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Subantarctic islands

by Jock Phillips

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.

Overview and climate

New Zealand’s subantarctic islands consist of five isolated island groups scattered in a 700-kilometre-wide semi-circle to the south and east of the South Island. The five groups are:

  • the Snares Islands, the smallest in land area and the closest to the mainland
  • the Auckland Islands, the largest group, with the longest human history, about 460 kilometres due south of Fiordland
  • Campbell Island, the second-largest and most southerly island
  • the Antipodes Islands, which are further east, almost due south of East Cape, and have the third-largest land area
  • the Bounty Islands, the most easterly and northerly of the subantarctic islands.

Shifting boundaries

When New Zealand formally became a British colony in November 1840, its boundaries were set at latitude 34° 30' ‘north’ (an error – it should have been south) and 47° 10' south, and longitude 166° 5' to 179° east. None of the subantarctic islands were included. In April 1842 new letters patent designed to include the Chatham Islands moved the boundaries to 33° and 53° south, 162° east and 173° west – thus including all the islands. Ten years later in the New Zealand Constitution Act, the southern boundary was changed again – to 50° south. This included the Snares, Bounty and Antipodes but not the Auckland and Campbell islands. Finally, when control of the Auckland Islands became an issue in 1861, it was decided to return them to New Zealand. By an imperial act of 18 June 1863 the southern boundary was restored to 53° south.

New Zealand territories

A sixth island, Macquarie, further south and west, and ecologically similar, is part of Australia, although it is actually closer to New Zealand, which tried to acquire it in 1890. The other five island groups have been part of New Zealand territory since 1863. Their links have always been closest with Southland.

Nature reserves

In the 2000s the subantarctic islands were uninhabited nature reserves. Yet for some 700 years there were spasmodic efforts by people to settle on the larger islands. Only one group (Māori from the Chatham Islands) succeeded in living there for more than five years. Instead the islands have returned to the natural world.


Their climate is the main reason for both the islands’ inhospitality to people and their rich natural environment. Lying in the roaring forties and furious fifties, remote from any land mass, they face a never-ending barrage of fronts coming in from the west. The climate is wet, cold, windy and very cloudy.

Rough weather

Thomas Musgrave, shipwrecked on Auckland Island in 1865, described ‘incessant gales, constant hail, snow and pelting rain’.1 Ron Balham, a meteorologist stationed on the Auckland Islands in the 1940s, concluded, ‘It was a shocking climate – after all it was overcast 95 percent of the time, the wind velocity was frequently force 6 on the scale, and the cloud cover about 95 percent, the humidity about 95 percent’.2 Little wonder that people chose not to live there.

On Campbell Island there are winds of over 63 km per hour on 280 days a year – more than three days out of four. Its 660 annual hours of sunshine are less than a third of that in Christchurch or Wellington. On average there are less than 12 hours of sunshine in June – in June 1970 only 1.5 hours was recorded.

Rainfall in the islands is not torrential, but it is frequent. Campbell Island receives an average of 1,360 mm a year (about the same as New Plymouth), but it rains on 300 days. Snow falls on the higher ground, though it does not usually settle for long. Rain is heavier on the Auckland Islands, lighter on the Antipodes. Sitting between the Antarctic and subtropical oceanic convergences, the temperatures are maritime, with little annual or daily variation. Mean annual temperatures range from 11°C on the Snares to 7°C on Campbell Island.

    • Thomas Musgrave, Castaway on the Aucklands: the wreck of the Grafton. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1943, p. 72. Back
    • Quoted in Conon Fraser, Beyond the roaring forties: New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. Wellington: Government Printer, 1986, p. 62. Back

Land and plants


All New Zealand’s subantarctic islands are parts of the Campbell Plateau, a shallow section of the Zealandia continent extending south and east of New Zealand.

The Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes islands are primarily of recent volcanic origin. The first two are eroded volcanic domes created 10–15 million years ago. The western sides of all three groups have been eroded significantly, creating steep cliffs, while on the eastern sides lava flows and glaciers from the Pleistocene era (about 2 million years ago) have formed U-shaped valleys, fiords and harbours. The Antipodes volcano is the youngest and least eroded.

