This is your guide to Australia and New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands! These unique islands offer wildlife encounters and a landscape like nowhere else on Earth, with access restricted to keen adventurers searching for true wilderness.

Quick Overview

The Sub-Antarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand lie at the edge of the Southern Ocean, accessible only by boat. Access mainly relies on small expedition style tourist voyages, which focus on exploring the region over two weeks, or as a stopover to or from Antarctica.

About the Sub-Antarctic Islands

The Australian and New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands are a forgotten paradise for millions of birds, penguins, seals, sea lions, and intrepid travellers looking for adventure.

There are six island groupings, with the most accessible and frequently visited being Macquarie Island, the Campbell Islands, and the Auckland Islands.


An escort boat waits patiently while we explore

History of the Sub-Antarctic Islands

The Southern Māori visited several of the Sub-Antarctic Islands long before they were mapped by Europeans between 1788-1810.

Artifacts dating back hundreds of years have been found on Enderby Island and the Snares. From the early 1800s through to the mid 1900s, sealers visited these islands, decimating the seal and sea lion populations before processing hundreds of thousands of penguins for oil.

Following the withdrawal of hunting from the islands, mice, rats, and cats continued to roam free. Pigs, rabbits, goats, and sheep which were introduced as a food source for hunters, were left behind in case of future shipwrecks.


A carving on Auckland Island left by shipwrecked Europeans


Over decades, these animals wreaked havoc on the native flora and fauna of the islands. Several species were wiped out and others were relegated to small numbers on islets offshore.

Pest eradication programs have been carried out by successive Australian and New Zealand governments, and now many of the islands are pest free.

Bird, seal, sea lion, and penguin colonies are slowly bouncing back, endemic plant and animal species are being reintroduced to the ecosystem, and the landscape is slowly recovering.

Ongoing pest removal and monitoring programs are in place on most islands. The obvious contrast in landscape between islands which remained pest free, those which have been pest free for some time, and the islands where introduced species are still impacting the ecosystems, are a testament to the work done to return these wild places to their original foundations.

How to get to the Sub-Antarctic Islands

Limited permits are available for those who want to brave the edge of the Southern Ocean and sail to the Sub-Antarctic Islands themselves, with strict access protocols.

Permits and conservation measures for Macquarie Island are managed by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, while the Department of Conservation manages access for the five New Zealand island groups.

For most people, the best way to have an adventure on the Sub-Antarctic Islands is to join an expedition cruise ship.

A small number of companies organise visits each year, generally between November and March, departing from Bluff, New Zealand or Hobart, Tasmania.

Itineraries to this part of the world tend to be a ‘hopeful plan’ rather than a set agenda. Landings on the islands rely on the mercy of the weather gods, and the skill of the expedition teams and zodiac drivers.

Once you’re on land, each of the islands has a series of boardwalks or trails to access key sites. Your expedition guides will map out the boundaries of where you can explore on your own, and some companies offer guided walks through approved ‘off-trail’ areas.

Where to Stay on the Sub-Antarctic Islands

Visitors must stay on board their ship, overnight permits are not available to the general public.

Where to Eat on the Sub-Antarctic Islands

All meals are eaten on your ship. Due to strict biosecurity laws, no food is permitted on the islands unless it has been prepared and screened by the ship chef and biosecurity officer.

Essential Gear for Visiting the Sub-Antarctic Islands

  • Several pairs of thick warm socks. Your ship will provide muck boots for wet landings and short walks, thick socks make them comfortable to walk around in
  • Waterproof hiking boots if you plan to do any long hikes
  • Waterproof and windproof pants and jacket
  • Thermal layers – temperatures can change quickly
  • Camera, including a spare battery and rain cover
  • Small day pack with waterproof section or dry bag
  • Hiking poles if planning to walk off track – the terrain is uneven and slippery
  • Binoculars (for the keen birders)

What it’s Like to Visit the Sub-Antarctic Islands

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island – or Macca – is home to over a million breeding pairs of penguins, and a few dozen scientists and tradies at the Australian Antarctic Division research base.

For the rock fans, it’s the only place on Earth where rocks from the Earth’s mantle (usually 6km below the ocean floor) are exposed above sea level (yes, we’re talking geology and not music…the cacophony of thousands of penguins is the only sound you’ll want to hear out here).


King penguins on Macquarie Island


In 1810, fur sealers discovered a thriving population on Macquarie Island. Within ten years, over 200,000 fur seals were killed and the population all but wiped out.

In the 1950s, 130 years after sealing was ended, the first breeding seals were recorded to have returned to the island, and now over 300 pups are born annually, with the number of breeding sites slowly expanding.


A male Elephant seal


Royal penguins are endemic to Macquarie Island, meaning you can’t find them in the wild anywhere else on Earth. Visitors can’t miss them though, with 850,000 breeding pairs in the region, you’re guaranteed to make a royal friend while you’re there.

Macquarie Island Highlights

  • Watching the sea lion and seal pups wrestle and play on the sandy beaches and in grass tussocks
  • The grunts, groans, and snorts of Bull elephant seals fighting on the beaches
  • Thousands of penguins – sit down at the edge of a beach for ten minutes and one of the curious King penguins may just join you for a cup of tea

Motu Ihupuku / Campbell Islands

Motu Ihupuku island group make up the southernmost New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands. They’re the breeding grounds for six albatross species, including the Southern royal albatross – one of the world’s largest.

