Australian Geographic - - Southern Exposure -

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.

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