The Snares and Bounty islands are outcrops of granite similar to the southern part of Stewart Island.


Apart from the Bounty Islands, which are covered in guano and support almost no plant life, the subantarctic islands have a layer of peat, the remains of plants, which in flat areas is up to 5 metres thick. This acidic soil restricts the growth of many introduced plants.


The geographic isolation of the islands, their peaty soil and the windy and sunless climate have produced a unique plant life with many species endemic to the region. Some plants are New Zealand species, or related to them, but there are also unique species. On the Auckland Islands alone there are 34 rare species and six endemic taxa (groups of taxonomically related species). Campbell Island has five and the Antipodes Islands four. The first great botanist of the region, Joseph Hooker, believed that the flowering plants of the islands were ‘more remarkable for their beauty and novelty than the flora of any other country’.1

Hooker was specifically referring to megaherbs, unique species of alpine flowers which have developed large leaves to cope with the absence of sun, and which have brightly coloured blooms to attract insects. They include the red-flowering daisies Pleurophyllum criniferum, P. hookeri and P. speciosum, Stilbocarpa polaris with its huge rhubarb-like leaves, the spectacular yellow flowers of Bulbinella rossii and the more delicate blue forget-me-nots, Myosotis Antarctica and M. capitata. However, the megaherbs have been seriously damaged by introduced animals such as sheep and goats, and only on Adams and Disappointment islands in the Auckland group do they flower in their full glory.

Tussling with tussock

The Poa tussock on the Antipodes Islands grows up to 1.5 metres high above massive trunks of dead and rotting leaves. The fastest way to make progress through the tussock is to step from one top to the next, but this is not easy. Naturalist Herbert Guthrie-Smith described how ‘[v]ainly attempting to keep his balance the walker might at one stride be semaphoring high and tall, desperately gesticulating, the next his shoulders only might be visible above the treacherous mat of grass.’2

On the upper slopes of the Auckland and Campbell islands tussocks are widespread, while the Antipodes Islands are dominated by a pale tussock (Poa litorosa) and deep green ferns (Polystichum vestitum).

Trees and shrubs

Forest trees are found only at lower altitudes on the Snares and Auckland islands. Further north and warmer, the Snares Islands are home to a forest predominantly of Olearia lyallii (a relative of the leatherwood found below the bush line in New Zealand). The lower slopes of the Auckland Islands are a dwarf forest of southern rātā (Metrosideros umbellata), which flowers spectacularly in summer, with the occasional tree fuchsia and the world’s southernmost tree fern (Cyathea smithii).

Campbell Island has a thicket of tall shrubs, especially Dracophyllum and a few Coprosma. It also has one lonely tree, a 6-metre spruce planted in the early 20th century to mark the 1901 visit of Governor Lord Ranfurly.

    • Quoted in Conon Fraser, Beyond the roaring forties: New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. Wellington: Government Printer, 1986, p. 97. Back
    • H. Guthrie-Smith, Sorrows and joys of a New Zealand naturalist. Dunedin: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1936, p. 229. Back



There are over 200 insect species on each of the Auckland and Campbell islands. About a third are endemic, with especially high numbers of beetles and moths. Many insects are smaller than in New Zealand and a high proportion are flightless. Abundant blowflies and sandflies are a special torment for people.

Thank God it’s Fly-day

Auckland Island castaway Thomas Musgrave remembered that the sandflies’ ‘virulence surpasses my powers of description’. They flew in myriads ‘alighting upon us in clouds, literally covering every part of our skin that happened to be exposed.’ The coastwatchers stationed there during the Second World War had a notice pinned up in their hut: ‘Auckland Island calendar. Every day is Fly-day.’1


There are huge numbers of seabirds on the subantarctic islands, despite feral cats and pigs on the Auckland Islands, and cats and Norway rats on Campbell Island. The islands are vital breeding places for Southern Ocean birds. In 1982 the Snares alone had some 3 million breeding pairs of sooty shearwaters – about the same number as all breeding seabirds in the United Kingdom.

