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The Snares Islands

The Snares Islands (or just 'Snares') are one of five subantarctic island groups that became UNESCO World Heritage in 1998, because of their unique flora and fauna. All these island groups, namely the Auckland Islands, Campbell Islands, Antipodes Islands and the Bounty Islands, lie south-east and south of the New Zealand mainland, between the latitudes 47° and 52° South in the zones that are famous as the "Roaring Forties" and "Furious Fifties". The Snares are the closest to the mainland, lying only 200km south of Bluff, New Zealand's southernmost city.

All New Zealand subantarctic Islands enjoy the highest level of protection available under New Zealand legislation. The Snares are considered as so called "minimum impact islands" meaning that landings are not permitted (not for tourists, not for scientists) unless the Department of Conservation did not issue a special permit. Only two research groups have long term permits for restricted access to the Snares (one working on Sooty Shearwaters, the other working on Buller’s Mollymawks – see below).

The Snares consist of one Main Island (North East Island) that is surrounded by several smaller islands and rocks (e.g. Broughton Island, Alert Stack, the Daption Islands in the north), and a group of islands that are known as the Western Chain. The islands of the Western Chain all carry Maori names: Tahi (which means 'One'), Rua (surprise, surprise: 'Two'), Toru (would you believe it: 'Three'), Wha (yes, you guessed right: 'Four') and finally Rima (which means 'Twothousand- Fivehundret-Twentyone-and-a-half'… okay, I was just kidding: 'Five').

All islands of the Snares group are bordered by steep cliffs except a few eastern parts. The climate is mainly influenced by a warm current coming in from Australia and the mean annual temperature is a mild 11°C. Rainfall is about 1200 mm/m² a year.

Curiously, the Snares Islands, that cover about 340 hectares, were discovered on the same day, 23. November 1791, by two ships independently (the Chatham commanded by Lt. Broughton, who was actually on his way to find the North-West Passage in the far North, and the Discovery under Capt. Vancouver, who – I'm pretty sure – also had something to discover).

The Snares are the only subantarctic island group that is free from any introduced terrestrial mammals (e.g. rats, rabbits) apart from humans, of course. And, in the past, even humans seldom showed up, which was different on the other Islands that were either used as whaling- or sealing bases or as farming grounds. The Snares were never inhabited by humans… if we exclude the unbelievable story of 4 sealers that involuntarily spent a while on the Snares:

During the middle of the 19th century a sealer's ship sailed from Australia southwards, en route to the rich sealing grounds of the subantarctic. Somewhere on the Tasman Sea four stowaways were discovered in the bowels of the ship, which proved to be a bunch of convicts that escaped from an Australian prison. Back in the old days, sealers were made out of tough material themselves and so, to avoid any delays, the four convicts were simply integrated into the sealing gang. Unfortunately, shortly after the discovery of the four, the sealers realized that their food supplies where about to run short. So the Captain made the decision that the four convicts might as well take care of the seal population on nearby Snares Islands while the rest of the crew would carry on to reach their destination further south. "We'll be back in a couple of weeks and pick you and your booty up again. How's that", asked the Captain. The four convicts, funny enough, were thrilled and landed equipped with sealing batons and trypots (for boiling seal blubber) on the Snares. I suppose, they even waved happily as the sealer disappeared on the horizon, before the four started their bloody work.

5 years later. A different sealer made a stop over on the Snares. Surely the crew was surprised when all of a sudden three bearded, ragged looking men stumbled out of the bush. Generously, they were taken to the New Zealand mainland, where their story caused some stir. Apparently, one of the four went mad while on the islands. The other three decided he would be better off, if they threw him over a steep cliff edge. The New Zealand jurisdiction, however, did not share their opinion and charged all three with 'lifelong' for murder. Now, that's what we jurists call a 'bummer'…

Because of the above mentioned complete absence of terrestrial mammals, the Snares form an intact habitat for birds and seals (which have recovered from sealing). Sea birds use virtually every square meter on the islands for nesting and resting. Sooty Shearwaters (Maori: Titi) are by far the most numerous species, with up to 5 million birds populating the Snares in the summer months. The islands peat soils are literally undermined with Titi burrows. At dusk thousands of Titis fill the air, before the elegant gliders (whose landing capabilities are a shockingly bad) crash through the canopy to reach their nests.

The second most numerous seabird species are Common Diving Petrels (Maori: Kuaka) that find their southern limit of distribution on the Snares. Three Albatross species breed on Islands. The most colourful and numerous (18.000 individuals) of the three is Buller's Mollymawk. Other coastal seabirds are Antarctic terns, Skuas and Black-backed (or Dominican) Gulls.

The Snares Crested Penguin breeds - as its common name suggests - only on the Snares Islands. The total population consists of about 60.000 individuals that are dispersed in roundabout 100 different colonies. Their colonies spread or contract according to the number of penguins in them each season. Where the penguins breed, the vegetation dies, but recovers when a colony slowly shifts its position during the years.

Two species of marine mammals occur on the Snares: the New Zealand Fur Seal and the Hooker's Sea Lion. Especially the latter species has the nasty habit to act as living hurdles for scientist working on the islands. The sea lions haul their sometimes enormous bodies far into the bush and quite often find the few established walking tracks around Station Cove (the base camp on North East Island) to be appropriate hang-outs for their beauty sleep.