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Story: Subantarctic islands

Wild weather, vast seabird colonies and brightly flowering megaherbs make New Zealand’s subantarctic islands a unique environment. Uninhabited in the 2000s, the islands have a human history that includes Polynesian seafarers, European sealers, castaways, wartime coast-watchers, scientists and hopeful – but unsuccessful – farmers.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Pleurophyllum speciosum, the Campbell Island daisy

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

New Zealand’s subantarctic islands are five isolated island groups to the south and east of the South Island:

  • the Snares, the smallest in area and closest to the mainland
  • the Auckland Islands, the largest group, with the longest human history
  • Campbell Island, the furthest south, and in the 20th century the most populated subantarctic island
  • the Antipodes Islands, the most distant from the mainland
  • the Bounty Islands, which are mostly barren rock, and have no beaches or easy landing points.

All these subantarctic islands have been part of New Zealand’s territory since 1863. In the 2000s all were uninhabited nature reserves.


The climate is wet, cold and windy, with little sun.


The Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes islands are of recent volcanic origin. The Snares and Bounty islands are granite outcrops.


There are many unique species, including megaherbs – large-leaved plants with bright flowers. However, these have been damaged by introduced animals such as sheep and goats. Forest trees grow only on the Snares and Auckland islands, at lower altitudes.


There are huge numbers of seabirds, including sooty shearwaters, albatrosses, penguins and shags. Sea mammals include whales and four species of seal.

First human arrivals

Polynesian ovens and middens from the 13th or 14th century have been found on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands. However, it appears that Polynesians didn’t stay long.

European explorers first saw the islands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Sealers worked in the islands from 1805 to about 1812, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of seals.

Later human history

In 1842 Māori and Moriori from the Chatham Islands settled in the Auckland Islands.

Englishman Charles Enderby hoped to set up a whaling base and farming settlement on the Auckland Islands. In 1849 and 1850, 200 settlers arrived from Britain. They built a town, Hardwicke, but agriculture was difficult and they left in 1852.

Other people made attempts at farming, but they all failed, due to the rough weather, poor soil, isolation and lack of transport.

There were 11 shipwrecks and nine groups of castaways on the Auckland and Antipodes islands. The government built depots with supplies for castaways.

Coast-watchers were stationed on the Auckland and Campbell islands in the Second World War, and a meteorological station was set up on Campbell Island.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Subantarctic islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 March 2018)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 12 Sep 2012