Other important bird families are:

  • albatrosses – 10 of the world’s 24 species breed in the subantarctic islands, and five are endemic to the region. The Auckland Islands have the largest breeding populations of wandering albatrosses and shy mollymawks (a type of albatross). Campbell Island has six species, including the biggest breeding population of southern royal albatrosses, the world’s largest albatross.
  • penguins – 10 species of penguin inhabit the islands, two of them endemic (the Snares crested and erect-crested penguins). Auckland and Campbell islands are home to New Zealand’s main population of yellow-eyed penguins.
  • shags – three endemic shags are found on Auckland, Campbell and Bounty islands. The Bounty Island shag is considered the world’s rarest cormorant.

Endemic taxa

There are no land birds on Bounty, but the other islands hold no less than 15 endemic taxa (groups of related species). They include:

  • three subspecies of the New Zealand snipe, which is extinct on the mainland
  • the teals of Auckland and Campbell islands, which have evolved into flightless forms
  • the Antipodes Island parakeet, an endemic species which exists alongside a second red-crowned parakeet.

The New Zealand falcon, threatened on the mainland, is found on Auckland Island, along with other New Zealand birds such as tūī and bellbirds.


Like mainland New Zealand, the subantarctic islands originally had no land mammals, but abundant sea mammals, especially four species of seals.

  • New Zealand fur seals were slaughtered in their thousands in the early 19th century, but have recovered to some degree, with more than 20,000 at Bounty Island in the early 2000s.
  • Southern elephant seals breed on Antipodes, Campbell and Auckland islands.
  • Leopard seals visit all islands.
  • Hooker’s or New Zealand sea lions, the world’s rarest species, predominantly breed on the Auckland Islands.

Southern right whales have also recovered and breed at both Campbell and Auckland islands. Humpback and sperm whales have been seen in the harbours of Campbell Island.

Introduced species

Sheep, goats, cattle and rabbits, all introduced to the Auckland Islands, have been eradicated, but cats, mice and pigs remain. There were cats and Norway rats on Campbell Island, but cats died out and rats were poisoned in 2001. The Bounty, Antipodes and Snares islands, and Disappointment and Adams islands in the Auckland group, are virtually predator-free.

There are no amphibians or reptiles, and while fish are abundant there are few species and those inshore are heavily worm-infested.

  1. Quoted in Conon Fraser, Beyond the roaring forties: New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. Wellington: Government Printer, 1986, p. 72. Back

Early human settlement

The story of human settlement on the subantarctic islands is a tale of dreams blighted by the realities of climate and soil.


The first people to arrive appear to have been Polynesian. Investigations in 1998 and 2003 discovered ovens and middens in the dunes behind Sandy Bay on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands. They were dated to the 13th or 14th centuries, the period when mainland New Zealand was first settled. There are no traces from later periods so it seems almost certain that settlement was short-lived.

European discovery

British navigator James Cook probed far into southern waters on his second voyage (1772–75) but did not come across any of the islands. They were discovered by two of his officers on follow-up voyages. On 19 September 1788 Lieutenant William Bligh on HMS Bounty, heading from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) to Tahiti to pick up breadfruit trees, sighted the Bounty Islands and named them after his ship, which was to become famous for a mutiny seven months later. Three years later, on 23 November 1791, another of Cook’s officers, Commander George Vancouver, also heading to Tahiti, discovered islands that he named ‘The Snares’ because he thought they were a shipping hazard.

All in a name?

Frederick Hasselburg discovered Campbell Island in a sealing brig called Perseverance. It was an appropriate name. On 4 January 1810 the boat left a gang of seven sealers on the island. Distracted by his discovery of Macquarie Island, Hasselburg did not return to pick up the sealers until late October. He drowned some days later. In September 1828, almost 19 years after discovering the place, the Perseverance was wrecked at Campbell Island, the only wreck ever reported there. The main harbour of the island was named after the vessel.

The settlement and exploitation of the Australian colonies led to subsequent discoveries. On 26 March 1800 Captain Henry Waterhouse discovered the Antipodes Islands on his way back to Portsmouth in a Royal Navy sloop that had been based in Sydney. Waterhouse named them Isle Penantipode because they were so close to the antipodes of London (directly opposite London on the globe).

