I guess that was to be expected... today is Tuesday, the day we wanted to get
off the Snares. In spite of that I find the time and quiet to add
another entry to our online diary. Well, a high pressure zone over
the Tasmansea and a low pressure zone over New Zealand's lower Southisland
do not cause a weather situation in our favour. During the last
four days three fronts passed the Snares. And according to the long
range forecast, there are still another few fronts standing in queue
waiting for their turn to scream through the subantarctic. May that
be as it is... we're not being picked up by the ferry. And there's
a good chance that we won't come off tomorrow either, and what happens
on thursday is as clear as pea soup.
Obviously the Snares don't know what they want from us: forst they
didn't want us to come here, now they won't let us go. Our work
is done... or rather, all our gear failed so that we can do nothing
but perform an early retreat - beaten and bruised. So all we can
do now is sit in the hut, read, drink coffee, and listen to the
wind gusts that shake the hut and let the wood walls moan. And of
course, pray that the roaring forties let us go...
That gives me time to sit in front of my computer and write a bit
about the inhabitants of the Snares Islands, the inhabitants that
do not feature that fancy yellow crest over their eyes. Who knows
how much time the weather gives me... maybe I can add a few interesting
non-penguin-entries to the project diary... and today I decided
to start with undoubtedly the most dominant of the Snares folks...
|The sealions of the
I could start, and
say that my first encounter of sea lions (Phocarctos
hookeri) on the Snares was the moment after I jumped
out of the rubber dingi and hit island soil (or rather
rock) for the first time. Because there they were, two
(for me at this stage enormously) big fellas lying spread-eagled
on the short track to the hut. But considering the other
encounters I made during the rest of our stay here,
these two sealions were as exciting as blackbirds in
the park - sealions on the Snares sleep anywhere, anyhow.
Those two animals on the track scampered off without
as much as grunt when we started to carry our gear up
to the huts. No, I had my first real encounter with
a sealion on our first night on the island.
Well, the thing is... here on the Snares we've got
a so-called compost toilet. It's not the ordinary longdrop
like you find millions of them strewn around New Zealand's
backcountry. Since the main idea of a compost toilet
is to produce dry compost it is necessary to add as
little extra moisture to the composting matter as possible.
And because of that, there is a peeing ban for the toilet
- at least for male users. Therefore, Dave and I - obeying
this rule - usually walked along a short boardwalk that
led through light Olearia-bush out onto the rocks. A
few meters before this boardwalk reaches the rocks,
though, it follows a 90° bend around a large fern
bush on the left hand side. And the area underneath
this fern bush is an extremly popular sleep out with
the local sealions. That I learned during the first
hours on the island. Even during daylight it was quite
spooky using the boardwalk, because every now and then
one of the big 3-meter bulls decided he should make
clear who's the boss on the island, poked his head through
the fern bush to gave the bypasser an evil eye and an
ear shattering "HUUAARFFGGG!!!"
It was dark. I had
to pee. Hence, I grabbed my headlamp and stepped out
into the darkness, that was filled with the neverending
honking of millions of sooty shearwaters (or Titi).
Quietly I sneaked along the boardwalk, continously shining
my torch to the left and right. I wasn't to keen to
get a sudden bark of one of the pelty giants. I slowly
made my way to the 90° bend and peeked around the
fern bush to check if the big guy who had slept there
all day was still here. I squirmed under the fern bush
but all I saw was an empty mudpatch - no sleeping fur
bearer? Slowly, oh so slowly I sneaked around the corner
to get a better angle to check that there definitely
was no sealion waiting to jump at me. Indeed! No sealion
under the fern, what a relieve! Phew, I thought and
took a big, relaxed step towards the rocks... and stumbled
right into the collosus that must have woken up only
a few minutes earlier and decided to enjoy some fresh
air in the middle of the track.
