Neville Peat explores a Unesco World Heritage Area located far to the south of mainland New Zealand.

Imagine an island where yellow-eyed penguins emerge from rātā forest and nervously make their way to the sea across a strip of sand crowded with boisterous beachmaster sea lions ... where giant southern royal albatrosses nest alone on tundra-like moors ... where falcons pursue parakeets in fast jinking flight and petite ducks — flightless — paddle in the fringing bull kelp.

Welcome to Enderby, showcase island of the subantarctic Auckland Islands group, 460km south of Bluff.

When the sun shines, the water off Sandy Bay beach turns a teal colour and sea lions frolic in it, conjuring up a South Seas Shangri-La image. In January, as if chiming in, the rātā canopy behind the beach is ablaze with crimson flowers that have relatives in the tropical Pacific.

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Of course, the sun doesn't always shine here. This is 50 degrees south, the domain of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties, the home of Southern Ocean storms.

Twenty years ago I spent a week at Enderby in weather a bit on the chilly side but fine and mostly dry. I was assisting sea lion researchers, never thinking I would one day be popping in annually aboard tour ships with silver-service dining and evening cabaret acts.

Luxury adventure tourism is becoming a big deal internationally, and the New Zealand subantarctic islands, with Australia's Macquarie Island thrown in, are an alluring destination, judging by the way the "expedition cruise" operators are filling trips south in this part of the world.

A group of yellow-eyed penguins. Photo / Greg Bowker
A group of yellow-eyed penguins. Photo / Greg Bowker

The newest operator is Marseille-based Ponant, France's only cruise-ship line. Its 140m, 200-passenger L'Austral set out from Dunedin and managed visits to the Auckland Islands, Snares, Macquarie, Campbell, Antipodes and Bounty Islands — a mix of guided walks or inshore cruising in the versatile Zodiacs (rubber inflatable boats carrying up to 10 passengers). Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions, operating the 50-passenger Spirit of Enderby, with 20 years' experience in the region, offer their own tours south in the summer months.

New Zealand's sub-antarctic islands carry national reserve and nature reserve status, the highest forms of protection, and they are managed by the Department of Conservation. Strict biosecurity rules apply to ship visits to protect from invasive species.

Visitor numbers are limited, and, to protect solitude values, only one tour ship at a time is allowed in any bay or harbour.

Enderby Island, 710ha and 4km long, accepts up to 1100 visitors a year and no more than 200 on any one day.

When L'Austral called last year, she landed 20 per cent of the annual quota, with half the visitors going ashore in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. Organised into groups of 15 per guide, they arrived by zodiac through the gentle surf and walked 1.5km one way from the landing near Enderby's research base to the basalt cliff-tops on the northern coast via forest, shrubland and moor. Shoals of red jackets were spaced out on the narrow boardwalk, passing the starkly white nesting albatrosses, and local land birds such as banded dotterels and pipits that were feeding among hardy cushion plants, vividly coloured megaherbs and luxuriant grasses. You feel far removed from the pampering of the ship.

DoC is vigilant about visitor impacts on the island's unique mix of flora and fauna, especially the penguins and sea lions. Both the endangered yellow-eyed penguin and New Zealand sea lion are the world's rarest species of their kind, although sea lions are a lot less vulnerable to visitor disturbance.
Threats to the sea lions here include potentially fatal infections from Klebsiella, a bacterium that inhabits mouth, nose and intestines and has likely caused the death of up to 60 per cent of the 300 or so pups born annually on Enderby. Over the last few summers Massey University researchers have been monitoring and swabbing the pups in the hope of identifying the vector and maybe finding a remedy.

Enderby once hosted rabbits, mice and wild cattle. By the mid-1990s they were all removed, and you can see the result in the burgeoning megaherbs and dense vegetation.

The mountainous main Auckland Island, 51,000ha and 40km long, is still inhabited by wild pigs, cats and mice — New Zealand's last major biosecurity challenge in the subantarctic region,
New Zealand's five island groups, together with biogeographically-linked Macquarie Island, are so remote from each other and from the New Zealand mainland, they each seem in a world of their own.

No two are the same physically or in the fauna and flora they support. Some seabirds and plants are shared but the assemblages vary as do the landforms.

Biodiverse Enderby Island, protecting Port Ross from winds and seas from the north and northwesterly quarters, is a glittering jewel if only because its flat, northernmost character makes it the sunniest place in the whole region, the "banana belt" of the subantarctic.

Sea lion on Enderby Island. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sea lion on Enderby Island. Photo / Greg Bowker

Bristow, in 1806, who was first to put the Auckland Islands on European maps, never stayed long enough to explore, but James Clark Ross, commander of the 1840 British Antarctic Expedition, put his scientists to work here for three weeks. They included the illustrious botanist, Dr (later Sir) Joseph Hooker, director of London's Kew Gardens. Many of his specimens from these islands are still there.

It was Ross who supported the establishment of a British shore-whaling station at Port Ross in 1849 through his connections with the London whaling company, Samuel Enderby and Sons. But by this time, few southern right whales inhabited the region.

But the right whales have made a comeback. In the spirit of the sanctuary nature of Enderby Island and the New Zealand subantarctic islands at large, more than 100 of them return in the spring months to Port Ross to have their calves — as their ancestors did for eons.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

For information on L'Austral's cruises to Enderby Island, go to

ponant.com

.

For more on Heritage Expeditions' sailings of the Spirit of Endervy, go to heritage-expeditions.com.