The biggest islands were the last to be found. Captain Abraham Bristow, who worked for the sealing and whaling firm S. Enderby and Sons, discovered islands on 18 August 1806 which he named after his father’s friend, Lord Auckland. In late December 1809, sealing captain Frederick Hasselburg discovered an island which he named after his employers, Campbell & Co. of Sydney. Six months later Hasselburg discovered Macquarie Island.


Waterhouse had noted seals at the Antipodes Islands, and with Bass Strait sealing on the wane, Sydney sealers turned to the subantarctic islands. Their focus was the New Zealand fur seal, whose skins were used for hats. The prize catch was six-month-old cubs killed in autumn, whose skins were sent direct to China. Those of older males caught later in the year often went to London. Some oil, used for lighting, was also occasionally taken.

The haul

It has been estimated that half of the fur seals caught in the New Zealand sealing trade were taken in the subantarctic islands. The Antipodes Islands contributed 27% of the total haul, Macquarie Island 14%, the Bounty Islands 4%, the Auckland Islands 3% and Campbell Island 2%.

The rush south began with three gangs dropped on the Antipodes Islands in February 1805. Over the next two years up to 80 sealers lived there. The slaughter was huge. Attention then turned to the Bounty and Auckland islands, but by 1810 catches were falling, and neither matched the Antipodes, which alone provided over 330,000 skins. From 1810 there was brief interest in Campbell Island, but for a year or so Macquarie Island was far more fruitful. By about 1812 the rush was over. There were revivals in 1823–26, and again, less intensively, in the 1870s and 1880s, when there was a brief trade in penguin skins used for ladies’ muffs.

The early slaughter had long-term effects – as early as 1830, Benjamin Morrell found not a single fur seal at the Auckland Islands.

The Enderby settlement


The end of sealing left the subantarctic islands to the birds, who were disturbed only by occasional voyages of exploration and scientific observation from the northern hemisphere.

Islands of optimism

After visiting the Auckland Islands, Benjamin Morrell concluded: ‘I think that Auckland’s Island is one of the finest places for a small settlement that can be found on any island in the southern hemisphere above the latitude of thirty-five. Every valuable animal would thrive here … Grain, fruit, vegetables of all kinds (excepting tropical fruits) could be made to flourish here with very little labour. No island on the globe, of equal dimensions, can boast so many excellent harbours … The whole island … would form a delightful retreat to a few amiable families who wish for “a dear little isle of their own”.’1

In 1820 the Russian explorer Fabian Bellingshausen visited Macquarie Island. In December 1829 and January 1830 Benjamin Morrell, an American sealer and explorer, spent time in the Auckland Islands. Then in 1840 came three major expeditions to the Aucklands: Charles Wilkes, leading the United States Exploring Expedition; the French explorer Dumont d’Urville; and, at the end of the year, the Antarctic expedition of British Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross. Ross’s group included the great botanists Joseph Hooker and David Lyall, who brought the plants of the region to the world’s attention. His men also released sheep, pigs, poultry and rabbits, with less desirable long-term effects.

The major impact of these voyages was upon the image of the Auckland Islands. Morrell, living up to his reputation for fantasy, described the main island as having a salubrious climate and level plains of grass perfect for pasture. Wilkes praised the harbour at Sarah’s Bosom (as Port Ross was then known), while Ross believed the harbour would be a good place for a penal settlement and an excellent base for a whale fishery.

Charles Enderby’s dream

Charles Enderby was the head of S. Enderby and Sons, a major London whaling firm. Concerned at the decline of British whaling under competition from French and US whalers, and influenced by Morrell’s and Ross’s glowing accounts, Enderby proposed that the Auckland Islands become a major whaling base and thriving agricultural settlement. The firm took out a lease on the islands for 30 years and set up the British Southern Whale Fishery Company. Three ships and over 200 settlers arrived at Port Ross in December 1849 and January 1850. Enderby was given the position of resident commissioner and lieutenant governor.

Māori and Moriori settlement

The Taranaki invasion of the Chatham Islands in 1835 had not enabled all the invaders to gain land, so 40 Ngāti Mutunga and their 26 Moriori slaves came south in 1842. By 1849, when the European settlers arrived, the Māori and Moriori had settlements on both Enderby Island and Auckland Island. Two chiefs, Matioro and Manature, cooperated with the new arrivals. The chiefs served as constables and their people worked as labourers and grew vegetables for the settlement.