I almost suffered a heart attack, when I suddenly felt
an odd shape underneath my boot (the sealions tail)
and a 20 meter head swung round in the darkness and
plate-big eyes stared angrily at me... or so. My heart
seemed to explode in my throat, my eyes were wide open
in shock. With flying colours I lept round and fled
in a new record time back towards the hut. All the way
I had the feeling that something very big and smelly
was hard on my heels, I almost felt the beasts hot,
smelly breath on my neck... any moment I expected to
feel its teeth digging into my shoulders... or even
worse... I imagined being flattened by half a ton of
Of course, my ordeal
was met with extensive laughter by my human colleagues.
But anyone had his moments with the beasts during the
next couple of days. Dave - this being his third trip
to the Snares and therefore considers himself "sealion
proof" - had some really close calls with one of
the boys at our water tank outside the hut (although
according to Dave just has "little chats with the
locals"). Yeah, right. In fact, Barney, who likes
to sleep in the close vicinity of the water tank, has
all the right to be angry at the two-legged, bean-shaped
beings. All the time they go up and down, up and down,
up and down between the two huts, making one hell of
a noise with their buckets or wet weather gear! Considering
this, it is only understandable, that Barney decided
to make a point now and then and bark ("HHUUUAAARFGGH!!!")
at the bypassers (he certainly liked to pick out Dave
vor his mock assaults). A few times Barney even decided
to entirely besiege the water tank...
After a week the sealions were just as used to us just
as we were used to them. And today, the sealions don't
even bother to raise an eyelid to inspect which of the
3 skinnies walks past or even has to cautiously step
over his tail. I guess, we're accepted now.
Inacceptable from our point of view, however, are
two nasty habits the sealions display quite regularily
(I suspect) quite happily. The first habit, is uncontrolled
spray-vomiting. Sealions' main diet consists of squid
and fish. However, both items feature some hard to
digest parts... at times enormously big and sharp
and up to half a meter long fish spines. And what's
hard to digest needs to be disposed in the opposite
direction it travelled into the stomach. So every sealion
sits up two or three times daily, while his body runs
through ugly convulsions before the spray-load of vomit
is dispersed all over the place by rapid movements
the head. Bad for us, that some sealions love the relatively
wide spaces of our boardwalks and tracks to run through
these puke performances, spraying smelly vomit all
over the place and quite often fall into a comatous
right there, on the spot, head down in their vomit.
As odd as it may
sound... the vomit sometimes features some interesting
And I am not talking about intact parts of unfortunate
prey animals, but about sackloads of pebbly stones,
that function as miller's stones in the sealions stomachs.
When a few years ago a group of geologists examined
the Snares Islands, they made an at first exciting
discovery: they found volcanic basalt stones on a
that never featured any volcanic activity! How was
that possible?, they thought, while next to them a
slowly sat up started to run through convulsions and
gave them a live performance. After the geologists
out of their hiding they discovered fresh, gooey basalt
stones - and the penny dropped. The sealions on the
Snares are mostly young males that don't stand a chance
in the mating fights in the breeding colonies on the
volcanic Auckland Islands, a few hundred kilometers
south of the Snares. The Snares are merely a hang-out
for young punks that need to grow and/or learn the
basic skills of fighting. Every now and then the young
travel back to their breeding sides to check if they
can kick out one of the old harem masters - if not
literally bite the dust (if a very concentrated one),
swallow a few Auckland Island stones and swim back
The other nasty habit...
well... neither do I want to goto great details
nor does the reader want to hear any detailed accounts.
Just so much... it stinks, comes most of the times
embarassing noises and we usually can't avoid stepping
into the end product (because the guys just drop that
As mentioned before... the sealions are everywhere.
