Subantarctic Campbell Island is cold and windy and it rains every day - but Whanganui ranger Jim Campbell feels privileged to have been there.

He led a group of six Department of Conservation (DoC) workers on a 90-day visit to the island, starting on December 26 last year. Their mission was to find ways to improve the survival of pups of the critically endangered New Zealand sea lion.

The group camped among soggy scrub in small tents, tramped three to five hours for a hot shower and put up an electric fence to keep sea lions out of their camp. Average day temperatures were 8C to 10C, with added wind chill, and humidity was near 100 per cent. It wasn't easy, but Jim would go back tomorrow.

"Even on the worst possible day when you were tired, hungry, wet and cold you just stood there for a second and felt lucky," he said.

Advertisement

Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku is New Zealand's southernmost land mass. It is 660km south of the South Island, and uninhabited - "about as far south as you can go without hitting Antarctica".

It is an extinct volcano and its 112sq km were once leased to graze sheep and cattle, and used as a base to hunt seals and whales. In 2001 rats were eradicated from it. There are now no predators, and plants and animals are recovering.

The megaherbs on Campbell Island have a brief but glorious flowering. Photo / Jim Campbell
The megaherbs on Campbell Island have a brief but glorious flowering. Photo / Jim Campbell

The rocky island is a World Heritage Site covered in tussock, ferns and megaherbs that flower briefly and gorgeously during its brief summer. It's the main breeding site for royal albatross and also hosts the rare nocturnal Campbell teal, a flightless duck, and a snipe once considered extinct.

There are also colonies of sea lions, seals and southern sea elephants. New Zealand sea lions are only found in this country, are extremely rare and critically endangered. Their colonies are in decline, endangered mainly by disease and probably by fishing practices.

The DoC workers split into two teams and camped near two sea lion colonies. One thing they wanted to know was whether sea lions on Campbell Island have the klebsiella bacteria, which kills sea lion pups in the Auckland Islands to the north.

The workers got to the island aboard the yacht Evohe, a three-day trip out and a seven-ay trip back, stopping at the Auckland Islands on the return.

The boat dropped Jim's team of three men off on a rocky beach near a stream at 7.30pm on a rainy day. Another team of three women had been dropped off near a sea lion colony at Davis Point at 5pm.

The teams had to operate on foot on the island. The Davis Point group was an eight-hour walk on a poorly marked track to the base in Beeman Cove - an automated MetService weather station with a wharf, sheds and hot water for showers.

Advertisement

Jim's team set up tents in the scrub near the Shoal Point sea lion colony. They put up electric fences to stop sea lions wandering through their camp - but it didn't work.

"The pups would wander through our camp sometimes and sniff everything."

It was breeding season and the colony was noisy. Male sea lions have manes of longer fur over their shoulders and were having enormous roaring fights to keep their females.

"They can be fast and brutal. All the males had scars and injuries."

Pups were being born as the DoC teams arrived. After the pups were born, they rested in creches on land, while their mothers went out to sea to feed. After four to six weeks they could swim and disperse with their mothers.

A male sea lion snoozes, while a skua waits and watches for anything edible. Photo / Jim Campbell
A male sea lion snoozes, while a skua waits and watches for anything edible. Photo / Jim Campbell

Male sea lions can weight 350kg, move quickly, quietly appear where they are least expected and give a dangerous bite. The DoC workers carried walking sticks constantly – to bar the way if sea lions got too close. Looking for pups among the tussock, they had to be careful where they stepped.

Jim found the sleek females alluring, and the pups with their big eyes and little whiskers extremely cute.

"They are just the cutest bloody things really, but they can bite."

Campbell Island has some huts and a boardwalk, and there were two tourist visits to it while the DoC team was there. One was by Heritage Expeditions and the other by French luxury cruise ship, Le Laperouse.

Conditions were fairly primitive for the DoC workers. Campbell's team each had a small tent set up on boggy ground with drains around it. They shared a 3mx3m tent for cooking and leisure.

The Shoal Point team camps on sodden ground, among low scrub. Photo / Jim Campbell
The Shoal Point team camps on sodden ground, among low scrub. Photo / Jim Campbell

There was just room for three people to sit down, and in the evenings some watched films played off a memory stick onto a computer.

Being able to stand up in the tent was a luxury. Food was limited because there was no way to keep meat cool. There were a lot of dehydrated and pre-packaged meals and everyone lost weight.

Drinking and cooking water was brought ashore in drums. It was supplemented by rain water captured on tent flies, because Campbell Island is so peaty the stream water isn't suitable for drinking.

Everyone worked pretty much fulltime, but those who stayed later did get a chance to see the royal albatross colony and walk to some of the island's high points. Even that was pretty hard work, Jim said.

Each team had a vet, who autopsied dead seal pups, and a trained first aider. Nevertheless, it was a high stakes operation, where any little cut could get infected and any mistake could have major consequences.

The teams began each day with a "toolbox talk" about what they planned to do and how. They inspected each other's injuries and talked about how they were feeling and what had gone wrong on previous days. They reviewed leadership, and sometimes disagreed with Jim, who thinks all his ideas are great.

The morning talk was very important for wellbeing. But being able to get away from each other in their own tents at the end of the day was also important, Jim said. Otherwise they spent all their time together.

The women's team had ended up with the worst campsite. Their Davis Point sea lion colony was especially windy, muddy, wet and exposed.

"Boy they were tough, those girls. Their endurance was something to be admired."

Communication was via a satellite phone connected to Invercargill, and each staffer also had a handheld radio to talk to the others. Jim got to live one of his dreams. Every morning he radioed Invercargill with the words "Campbell here, on Campbell Island".

The visit was the second in a five-year programme to improve the survival chances of sea lions. Each trip has built on knowledge from the previous one, including what is needed to keep staff alive and able to work.

Sea lion pup survival was about 54 per cent across the two colonies the team studied – and worse for the Davis Point colony. The workers still don't know whether the klebsiella bacteria has been found in the samples they returned with - but animals they saw didn't appear to have the disease.

They have had two debriefs in Wellington since their time on the island. The discussion now is about how to improve the pup survival rate. One option might be to get rid of the muddy puddles some pups drown in before they have learned to swim.

Jim may apply to go to the island again next year. He said it will be handy to have someone who has been there before.

In the meantime he can now say he's been to New Zealand's northernmost point, Raoul Island, its eastern most point, the Chatham Islands, and its most southern land mass.