ayers)
Photos by John Ayers

Back on the coast below, I put my GoPro down on a rock while I donned my lifejacket. It almost ended its days on that rock on Auckland Island, but I remembered it at the very last second before returning to the ship. When we finally boarded Evohe for the last time, something else felt like it was missing: we didn’t need to scrub our boots with Sterigene disinfectant. Sadly, we had no more islands to visit.

By early afternoon we were on our way back toward mainland New Zealand.

Day 17: The Return, With Scones
18 November 2017
Underway to Bluff

Auckland Islands
Thanks to crew member David Smith for mapping our path through the Auckland Islands.

Our ship flew like a seabird back to the South Island town of Bluff, arriving evening before the sun set. The midnight-to-4 a.m. watch was considerably less scary than last time, the tradeoff being that it was nearly impossible to stay awake.

One last noteworthy event before we made it back to land: the only person on the ship who had never seen or eaten a scone in New Zealand (that’s me) was asked to make scones. I think everyone ultimately realized that was a mistake.

Landing the boat was a protracted affair in a difficult berth. I got to be first ashore, scrambling onto the dock to catch and throw lines. It was late, and we spent one last night aboard Evohe.

Plight of the Penguins
19 November 2017
Bluff-Dunedin by car

By 8:00 a.m all of the penguin-monitoring volunteers and DoC rangers had left the ship.

The crew stayed behind to clean up. While I was maneuvering the vacuum through the narrow galley, my entire ponytail of hair was sucked into the hose. There was a second where I wasn’t sure I’d get it back, but I did, and it was stylishly matted and smelled distinctly vacuumous.

We crammed Steve’s little old red car full to the brim with stuff, and four of us drove back to Dunedin.

My faithful station wagon Indy was still there. He didn’t start. Of course he didn’t. I knew he wouldn’t. (I still hoped he would.) But David grabbed some jumper cables, and all was well. I’ll deal with the battery this week.

That night I lay in a very comfortable bed on land, feeling the phantom rocking of the ship I’d been on for two and a half weeks, and thought about yellow-eyed penguins. New Zealanders have spent decades working to save this species on the mainland. But there seems to be a strong chance that they’ll run out of time, in the midst of arguments about which threats are causing penguins the most harm.

Yellow-eyed penguin (Illustration by Abby McBride)

As yellow-eyed penguins disappear from the mainland, their final hope lies hidden on islands in the subantarctic. Not an easy place to carry out research or conservation, as I’ve learned firsthand. Fortunately, New Zealand scientists and conservationists are not easily held back. The researchers I joined on this trip are steadily making progress in learning about the lives and needs of yellow-eyed penguins—things you can only discover by putting the rest of your life on hold for weeks or months and going where other people never go.

Over time, that hard-earned knowledge will be invaluable for informing conservation efforts on the mainland and in the subantarctic. But meanwhile, with so many hazards stacked against them, yellow-eyed penguins could go extinct. Perhaps the only way to safeguard their survival is to crack down on known threats, sooner rather than later.

Abby McBride sketching on Enderby Island (Photo by John Ayers)
Photo by John Ayers

It was a long day and a long trip, and these problems are not easily solved. I fell asleep, and my long subantarctic dream came to a close.

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow. Working with the Auckland Museum, she is sketching seabirds and writing stories about efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Sketch biologist Abby McBride once harbored aspirations of being a Victorian-era naturalist explorer. Adapting her career goals to the 21st century, she now travels globally to sketch wildlife and write multimedia stories about science and conservation. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow in New Zealand, home to the most diverse and endangered seabirds in the world, Abby is reporting on extraordinary efforts to reverse centuries of human-caused harm to penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Through art and digital media she aims to convey a sense of the beauty, fascination, and importance of seabirds, which are quickly disappearing from seas and shores worldwide. Abby is based on the Maine coast and has degrees in biology and science writing from Williams College and MIT. Follow @sketchbiologist on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (or get email updates).

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