No slope ist too steep, no bush too thick to hinder
the animals during their search for the ideal resting
place. Is the best place found, the sealions fall
an at times deep slumber that comes with loud snoring
sounds and the occasional subconcious vomiting. After
a couple of days the animals slowly wake up because
their stomachs start to grumble and finally
awkwardly make their way back towards the
sea... often crushing heaps Titi burrows along the
Some of the sealions actually seem to like our huts
and the adjacent structures (e.g. our fuel shed).
leads occasionally to some delays in Generator refills,
water collection or grocery pick-ups (that are stored
in the lower laboratory hut). But at least we can see
Bacause far worse are the bulls that decide to sleep
in the densest parts of the forest. During our daily
walks up to the penguin colony, we not seldomly stumble
over one of the well hidden Barneys. And after one or
two of these close encounters you happily make some
efforts to avoid them next time. But how, if the sealions
are well hidden under fern bushes or behind tree trunks?
Fairly easy... just watch out for red-billed gulls (Larus
scopulinus)! Everytime you see one of the shining
white gulls sitting in the middle of the forest, the
alarm bells should ring. The gulls take advantage of
the sealions' nasty habit No. 1 - they pick through
the freshly coughed up vomit for any chunk and solid
bit of whatever-it-was.
Quite often you perceive the gull much earlier than
the sleeping beast. In that case the wanderer should
be alerted. Stand still and quiet and try to locate
any odd noise... maybe a thin and distant snoring sound
points to the whereabouts of the sealion. If not...
advance very slowly and cautious... check every fern
bush before you step around it. At least these rules
should be followed if one does not want to be barked
at from behind by a sealion that wears its tree trunk
camouflage! Sometimes the duo sealion/gull is visible
from quite a distance, so that it's easy to take a detour
to avoid any close contact.
Anyhow... a gull in the forest is always good for a
considerable adrenalin kick.
Less frightening are
the youngsters or rather the sea lions that just left
the toddler stage, the ones that are not older than
a year or two. The kids are much smaller than their
grown up cousins and of an almost delicate stature.
These youngsters are a lot more agile than their older
and unbelievably fatter conspecifics and are able to
reach even the remotest spots on the island with gazelle-like
ease. For axample our study penguin colony A3 - and
which is located at a pretty central spot of North East
Island. Two weeks ago, during my daily nestchecks I
met 0134, a young and playful sealion female, who used
my observation clearing to take a nap. 0134 was her
official name that she carried with her on a small white
Since a couple of years DOC runs a tagging programme
on Hooker's sealions. In the 19th and the first half
of the 20th Century the animals were almost hunted to
extinction. The total population declined to just a
few individuals but fortunately the sealions started
to recover after seal hunting was abolished. But recovery
is a slow process and still the number of New Zealand's
sealions has not reached its old size. In fact, it's
still far from that. The tagging programme is an important
feature to monitor the development of the sealion population
since the animals are still threatened by humans...
if more in an indirect way compared to the old hunting
days - bycatch. Unfortunately, the sealions are not
only interested in the same fish species as New Zealand's
Fisheries but also in roughly the same sizes. And the
sad truth is, that not only a few sealions die in the
meshes of huge trawl nets.
But back to 0134. I didn't particulary like this name.
'Barney', on the other hand, is not the best name for
a young sealioness. But since the furry girly tried
really hard but nevertheless unsuccessful to scare the
hell out of me (she just was too small) I named her
'Bogey'. When I entered the clearing Bogey rushed towards
me and greeted me with a bark and a wide opened mouth.
She scrambled back to her sleeping spot as soon as her
'yap' left her throat. Half a minute later she started
her next assault - run up to that two legged something,
give him a bark, rush back and keep a very close eye
on him (for another 30 seconds). And than all over again.
Unfortunately, Bogey was so small that she did not manage
to impress me too much... instead I walked over the
clearing towards the log were I usually sit when observing
penguin nests and sat down.
