Reflections from the wilderness: What is the future for the Auckland Islands?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

As predicted, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Expedition team have spent the last days of their trip battling 50km an hour winds. With gusts of over 60 knots, they spent a day confirmed to the yacht at Erebus Cove on Enderby Island. After ten days living in close quarters, for Christine it was a chance to reflect on the experience so far.

“The Islands are everything that I had hoped they would be: wild, remote and untamed with an unforgiving climate. I have sometimes found it hard to grasp just how remote it is down here especially when you are surrounded by a group of people for 20 hours a day. 

Sitting on Adams Island the other morning, listening to the amazing dawn chorus from the Bell Birds it struck me that there were potentially no other humans around for perhaps 400km. Sailing here through the magnificence of the wild Southern Ocean for 37 hours reinforced this sense of isolation.

The islands really are a special place because they truly are a wilderness with their own rugged beauty. The native plants and animals are unique and in many cases endangered. As such, I feel that we have a duty to ensure the future of this fragile environment and I see my role as an educator to inform young people about this special place. 

Human interaction is an inevitable part of their future, as more and more people look to more distant and remote destinations. There is a conundrum here, as wilderness tourism inevitably brings environmental impacts, but it also serves as an essential educational tool.

How do we strike a balance between maintaining the wilderness and protecting its fragile environment, while enabling people to feel connected to what is a small but critical part of their heritage and one for which they have a responsibility of guardianship? I am torn between the two.

Cruise ships already visit the islands – their numbers are managed by DOC, which has a strict quota of permitted visitors. Income from permits provides essential money to finance research such as the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Survey and pest eradication programmes. 

It’s a challenge for DOC. Past human interaction has left significant impacts, the legacy of which we are dealing with today. It's easy to look back and shake our heads at Government policies that saw the release of pigs and rabbits onto the islands to provide food for potential castaways, but at the time these actions were viewed as forward thinking and undoubtedly did save lives. 

Humans were not meant to live here permanently and the various failed settlement attempts are testimony to this. However, humans will continue to want to visit and the pressure to open up ‘wilderness' locations will only increase. As stated by the Department of Conservation in their management plans for the islands: ‘These islands are amongst the highest valued conservation assets in New Zealand and the world and have to be managed on this basis in perpetuity’.

I treasure the time that I have spent here and hope to get the chance to return some day. In the meantime, I take with me special memories of the place and the people I have shared it with and look forward to going back to the people I have yet to share it with.”