The newly arrived settlers put up their prefabricated buildings at Hardwicke, their settlement on Port Ross. These included a house for Enderby, barracks for single men, cottages for married families, and a chapel, workshop, storehouse, smithy and jail. Eventually there were about 30 buildings.

Get me out of here!

William Mackworth, the acting commissioner for the Enderby settlement, recorded in his diary the miseries of the settlers. On 17 July 1852 he noted that ‘every one in this place has been longing to leave from the time of his arrival and endeavouring by every opportunity to do so.’ When he finally departed, on 4 August, he commented, ‘The satisfaction I feel at this moment is beyond description. My miserable life at Port Ross will never be forgotten.’2

The dream fades

However, hopes of long-term settlement quickly soured. The land was not fields of grass, but impenetrable scrub and swamp. The acid peat soil and lack of sun made growing vegetables difficult – turnips were the size of radishes. Sheep escaped and were hard to catch. Whaling was the biggest disappointment. The ships were inadequate and the crews mutinous, and many voyages returned empty-handed. In all no more than 2,000 barrels of oil and 10 tons of whalebone was obtained. Disorder included much drunkenness among the whaling crews.

In December 1851 two special commissioners from the company arrived to investigate. Enderby went to New Zealand to fight for his dream, but the commissioners recommended closing down the settlement. On 4 August 1852, almost exactly three years after setting out from Britain, the settlers left for Sydney, where most eventually stayed.

Nor did the Māori stay. In March 1856 their Chatham Island families chartered a ship to pick up those who remained.

    • Captain Benjamin Morrell, A narrative of four voyages: to the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Chinese sea, Ethiopic and southern Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean: from the year 1822 to 1831. New York: J. & J. Harper, 1832, p. 363. Back
    • William Augustus Mackworth, Enderby settlement diaries: records of a British colony at the Auckland Islands, 1849–1852. Wellington: Wild Press; Pakuranga: Wordsell, 1999, pp. 153, 158. Back

Castaways and farmers, 1860–1940


Apart from French scientists on Campbell Island and German scientists on Auckland Island who came to observe the transit of Venus in 1874, the next groups to endure life on the subantarctic islands were castaways.

The islands were on the grand circle route for sailing ships from southern Australia to Europe via Cape Horn. Charts were often inadequate, winds fierce and visibility poor. The result was at least 11 shipwrecks there between 1864 and 1908. On nine occasions survivors made it to shore to await rescue. Seven groups ended up on the Auckland Islands – castaways from the Grafton and Invercauld (1864), General Grant (1866), Derry Castle (1887), Compadre (1891), Anjou (1905) and Dundonald (1907). The wrecks of the Spirit of Dawn in 1893 and President Félix Fauré in 1908 left survivors on the Antipodes Islands.

There were some extraordinary stories of survival as castaways battled the climate, risked starvation, and endured the hopes and disappointments of possible rescue. Perhaps the most famous (because two of the five crew members wrote accounts) was the Grafton. The men lasted for 19 months before they built a boat on which three sailed to Stewart Island.

Depots of plenty

The castaway depots contained biscuits, tinned meat, fat, matches, cooking utensils, tools, a medicine chest, fishing lines and hooks, knives, needles and thread, rifles and ammunition, blankets, underpants, woollen singlets, flannel shirts, woollen socks, three-piece woollen suits, leather boots and cherry pipes. Little wonder that the supplies were often ransacked by visiting sealers.


Following the Grafton experience caches of food and equipment were left, and with the end of provincial government in 1876 this process became more regular. Animals were also released on the islands to provide food. By the 1890s there were five depots on the Auckland Islands, with more on the Snares, Campbell Island and the Antipodes. 65 finger posts were erected to direct castaways to the supplies. Government steamers regularly serviced the depots and looked for survivors.

The development of steam-powered shipping and improved maps effectively brought the castaway era to an end by 1910.


