2008 has been a particularly eventful year for me. New year started on a yacht, the Tiama, heading for Aucklands Island in the sub-Antarctic. I managed to stay up for midnight (just), but didn’t have a new year tipple for fear of vomiting it straight back up. I was leading a Department of Conservation expedition to Campbell Island, doing a survey of New Zealand sea lions. The previous expedition to do this was five years previously, so it was an exciting prospect. I was with two other people, Chris Muller and Marie Haley, also on contract to DOC. We stopped briefly on South West Point (of the main Auckland Island) to retrieve satellite tags from a white capped albatross colony, in lovely weather, with stunning views over Carnley Harbour. We weren’t to see the sun again for weeks.
The next day, on the way to Campbell, a huge storm hit us, causing concern even for our experienced skipper Henk, and forcing a detour around the north of Campbell Island to reach the shelter of Perseverance Harbour. Here, we had a brief few hours at the Met Station (which would be our base for the next 7 weeks). A DOC albatross team was based here, and would be great company later in the trip. Our study animals, however, had chosen to breed well away from the comfortable station, on a rocky platform near the entrance to Perseverance Harbour. It was here we were destined to camp for the first two weeks of the expedition.
Henk managed to drop us off at Davis Point, saving a day’s walk (which would have been a nightmare with all the expedition gear). We had camping equipment, but no idea if there was a suitable place to pitch a tent. As it turned out, there was - just big enough for a tent, and sheltered beneath a canopy of Dracophyllum, a shrub which forms a low, almost impenetrable forest over much of the coastal strip of the island. In our time there, we never found another place suitable to pitch a tent near the Davis Point colony - the ground being tree trunks or tussock or bog.
And so started a fortnight of the most miserable weather imaginable. Gales (up to 140km/h-ish) made work difficult outside the shelter of the Draco forest, and if it wasn’t actually raining, it was just about to. The sea lions had also eroded the tussocks around the colony to a slimy peaty mess, with deep bog holes perfect for trapping and drowning pups.
Our work consisted of daily counts of animals (live and dead), and tagging all the pups we could, and I autopsied all the reasonably fresh dead pups. Before long, we all smelled like sea lions. The tent was a place we retreated to at night only, to avoid bringing in excessive dirt and damp. The rest of the time we made ourselves as comfortable as possible outside the tent, but within a ‘stockade’ of branches, constructed to prevent 450kg sea lions steamrollering our tent.
Relief from the daily routine involved a one and a half hour bush-bash to Mowbray Hut, a small field hut on the ridge top, where we had to go to fill our water containers with drinking water every few days.
Considering we endured some of the worst working conditions in the world, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world, and we were still speaking to each other at the end of the two weeks. I also came a poor third place in the burping contest (Marie won).
The next few weeks were comparative luxury, based at Beeman Base (the old Met station) with the albatross teams. Great food (no more dehydrated rations!), a lovely warm stove, our own rooms, and a trickly but hot shower! Even the weather improved (at last), with some sunny days to relieve the ‘English’ greyness.
Our time was spent hunting the island for pups which were bred away from the main colony at Davis Point. This involved walking around much of the island, and staying in some lovely little huts several hours walk from Beeman Base. We got to see wonderful scenery, rockhopper penguin and Campbell albatross colonies, fantastic scenery, and lots of amazing flowering megaherbs. The downside was lots of (mostly) fruitless searching for pups in dense Dracophyllum and tussock, where every metre of progress was fought for.
Our big exciting discovery, to make up for the bad bits, was a brand new breeding colony on the south side of Perseverance Harbour. By the time we visited it, the colony had dispersed, but we tagged loads of pups, and made plans to return.
