The Auckland Islands lie 465 km south-south-east of New Zealand’s South Island port of Bluff. They are the largest of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, with a combined area of 625 sq km. As well as having a wide variety of plants and wildlife they also have a rich human history.
The Auckland Islands are made up of the remains of two ancient volcanoes which have been subsequently cut by glaciers. The terrain is rugged and mountainous, with steep cliffs on the western and southern sides and deep valleys with long inlets to the east.
Auckland Island is the main island in the group. It is approx 40 km long and 12 km wide at its widest point and has an approximate land area of 510 sq km.
The group includes many other smaller islands. The largest of these is 10,000 ha Adams Island, which lies south of the main island.
This is followed by 600 ha Enderby Island, 1km north of the main island, and Disappointment Island, 8 km west of the main island.
The Auckland Islands are important seabird breeding grounds. It is the strong hold of the rare yellow-eyed penguin, with a high proportion of the population breeding on Enderby Island.
Also most of the world's population of white capped mollymawk breed here (some 90–100,000 on Disappointment Island) along with Gibson's wandering albatross on Adams Island, the sooty shearwater and the endemic Auckland shag. There is also an abundance of albatrosses, penguins and petrels.
The Auckland Island snipe, Auckland Island teal, Auckland rail and the tomtit are all endemic to the Auckland Islands. The red-fronted and yellow-crowned parakeets, tūī, New Zealand bellbird, New Zealand pipit, the Auckland Island dotterel (a larger race of the mainland banded dotterel) and the Auckland Island falcon (a race of the mainland species) all call the Auckland Islands home.
The Auckland Islands have the largest number of subantarctic invertebrates of all New Zealand's subantarctic islands. There are over 200 insects as well as 24 species of spider and 11 species of springtail. The islands also boast an endemic genus and species of weta, Dendroplectron aucklandensis.
The Auckland Islands have 19 species of endemic freshwater invertebrates.
New Zealand sea lion
By the 21st century the Auckland Islands had become the primary breeding location of the New Zealand sea lion.
The Auckland Islands have the richest flora of the five island groups – 233 taxa have been recorded, 196 of which are native.
The vegetation of the Auckland Islands subdivides by distinct altitudinal zones with the width of each changing as you get further south. In the salt spray zone there is often a herb turf. Above it, in exposed sites, you will find tussock land, with associated herbs. The only sizable dune area is Sandy Bay on Enderby Island.
Beyond the coastal zone, in more sheltered sites of the north and east, is a forest made up totally of southern rata (metrosideros) – the same species as in the South Island. The many twisted and gnarled stems of the rata give the forest a haunted atmosphere.
The soft tree fern also grows on the Auckland Islands – the most southern habitat for a tree fern.
Introduced animals have had a profound impact on the vegetation of the Auckland Islands. Pigs and goats on the Auckland Island, and rabbits and cattle on Enderby Island, have removed the megaherbs from accessible sites.
The most obvious sign of the influence of animals are the extensive grassland areas on Enderby Island and the rooted up areas on the Aucklands, where the pigs have been digging for worms and fly larvae. Only on Adams Island, and some of the other smaller offshore islands, can the full selection of megaherbs be seen at their glorious best.
History and culture
Discover the heritage sites in the Auckland Islands:
- Castaway Finger Posts guided shipwrecked sailors to castaway depots
- Sandy Bay Boatshed was a lifeline for shipwrecked survivors to row to
- Stella Hut is a surviving castaway depot
- Enderby Settlement was an ill-fated planned settlement
- Derry Castle is a grave site on Enderby Island
- Tagua Coastwatchers Lookout Hut was used to keep watch for enemy naval vessels.
There is evidence to suggest Polynesian settlement on Enderby Island at some stage in the island's history, however, when the whaling ship Ocean found the islands in 1806 they were uninhabited.
On 18 August 1806 Captain Abraham Bristow named the island group 'Lord Auckland's' in honour of his father's friend William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland. Bristow worked for Samuel Enderby, after whom Enderby Island is named. On a later trip in the 'Sarah' Bristow named the large harbour at the north of the group 'Sarah's Boso'. This was later changed to Port Ross following the visit of Sir James Clark Ross in his two ships the Erebus and Terror in 1840.
As soon as the islands were rediscovered, sealers set up bases there. By 1812 the seals were so depleted that the islands lost their draw and became uninhabited once again.
Later, whalers came to the Auckland's although, unlike Campbell Island, this was done from ships and not based on the islands themselves.
In 1840 several scientific expeditions visited the Auckland Island group and found pigs, cats and mice well established on the main island.
In the mid-19th century there were several attempts made to live on the Auckland islands. In 1842 a small group of Māori and their Mōriori slaves migrated from the Chatham Islands and created a community there. A few years later, in 1849, Samuel Enderby's grandson, Charles Enderby established a colony at Port Ross, called Hardwicke, which had approximately 200 people.
Enderby's colony was abandoned in August 1852. They were followed by the Māori, who left in March 1856. Everyone found the climate too harsh, and growing conditions too poor, to survive. The whaling that they hoped to base Hardwicke on never eventuated. In fact, the only whale they caught was while the colony was being dismantled!.
The Auckland Islands were officially included in the extended boundaries of New Zealand in 1863.
A history of the Auckland Islands would not be complete without a mention of the eight known ships wrecked on and around its unforgiving shores. The General Grant, with its hold full of gold, was probably the most famous of these.