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Tuesday, 12. November 2002 Snares Islands, New Zealand

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 Snares Islands

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 angry sealion!

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 and (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 squid beaks 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 of 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 slumber, right there, on the spot, head down in their vomit.

As odd as it may sound... the vomit sometimes features some interesting elements. 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 granit island that never featured any volcanic activity! How was that possible?, they thought, while next to them a big sealion slowly sat up started to run through convulsions and gave them a live performance. After the geologists came 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 guys travel back to their breeding sides to check if they can kick out one of the old harem masters - if not they literally bite the dust (if a very concentrated one), swallow a few Auckland Island stones and swim back to the Snares.

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 with embarassing noises and we usually can't avoid stepping into the end product (because the guys just drop that stuff everywhere).

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 into 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 they awkwardly make their way back towards the sea... often crushing heaps Titi burrows along the way. Some of the sealions actually seem to like our huts and the adjacent structures (e.g. our fuel shed). This 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 the animals.

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 flipper tag.

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 my penguins.

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 guys 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 of sub-antarctic 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 sleek and snake-like 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 penguins that waddled past the tooth bearer without and fear.

And to round it up... our third and last encounter so far. One day Dave and 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 snorkel or even dive at this spot despite of all of the sealions around, when suddenly a grey shadow materialized ghostlike 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 on our 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.