However, after a while the Raaaa-Raaaa in
my back could no longer be ignored. Bogey wanted to
impress me and so I left my penguins alone for a few
minutes and played with her by mocking pure shock, whenever
she gave her run-bark-runaway assault. She obviously
loved it! She started a few minor attacks accompanied
with her baby barking, rushed around on the clearing
and fell flat on her stomach as if to hide behind a
bit of gras. It was like cowboy and indians - me being
the rather boring cowboy. After a while she started
to get tired and soon enough she fell on her stomach
and dozed off without further ado. I turned back to
As clumsy as sealions
may appear on land - especially the bigger and older
fellows have the charm of bulldzers - in water these
animals turn into the most agile agile creatures you
can expect. Repeatedly we witnessed this agility, when
young bulls used boat harbour for playfull fights and
chases. These guys zip through the water like torpedos
and often it seems as if they reach physical limits.
Then their skinn seems to follow the rules of inertia
so that quite often one gets the impression that the
are close to sashaying out of their skin.
Apart from the sealions two other marine mammal species
reside on the Snares. The New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus
fosteri) shared the unfortunate fate of being
of great interest for sealers (because of their fur,
of course). So it wasn't surprising that these animals
also suffered from extreme sealing and were also almost
driven into extinction. Just a handfull of animals
survived until the second half of the 20th century.
Nowadays the fur seals are recovering from the carnage
for fashion... and in contrast to the sealions they
are extremely timid towards humans. If you get too
close to a fur seal (because they are sometimes really
hard to spot between rocks until you almoststep on
them) the animal plainly speaking freaks out and panics.
With heartbreaking yelps the animal scrambles
towards the ocean and leaves the harmless observer
standing there with a feeling of guilt and
sadness. That's why we try to avoid the spots where
some fur seals are known to sleep...
Three times now we
had the rare opportuntity to meet a leopard seal
(Hydrurga leptonyx). We first saw one that
was hauled out f the water in boat harbour sleeping
close to some sealions that appeared rather sceptical
about their neighbour. Leopard seals are generally
considered as the ultimate predators
and antarctic waters. In contrast to sealions and
fur seals, leopards concentrate on bigger prey than
fish and squid. They particularily like penguins but
are also keen on getting young mareine mammals. When
one leopards was sleeping right on the penguin
landing close to the hut (the second encounter), I
sneaked up towards it to have a closer look at the
animal. Suddenly it raised its head and smiled in
my direction. I saw amazing rows of ivory-white pointy
teeth that made any razor blade look blunt. I was
impressed... and I had the feeling that a quick retreat
would be a good idea.
But on land, leopard seals are supposedly harmless.
They belong to the family of the Phocoridae.
The memebers of this family have one disadvantage on
land in comparison with their relatives with ears (Otoridae -
e.g. sealions, furseals) - Phocorids can't bend their
tail forward and use it for walking. This leaves them
more than clumy and almost immobile on land. They merely
manage to haul them onto a rock and that was that.
That's why you'll find Phocorids always close to the
waters edge - which quite often makes for wet sleeping.
And this immobility was of great advantage for the
that waddled past the tooth bearer without
And to round it up...
our third and last encounter so far. One day Dave
I went scrambling along the rocky foreshore to a narrow
cove not far from the penguin landing. The "Cod
Cave" as the cove is called features a long
cavern that winds its way out of sight into the
rocks of the
island (we have actually no idea how far). The cove
appears like a divers paradise: crystal clear waters,
rich underwater flora and well sheltered from the surf.
We just started to discuss if one could dare to
or even dive at this spot despite of all of the sealions
around, when suddenly a grey shadow materialized
in the clear water. Shortly afterwards the leopard
seal stuck its head out of the water and squirmed
at us with
the nonchalant glance of a predator eyeing his prey.
Dave and I stood there the dive discussion frozen
lips. The leopard seals eye said it all: "Sure... go
ahead guys... get your snorkels... I'll wait, no problem...
I just gave up my penguin diet..."
When I got my voice back I looked at an astonished
Dave and said: "On second thought... the water's
probably too cold for snorkling anyway." - "Yup,
yer probably right", was Dave's reply.