NATURE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR
Justin Gilligan travelled to Antarctica as part of his prize for winning the
2017 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year competition.
The prize was kindly donated by Heritage Expeditions and you too can visit such wild landscapes with Heritage – see p91.
The 2019 competition closes on 25 January and we’re pleased to announce that Justin will join Tui De Roy and Glenn McKimmin to judge the 2019 entries.
WATCHING FROM A ROLLING hill peppered with tussocks of endemic g ra sses, I’m awest r uck by the rawness of the scene before me. And I’m grateful the pelting wind and occasional squalls have subsided enough to allow the return of southern royal albatross to the slopes of subantarctic Campbell Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s late afternoon and the sun dips towards the horizon, breaks through the clouds and spotlights the birds, many of which are now on the ground, congregating closely and vocalising with each other.
In the distance, other royals soar like pterodactyls on thermals high above broken cliffs reminiscent of fallen castles. It’s a f itting scene for this iconic species. Like their cousin, the wandering albatross, royals have a wingspan of more than 3m, larger than that of any other bird.
Looking west towards Dent Island and east towards our expedition vessel, the Russian-f lagged Akademik Shokalskiy, anchored in Perseverance Harbour, the handful of brave expedition members remaining to take in the scene on this f inal landing are again reminded just how far removed from civilisation we are. It’s been a consistent theme throughout our 30-day expedition – the feeling that we’re among the fortunate few to have experienced a remote and wild realm where nature rules.
The expedition has crossed seemingly boundless tracts of ocean and visited four subantarctic island locations – The Snares, Campbell Island, Auckland Islands and Macquarie Island – and ventured further south to experience East Antarctica, the jewel atop the crown of the expedition’s highlights.
During the journey, each subantarctic island stop was treated like a stepping stone that provided safe harbour between stretches (often days) on a brooding sea. This isolation contributes to the unique character of these islands in terms of their geology and the extraordinary life they support.
The Southern Ocean is the single shared theme that draws these places together. It’s an incredibly productive expanse of water supporting complex food webs. These start from the smallest phytoplankton and zooplankton, including krill, and range up to seabirds, penguins, seals, sea lions, f ish and several whale species, including the predatory orca, and plankton-eating blue whale. We encountered both of the latter two during the expedition.
During each landing, we were captivated by the world’s most diverse collection of seabirds. More than 40 species – at least 11 per cent of the world’s seabird species – breed on the subantarctic islands south of New Zealand. This includes 10 of the world’s albatross species, five of which breed nowhere else.
WE ALSO LEARNT f irsthand that the subantarctic islands are an important refuge for penguins. Of the five species breeding here, three (Snares, erect crested and royal) are endemic. The region’s cormorants further highlight endemism at a local level, with unique species found on Campbell Island, the Auckland Islands, Bounty Islands and Macquarie Island.
On the Auckland Islands and in Perseverance Harbour, we encountered the New Zealand sea lion, one of the rarest sea lion species. Listed as ‘nationally critical’ in New Zealand, this charismatic island inhabitant suffers mass mortality from disease and often ends up as bycatch in squid trawler f isheries. Changes in the marine environment and food webs also contribute to its decline.
I’d long imagined exploring wild and windswept Macquarie Island, a dream realised at Sandy Bay on this expedition. There, we were taken aback by the diversity and density of life on the shore. Clusters of elephant seals dominated the beach. Some battled in shallow water, bodies raised and chests thumping together, grunting deep resonating booms from their inf lated proboscises.
King and royal penguins were spread about with a constant f low of outgoing and incoming penguins
Southern royal albatross breed biennially on subantarctic Campbell Island, the species’ main breeding site. About 8000 pairs arrive to nest on the island in any single year.