By Joan Larsen
Lying between New Zealand and Antarctica, a series of rugged and remote islands sit like silent sentinels in the harshest seas on Earth, those of the Great Southern Ocean. Centuries ago, people gave up trying to live on them, surrendering them to their animal counterparts who learned to survive on them.
Exploring these small dots on the globe had been my childhood dream. Few humans were allowed on them, making them far more intriguing. I wanted to be one of the first to set foot on each of them. It took half a lifetime to find a way.
Accessible only by icebreaker or large ship, New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands are now governed by the Hooker’s sea lion. On unforgettable Enderby Island, it is these weighty sea lions who determine how any human activity takes place, and not the other way around. Weighing up to a thousand pounds, Hooker’s sea lions are capable of climbing mountains, scaling rocks and blubbering their way across very difficult terrain.
I have spent considerable time among even larger elephant seals in the polar regions, so they couldn’t be all that scary. I was wrong. The large males – called beachmasters – owned the island. Each had a harem of delectable females that they protected jealously. The wannabe beachmasters, hanging around on the fringes of the beach, were big lads – keen to get in on the action. While we didn’t see serious fighting, the demonstrations of strength by butting heads and opening their huge mouths to display rows of teeth, kept the wannabes out in the water.
Hooker’s are the rarest of the sea lions and I was seeing most of the world’s population right here. On other less remote islands I have visited, animals have become scared of humans. The opposite is true of Enderby. The animals and birds see so few humans that they approach without hesitation. A series of blood-curdling gargles preceded by a large bark behind me was enough to have me facing the beachmaster, with me trying to back away without running. He may look like a blob but he could move like a champion. And this champion was protecting his home and his harem. I was the interloper and he wanted me gone.
In my fascination with the wild life at the Enderby beach, I had missed the group going for the round the island “hike”, quite a strenuous excursion on foot. A guide, carrying a long stick, said he would help me catch up.
And so we climbed into a sand dune area, reminding me of the dunes of Lake Michigan in America.Well… except that in two separate deep hollows, two Hooker’s beachmasters were taking a snooze. We had disturbed their naps and they let us know it. For, in an instant, this huge blob of blubber rose up and moved faster than I had ever seen a marine mammal move. “Don’t move”, the guide said. With that stick he hit him on the snout while telling me to walk very quickly into the forest. He followed.
But in that flash of time as he raised his stick, I noticed that my guide had no fingers, only a thumb on each hand. I naturally said nothing. But if I wasn’t wary already, I was now. The beachmasters had won more than one encounter with this man.
The world-renowned rata forest, an area of old misshapen trees, covered with mosses and lichen, woven into a Hansel-and-Gretel unreal setting, was stunning to walk through. The rare species of birds could be heard singing their hearts out in the trees. Hidden in the roots and sometimes appearing were the most rare and elusive penguins in the entire world – the solitary and shy yellow-eyed penguin that we had come so far to see.
“We’re coming up to quicksand”, my guide was quick to say as we exited the forest. I looked ahead, seeing the cliffs of the coast ahead. But between the forests and cliffs was an area that looked harmless (until he told of a man alone on the island long ago stepping on the quicksand and being swallowed up. Once you step in alone, there is no way out. OMG.)
“Just step on the little hummocks of raised moss and you will get across OK”. I was a good hiker but had never balanced on one foot on something soft, the size of a rounded saucer, before either. The alternative – the quicksand — somehow sounded – well, like I could die there. I managed to balance, leap, balance, for what seemed forever. At the cliff edge I expected congratulations at my agility. No. On Enderby this is everyday life. (Privately – and to you – I still marvel that I did it. )
Hiking along the cliffs was wonderful. Artifacts of times past were sometimes in evidence. Bones bleached white by the sun and covered with lichen lay scattered among the vegetation. Memorials to lost souls who were shipwrecked on these once treacherous shores were dotted here and there. From what we heard, the few survivors must have had very hard times, often waiting over a year for rescue.
The beaches on Enderby were as beautiful as any I had seen on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, just with a large temperature difference. Glass-clear waters teeming with life crashed against white sandy beaches littered with water-smoothed stones. Once we descended toward the beach, each person left with his own story of hearing a Hooker’s sea lion snorting in the rata tree section and leaping out, making a personal show of our own agility in maneuvering around a beachmaster – and living to tell about it — a matter of great pride.
If you think we were otherwise “roughing it”, we weren’t. While we were hiking, a barbeque was underway at beach edge far away from the Hooker’s, and our icebreaker bartender had again erected his famous mobile bar and was dishing out his famous rum punch. We were exhilarated that night on the beach, laughing and joking, telling our own tales, somewhat fitter from “legging it around” to escape the sea lions. Try as they might, those animals had not dampened our enthusiasm for Enderby and – later – for the other uninhabited sub-Antarctic islands awaiting us.
To be one of a very small group who have ever placed our footprints on these tiny dots on the world globe, spending a day or more there among some of the rarest creatures on our planet in some of the world’s most majestic islands, left us all wide-eyed with wonder.
In all the travelling those on our planet seem to do, there are still places on various continents and islands that are untrodden, waiting. I call these our “lost worlds”, the places that memories are made of. To me, it is what “living life to the fullest” is all about.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the
things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw
off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the
tradewinds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
– Mark Twain
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”