Our passage from Crozet east to Kerguelen was uncharacteristically calm. For two days barely a white-cap was to be seen, and the sun set on a clear horizon, producing a vivid green flash as it disappeared. The conditions were ideal for whale spotting, but we saw very few until late on the third day, when we encountered a small pod of sperm whales, and at least one each of fin whale and orca. But none close enough for photography.
There were plenty of birds to be seen throughout, with prions particularly abundant. However, I failed to pick when the Salvin’s prions (which breed in millions on the Crozets) were replaced by the almost-identical Antarctic prions (which are abundant on Kerguelen). The paler-faced thin-billed prions were certainly more abundant as we approached Kerguelen.
The only new species added to the trip list was Kerguelen petrel (and not very many), plus a white morph southern giant petrel. [As an aside, I first learnt the name Kerguelen when, as a keen young bird-watcher I found Kerguelen petrels stranded on Muriwai Beach, West Auckland, in the 1970s. Like most New Zealand bird-watchers, I pronounced the name kurr-GWAY-lyn. The French pronounce it KEER-gil-lyn.] Other sightings of interest included white-headed petrel, soft-plumaged petrel, blue petrel, southern royal albatross and grey-headed mollymawk. Notable absences so far are grey petrel and recognisable South Georgian diving petrels.
I was persuaded to give a presentation to the passengers and researchers, and modified a previous talk on wildlife of the Snares Islands to ‘Same latitude, different ocean’. The Snares and Kerguelen are both about 48-49 degrees south, yet The Snares sit in water nearly 10 degrees warmer, as the Polar Front is much further north in the Indian Ocean than it is in the Pacific. This is the main reason for The Snares being forested and sustaining landbirds, while Kerguelen has nothing taller than short tussocks, Kerguelen cabbage and bidibid (Acaena magellanica), and the only ‘landbird’ is a duck.
We sighted Iles Kerguelen late on 16 December, and headed around the north of the rarely-visited (and pest-free) Isles Nuageuses (Croy and Roland) at the north-west of the archipelago. By then it was dark, and so we cruised offshore until day-break, when we headed for Golfe des Baleiniers on the northern coast, then further into Baie du Hillsborough before hoving-to offshore from the abandoned farming settlement of Port Couvreux. The morning was calm and clear, with the highest peak (Mont Ross, 1850 m) and Calotte Glaciaire Cook (the largest ice-cap) both gleaming white in the morning sun.
We were offshore from Port Couvreux most of the day, as the helicopter ferried load after load of passengers and cargo to different sites – including an Igloo (or Apple) hut similar to the one that I lived in for 3 months on Hop Island (Antarctica) in 1989/90. They are made in Tasmania, and Mary-Anne Lea from Hobart (the only other native English speaker on board) was also taking photographs of its departure from our view point on the flying bridge.
We headed back out to sea at 3 pm, and an hour later Charly and I hosted a bird identification session on the bridge (passerelle) for the 12 fare-paying passengers, only one of whom is a keen bird watcher. Fortunately there was a good variety, and sufficiently spaced out that there was little ambiguity about which individual/species we were trying to draw their attention to.
The evening meal of poached toothfish was halted mid-mouthful by a briefing (in French) about the next morning’s logistics for our landing at Port aux Français. I was surprised to hear my name mentioned in the middle of it, and discovered that the entire ship had been told that it was my birthday the next day. So there was no escaping the bar for our last evening on board.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique), France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) and Te Papa.
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