The regular voyages by government steamers permitted visits by passengers – including three governors (Lord Glasgow in 1895, Lord Ranfurly in 1900 and Lord Plunket in 1907). Many prominent scientists accompanied them or made special trips, including Andreas Reischek, Thomas Kirk, James Hector and F. W. Hutton. In 1907 the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury sent no fewer than 22 scientists to the Auckland and Campbell islands, including botanist Leonard Cockayne. The last visit by a government steamer was in 1927 and included naturalist Herbert Guthrie-Smith, botanist W. R. B. Oliver and ornithologist Edgar Stead.


The dream that the subantarctic islands might be good for farming did not die with the Enderby failure. In 1874 Dr F. A. Monckton took up a lease over the Auckland Islands and sent sheep and a married couple to Port Ross. They lasted until 1877.

In November 1894 three runs were offered on the Auckland Islands, one on Campbell Island, and even some on Antipodes and Bounty islands. No-one took up the Bounty offer (it was nothing but rock). W. Dinwiddie took a lease on the Antipodes, as an investment. He never visited and finally surrendered the lease in 1925.

Bitter ending

The last men to attempt farming on Campbell Island suffered torments characteristic of the place. In the absence of regular steamers and radio communication, the Warren brothers, who farmed from 1926, took carrier pigeons, but one drowned in a sheep dip and the other flew off and didn’t return. When finally picked up in 1931, the men had had no bread or vegetables for eight months. They brought back some wool and seal skins, but the price of the wool barely covered the charter costs. They received 5 shillings each for the skins, but the duty was £1. They had lost everything.

On the Auckland Islands, W. J. Moffett took up the northern block in 1895 and landed a few cattle and sheep. In 1900 George Fleming took it over and obtained the other two Auckland Islands leases. He built a house at Carnley Harbour, and landed 2,000 sheep. The sheep starved, and Fleming abandoned the effort in 1910. Adams Island became a reserve. When the mainland leases expired in 1934 the rest of the Auckland Islands became reserves.

Campbell Island saw the most intense efforts at agriculture. A succession of farming endeavours took place there between 1895 and 1931, with up to 6,800 sheep shorn annually in the 1920s. William Tucker, a former mayor of Gisborne, took up the lease in 1900. He employed Shetlanders (who were accustomed to a rough climate) and then whalers from Tory Channel and the Bay of Islands to combine sheep work in summer with winter whaling. Neither group lasted.

In the end pastoral ambitions were defeated by isolation, the climate, and a lack of regular shipping to bring in supplies and take off wool.

Second World War and after


The outbreak of war in September 1939 brought new interest in the subantarctic. At the end of August the German cargo ship Erlangen had left Port Chalmers for Australia to fill its bunkers with coal for the voyage home. When war was 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 trees to provide enough 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 theHolmwood 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 their sojourn the most. They produced a magazine, held sports tournaments and debates, and put on dances on Saturday nights, when the weekly supply of rum was consumed. Occasionally – despite the fact that they were all male – there were fancy-dress balls. Not surprisingly several volunteered for more time there, and one man 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.

Meteorological station

Both coast-watching stations on the Auckland Islands had closed by June 1945, but the weather data obtained 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 a post office was opened to postmark letters for stamp collectors. The base was decommissioned in 1994 after weather observations became automated.

Love ’em or hate ’em

Many naturalists were hostile to the Campbell Island sheep because of 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 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 into 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 been keen to catch a ride 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.

    • Quoted in Ian S. Kerr, Campbell Island: a history. Wellington: Reed, 1976, p. 114. Back

Auckland and Campbell islands

Auckland Islands

The Auckland Islands, with a total land area of 625 sq km (about a third the size of Stewart Island) are the largest of New Zealand’s subantarctic island groups. The islands are about 350 kilometres south of Stewart Island and stretch 50 kilometres from the north-east cape of Enderby Island to the south cape of Adams Island. They are 26 kilometres wide.

There are two main islands. The pear-shaped Auckland Island is 509 sq km, and 102-sq-km Adams Island, immediately to the south, has the highest point (Mt Dick at 705 m). There are many smaller islands, of which the most significant are Enderby Island to the north-east and Disappointment Island to the west.

