The outbreak of war in September 1939 brought new interest to the subantarctic. At the end of August the German cargo ship Erlangen had left Port Chalmers for Australia to fill her bunkers with coal for the home voyage. With war declared the ship was ordered not to continue across the Tasman. Instead it headed south and hid in Carnley Harbour on Auckland Island for five weeks while the crew cut down rātā for fuel to reach neutral South America. The incident highlighted the possibility of the subantarctic islands being used as enemy bases, and fears were heightened in 1940 when German raiders sank the Turakina in August and the Holmwood and Rangitane in November, in New Zealand waters further north.
Not so bad really
Of all the people who spent time on the subantarctic islands, the coast-watchers enjoyed it as much as any. They produced a magazine, and held sports tournaments and debates, and full-scale dances on Saturday nights, when the weekly supply of rum was consumed. Occasionally – even though the coast-watchers were all male – there were fancy-dress balls. Not surprisingly several volunteered for more time there, and one served for three postings.
In March 1941, under the code name ‘Cape Expedition’, 11 men were sent south with three years’ worth of rations and prefabricated buildings to staff three coast-watching stations – at Port Ross and Carnley Harbour in the Auckland Islands and Perseverance Harbour on Campbell Island.
Postings were for about a year, and the numbers were raised to five in each station. They watched for ships from 4.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. each day, but as the security situation in the Pacific improved, scientific observation became more important. Prominent scientists such as Charles Fleming, Robert Falla and E. G. Turbott were among the coast-watchers.
The coast-watching stations on the Auckland Islands had both closed by June 1945, but the weather observations at the Campbell Island station proved so useful that it was decided to keep it open for meteorological purposes. In 1957 a new station was opened at Beeman Point, with a staff of up to 12, including five meteorologists. Much work was done observing the ionosphere. In 1952 the station even opened a post office to postmark letters to stamp collectors. In 1994 the base was decommissioned when weather observation became automated.
Love ’em or hate ’em
Many naturalists were very hostile to the Campbell Island sheep for the damage they caused to the flora of the island. In 1937 Herbert Guthrie-Smith pleaded that the island become a nature reserve, and added: ‘If I were younger, owner of good collies, I would volunteer to round up most of the cursed sheep and cut their throats. The balance would be poisoned.’1 But sheep experts believed they were a distinct genetic breed resistant to foot rot. In 1975 10 were brought back to New Zealand. They have been kept as a distinct rare breed ever since.
In 1954 Campbell Island became a reserve, but for naturalists the continued presence of sheep was a concern. In 1970 the flock was fenced at one end of the island, and in 1980 a new fence further confined the sheep, which were finally removed in 1990. The cats died out naturally and in 2001 rats were eradicated.
Since the days of government steamers people had always been eager to catch a lift south to experience the subantarctic islands. In 1968, and again in 1971 and 1973, the Magga Dan brought tourists south. Since 1992 there have been regular visits to all the islands by Heritage Expeditions.