Due to the distance from Beeman, we decided to camp for two or three nights, and managed to hitch a lift direct to the colony on a zodaic belonging to one of the visiting cruise ships. We pitched camp, started work, and then had our Big Incident. Chris now has a story to tell at dinner parties for the next few years! Searching for pups in the thick Draco forest above the (now deserted) colony, Chris was charged by a psychotic female sea lion. Trapped between her and an impenetrable mass of Draco trunks (which grow at 45 degrees and have gaps of only a foot or so between them), he bravely stood his ground, receiving a bite on the arm before she dashed off through the bushes. While the skin wasn’t actually broken, the impact of tooth against arm bone had damaged a nerve. I had to organise a rescue (alerting the cruise ship via a satphone call to DOC Stewart Island office). Luckily, they were able to pick us up again, and get Chris to a doctor on the ship. He had to argue vigorously to avoid being evacuated to the mainland (which would have wrecked our expedition) by risk- averse DOC managers, but was allowed to stay. It did give us all a holiday, though, as not much work could be done till Chris recovered (a week or so later).
By the time we wrapped up the expedition in mid-February, we had counted far more pups than previous expeditions, found a whole new breeding area, and evidence of a real increase in sea lion numbers, a fantastic result, compared to the drop in sea lion numbers in recent years around their main breeding areas in the Auckland Islands. I certainly hope to return there for the next census! Here are my best photos!
As a postscript to my big sea lion adventure, I spent a good deal of time this year writing a scientific paper about our findings. It has been submitted for publication in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology (or some journal like that). It was a steep learning curve, the first lesson being how to write in a dry boring style that will put people to sleep. Apparently, its not considered good science to present the facts in an interesting and readable way. But I’m chuffed to be the lead author of a science paper. So maybe I can call myself a proper scientist now?
Instead of the more usual trip to the UK during the southern hemisphere winter, Chris and I spent 3 months visiting the central Andes of Peru, Bolivia and a little bit of Chile, plus nearby Amazon jungle and Atacama desert. A full blow by blow account of the epic journeys can be read at our blog www.andeanramblings.blogspot.com, along with some pretty pictures of it all. More briefly, our travels took us from sea level to a breathtaking 6439m, from desert with rainfall only once every 15 years or so to rainforest nearly as wet as Wellington, often in just a few hours. I swam in rivers infested with pink river dolphin, alligators and piranas (and wasn’t eaten. I didn’t meet anyone who had been eaten by either). I was parasitised by a human botfly in the jungle though, which ate a little bit of my arm before I managed to kill it. I spent time in realms of an entirely different nature of reality at a shamanic centre in the Amazon, a deeply bizarre and wonderful experience that can only really be experienced, not explained. So altogether a nice time. Photos.
The other big news story in our world is the new bach (holiday cottage) at Horopito, next to Ruapehu, the big volcano thingy in the middle of the North Island. More....
My parents celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in September, with a big party of lots of their friends and family. I was really sorry not to have been able to attend, as I was hiking in the Andes at the time. I’ll try and make their Diamond Anniversary in 10 years time instead!
A small ambition of mine was achieved this year - a kayaking trip down the Whanganui river, the second largest in the North Island. Louise (a friend, and my boss when I do sea lion work) organised the five day trip, down the river canyon, through some spectacular and beautiful rainforest, and on of the most scenic trips I’ve done in New Zealand. Photos This year’s ‘new thing’ to learn has been the yidaki or didgeridoo. I’ve owned one for years - a beautiful termite - hollowed eucalyptus instrument made by an aboriginal artist/ didg maker in Northern territory, Australia. However, I could never really play it. A big ‘breakthough’ event resulted in a much improved musical ability (literally overnight), and I’m really enjoying practicing playing it now. I might even be good enough to try my hand at street busking over the summer! It is an instrument that suits me, as I don’t need to learn how to read music, understand chords and scales and all those other difficult musicky things. Solos on YouTube and the Jim & Andy Session.
Sadly lacking this year has been time spent paragliding. Well, its been such a busy year that something had to give! Maybe next year I’ll fly more....
May not be as exciting as the last 12 months.....