With a wingspan of over three metres and weighing up to 10kg, you’ll hear them fly overhead like a small jet engine. Sitting down and watching the intimate dance of their courting ritual, which includes bill-snapping, clapping, gulping, and sky calling, is something you can’t experience anywhere else on Earth.


A pair of Southern Royal albatross


Motu Ihupuku is well known to ‘birders’ for the 1997 discovery of a new kind of land bird, the Campbell Island snipe.

If you happen to see one, best not to excitedly tell others on your ship who missed out – turns out some people get upset about that sort of thing!

Exploration of the island may lead you to a small collection of huts which formed part of a secret World War II coastwatching program, where four or five men were stationed, sometimes for years, tasked with keeping an eye out for enemy ships.

Joseph Hooker, English botanist (and Charles Darwin’s bestie) visited the islands in 1840 and described the plant life as a ‘display second to none outside the tropics’.


The abundant flora of the Campbell Islands


They certainly inspired me to think that maybe it was possible to grow flowers in a Canberra winter after all!

Motu Ihupuku Highlights

  • Feeling the wind rush up the edge of the sea cliffs at Col Lyall – so strong you feel that if you lift your feet off the ground, you’ll soar like an albatross
  • Watching 7-10kg albatross take off and land. These birds are more skilled than most pilots I know!


Hookers Sea lions

Motu Maha / Auckland Islands

Southern Māori visited Motu Maha hundreds of years before they were first mapped by European explorers, and traces of Polynesian settlement on Enderby Island date back to the 13th century.

When European settlers arrived, the groups cooperated. But within three years the European settlement, Hardwicke, had failed and the European settlers left, followed a few years later by the remaining Māori and Moriori people.

The islands provided a refuge for many shipwrecked sailors, whalers, and sealers. There are extraordinary tales of survival on the islands, the most famous being the shipwreck of the Grafton, in which the men lasted for 19 months and built a boat to sail to nearby Stewart Island for rescue.


The shipwrecked remains of the Grafton


Afterwards, animals were released and depots of provisions were left on most Sub-Antarctic Islands for food. Visitors today can see the Hardwicke settlement ruins and cemetery, remnants of the Grafton, as well as tree carvings made by shipwrecked sailors, and those who searched for them.


Cemetery of the Hardwicke Settlement


Motu Maha is the primary breeding site of the New Zealand Sea lion, the world’s rarest sea lion. Pups are born in late December/early January so time your visit to see the boisterous pups play in the sand.

It’s also a key breeding site for the shyest of penguins, the Hoiho or Yellow-eyed penguin. Keep an eye out for them in the grassland above Sandy Bay where the sea lion pups play.

Motu Maha Highlights

  • Traipsing through the rata forest looking for signs of human life, including tree carvings, ruins, and shipwrecks
  • Cruising through Carnley Harbour or the sea caves of Musgrave Inlet on a sunny day, contrasted with the desolation that comes with experiencing winds and rains in the rata forests, and gaining an appreciation for just how stoic the survivors of shipwrecks and the settlers must’ve been!
  • Wandering through the forest on Enderby Island and coming across adventurous juvenile sea lions exploring their territory


Island inside the restored WWII Observation Hut

Tips For Visiting the Sub-Antarctic Islands

  • Before you choose an expedition company, consider how many passengers will be on board. There are limits to the number of people allowed on some islands at a time, as well as the amount of time allowed onshore, so larger ships often run ‘shifts’ of visitors, limiting the time each passenger has on shore
  • Plans have to factor in weather conditions, and any scientific research or maintenance work being done on the islands. Your expedition company should plan to adjust itineraries to get you on land or zodiac cruising as much as possible
  • Take your time. Walk slowly. Sit. The animals aren’t really afraid of humans and many of them are curious. They’ll get close and allow you to have some spectacular encounters – but only if you slow down and take your time

FAQs Sub-Antarctic Islands

Where are the Sub-Antarctic Islands located?

The Sub-Antarctic Islands are located throughout the Southern Ocean, between 45 and 60 degrees latitude south.

Motu Maha (Auckland Islands) are 450km south of the port of Bluff, New Zealand.

Motu Ihupuku (Campbell Islands) are 700km south, sitting slightly to the east of Motu Maha.

Macquarie Island is 1500km SSE of Tasmania, half way between Tasmania and Antarctica.

How do you get to Sub-Antarctic Islands?

Access to the islands is primarily via small expedition-style cruise ships. A small number of companies regularly depart from Australia and New Zealand for Sub-Antarctic specific tours, or visit as a stopover to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

Do I need to book my visit to the Sub-Antarctic Islands?

Yes. Visitor numbers are capped and voyages often sell out well in advance, so plan ahead.

 When is the best time of year to visit the Sub-Antarctic Islands?

November to March is the only time you can visit. Early season visitors (November to January) will see Elephant seal pups and sea lion bulls aggressively fighting to maintain their harem, and royal penguin chicks hatching.

Late Jan-March is prime time to see the giant fluff ball King penguin and albatross chicks first taking flight off the sea cliffs.

How many days should I spend at the Sub-Antarctic Islands?

Most trips are 8-16 days long. Travel to Macquarie Island takes three sea days, so 8-10 day trips will generally visit the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands only.