The islands are the result of the activity of two shield volcanoes centred on Carnley Harbour and Disappointment Island. The towering cliffs of the west coast are a wall of the northern caldera. The more gentle east side forms a series of deep inlets. There are two magnificent harbours. Port Ross (also called Sarah’s Bosom or Rendezvous Harbour) in the north-east was the location of Hardwicke, the Enderby settlement at Enderby Cove. A cemetery can still be found there. Carnley Harbour separates Auckland and Adams islands.

The topography is hilly and the shoreline forest of rātā is succeeded higher up by shrubland and then open tussock country. The vegetation on Adams Island is in almost pristine condition.

The Enderby settlement and the seven groups of castaways gave the Auckland Islands a rich 19th-century human history. The islands have been a nature reserve since 1934 and by the 2000s they were long uninhabited.

Lady of the heather

A romantic story claims that Campbell Island was home to the exiled daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mistress. The daughter supposedly also won the prince’s affections, so the Jacobites arranged for her transportation to Campbell Island. Her existence was supposedly proved by discoveries of a woman’s grave, a stone fireplace, a shell-lined path and some heather plants. Will Lawson told the story in a novel, The lady of the heather (1945). There was certainly a grave of a woman, who may have drowned in 1810, and heather plants were found, but beyond that the yarn is unfounded.

Campbell Island

About 550 kilometres south-east of Stewart Island, Campbell Island is the most southerly of the subantarctic islands. The land area is 113 sq km, slightly larger than Waiheke Island.

Campbell Island is hilly, with seven peaks over 300 metres, of which the highest is Mt Honey (558 m). Because of its southerly latitude, the island supports no native trees and is largely covered in shrubland, herbfields and tussock grassland. It is a major breeding ground for albatrosses.

During the 20th century Campbell Island was the most populated subantarctic island. From 1895 to 1931 it was farmed, during the Second World War it hosted a coast-watching station, and from 1945 to 1994 a meteorological station was based there. Human settlement and sheep severely damaged the flora, but the eradication of sheep, cats and rats has led to a revival. In the 2000s Campbell Island was uninhabited.

Snares, Antipodes and Bounty islands

The Snares

The closest subantarctic islands to New Zealand, about 100 km south of Stewart Island, the Snares consist of two groups:

  • North East Island, with Broughton Island, Alert Stack and several smaller islands. The main island is 2.8 sq km in size with steep cliffs on the west and gentle slopes on the east
  • the much smaller Western Chain of five islands and stacks.

The Snares are granite, and predominantly forested with Olearia lyallii (tree daisy) and Brachyglottis stewartiae. The islands are noted for their huge flocks of seabirds, especially sooty shearwaters (tītī), with an average of almost two burrows every square metre. The Snares are free of introduced predators, and have only two introduced plants, making them one of the most untouched environments in New Zealand. Landing is not permitted.

Antipodes Islands

860 kilometres south-east of Stewart Island, the Antipodes are New Zealand’s most distant subantarctic land. They have a total land area of 20.9 sq km, and the main island is about 7 kilometres by 5 kilometres. Bollons Island is north of the main island. The Antipodes are of comparatively recent volcanic origin, and the volcanic cones are the two central high points, Mts Waterhouse and Galloway (the higher at 366 m). From the centre an undulating plateau leads down to coastal cliffs up to 160 m high. There are no harbours.

The landscape is tussock, fern and coprosma scrub. Two huts remain – a castaway depot and a Department of Lands and Survey hut.

Million-dollar mouse

The only introduced predators on the Antipodes Islands are mice, which eat the eggs and chicks of seabirds. In 2012 Gareth and Jo Morgan launched a public appeal to eradicate mice from the islands. They agreed to match donations dollar for dollar, with the goal of raising $1 million.

Bounty Islands

The Bounty Islands are 22 granite outcrops which stretch in three groups over 5 kilometres of stormy sea. They are 700 kilometres east of the South Island, and the total land area is only 135 hectares. The largest island, Depot Island, named because it held a castaway depot, is only 800 metres long, and 88 metres high at its highest point. The rocks are largely barren except for lichens, but are home to abundant bird life, especially penguins and mollymawks. There are no beaches or easy landing points.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Subantarctic islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 12 o Hepetema 2012