In the remote and captivating Sub-Antarctic Islands, where humans are visitors in a realm ruled by nature, Hannah finds herself captivated by the untamed beauty and the profound impact of these wild islands.

‘If I were a god, this is where you would find me, seated high on a far away windswept mountain, surrounded by soaring birds and the shining sea. Only wanderers bold enough to seek their joy at the end of the Earth would find their contentment here in my heavenly place.’

Those words popped into my head as I strolled along a boardwalk on Motu Ihupuku (Campbell Island), 700km south of New Zealand.

I’ve never been much of a poet (and rarely give consideration to where any Gods might live!) but there’s something about this part of the world that inspires the poetic.

As I tramped along, words swirled in my brain, trying to land in a way that captured the wild beauty of this place.

I’d just spent a few weeks in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, and now we were returning to New Zealand via the Sub-Antarctic Islands.

It was a windy, overcast afternoon. Half of the passengers opted to stay on board, while the ‘mad bunch’ rugged up and boarded zodiacs.


Rediscovering My Wild On The Edge Of The Southern Ocean, Hannah Watts, three penguins on a sub antarctic island, Hannah Watts

The view from the deck of the Zodiac

Cruising ashore, we then trekked along the 3.5km boardwalk. Just off the path, giant Southern Royal albatross sat on their nests, undisturbed by our presence.

At the end of the boardwalk at Col Lyall, we looked out over the bay towards Dent Island. Wind roared up the cliffs.

Stepping out from the shelter of the large rocks, we half walked-half crawled to the edge then stood with our arms raised, leaning into the wind as it pushed against us.

It felt as though, if we were just brave enough to lift our feet off the ground, we would fly like the albatross soaring above us.

We returned the next day – the weather Gods smiling on us a little more, their gift of blue skies giving us hours to sit in the grass as giant albatross ambled past us, dancing their courting dances, preening with their partners, or watchfully sitting on their nests.

My heart was completely captivated by this place. Months before, I didn’t know these islands existed.

In the four years since I visited, not a week has gone by that I haven’t thought of them. Some wild places just get in your heart, mind, and soul, and never leave.


Rediscovering My Wild On The Edge Of The Southern Ocean, Hannah Watts, three penguins on a sub antarctic island, Hannah Watts

Macquarie Island – The Isthmus, where the Australian Antarctic Division base is located

The Wilderness on our Doorstep Just Waiting to be Explored

The Australian and New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands sit 100-1500km to the south and south-east of us. Visited by only a few small passenger ships a year, I first learned about them when researching a trip to Antarctica.

A New Zealand owned company, Heritage Expeditions, was recommended to me. They provide the opportunity to visit the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, as well as stopping at the base on Macquarie Island if possible.

As a bonus, their trips allocate several days to visit the key island groups, with a flexible itinerary to accommodate the weather. Maximum opportunities for zodiac cruising, hikes, and adventure – sign me up!


The trip from the Zodiac to the island

The islands can be visited on their own on a short trip – up to two weeks – or they provide a welcome stopover on the long trip into the Ross Sea region.

A chance to stretch the legs, stand on solid ground for a few hours, and admire some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife that exists on our planet.

The smell that wafts through the air as your zodiac approaches a penguin colony is an assault on the senses – imagine the poultry pavilion at a country show on a hot summer’s day…but on steroids.

Nothing prepares you for the sensory overload that occurs when you step onshore next to a colony of thousands of penguins, with dozens of Elephant seals laying in the sun.

Rediscovering My Wild On The Edge Of The Southern Ocean, Hannah Watts, three penguins on a sub antarctic island, Hannah Watts

Campbell Islands – the Hookers Sea Lion colony at Sandy Bay

On Macquarie Island, as I sit on the sand watching the bull Elephant seals fight, a trio of curious King penguins approach. Extending their necks, flapping their wings, and squawking at me, they keep their distance for a few minutes, before waddling up, pecking at my boot and bag, then turning and waddling off.

On Enderby Island, shy Hoiho (Yellow Eyed penguins) emerge from their nests in the grass. They casually stroll along the cliff face completely ignoring us, as long as we pretend we can’t see them either.

In contrast, as we return to the end of the beach, juvenile male Hookers sea lions approach at a run, practising their intimidation tactics.

They seem bewildered that instead of being scared, we greet them with a camera click and a laugh at their antics – it’s hard to resist telling them they’re good sea-doggos with a scratch behind their ears.


Sea lions on Macquarie Island

On all the islands, the animals make one thing absolutely clear – this is their turf. Humans are the oddity, the curiosity. We are merely visitors, this is their home.

Humanity’s Impact on the Islands

Just over two centuries ago, Europeans first came to these islands and nearly destroyed them. Colonies of seals, sea lions, and penguins were completely wiped out, family pods of whales were hunted to extinction as we exploited them for oil and fur.

Once we’d taken everything we could from these places, we sailed away.

Amazing tales of survival were born here, as shipwrecked sailors came ashore and waited for rescue or spent months building boats to sail away and rescue themselves.


The remnants of human habitation

Humans may not have lived here long, but we left a lasting impact. The remains of boilers used to extract seal and whale oil rust in the grass at Macquarie Island. On other islands, ruins of huts, a cemetery, an abandoned stove all mark our impact.

Motu Maha / Auckland Island is a wild place. After the whalers and shipwrecked sailors left, people returned to the Island, hoping to conquer it.

They tried to own the land, grow crops, raise sheep, and make money. But Mother Nature is the queen of these lands, and she would not bend to their will. Eventually they gave up and left too.

We traipsed along a boardwalk to the site of Hardwicke settlement and stood in eerie silence at the small cemetery.

Our expedition historian shared the story of the families who came here, lost lives, lost crops, got sick from the cold and rain, and returned home three years later.

When the people left, feral pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits, cats, mice, and rats all stayed behind. As the wildlife slowly returned, these introduced creatures became their new predators – hunting them, or destroying the ground where they nest.

For decades it was a fight for survival for the species which had previously existed here for thousands of years. Dent Island, which we admired from our viewpoint on Col Lyall, is not just a rock rising from the sea.

It’s a place where Campbell Teal (similar to a flightless duck) and Campbell Snipe nested safely while feral animals ravaged the population on the main island.

Eventually, the humans returned to the islands once more, this time with good intentions. The Australian and New Zealand governments sent in researchers first, then men and women armed with traps, dogs, and poisons.

Over the years they’ve removed the feral animals on most of the islands, and they continue to work to make these places pest free. The wildlife that have always been here are born not just to survive, but to thrive in these wild places.

The pest eradication work is not just a re-wilding. It’s a restoration. We recognised that while Mother Nature is an amazing healer on her own, sometimes we need to do the work to clean up our mess.



The Islands Impact on This Human

Visits to wild places like this, where people and animals fight for survival against the odds, often invoke the same response in me.

I am reminded how privileged I am to choose to visit these harsh and beautiful and wild places… and then choose to leave for hot soup and a warm bed.

They remind me of the strength and resilience of nature. They remind me of the impact we can have on the wild places we visit, and how we must be careful not to leave our mark on them.

Instead, we can allow these places to have an impact on us. When we allow wild places to stay wild, they maintain a certain type of magic.

They connect us – to the land, to our past, to the people we are with. They give us space to connect with our true self – to the adventurer or poet (or both!) that’s within us.


Rediscovering My Wild On The Edge Of The Southern Ocean, Hannah Watts, three penguins on a sub antarctic island, Hannah Watts

Southern Rockhopper penguin on Campbell Islands

These islands left their mark on me. They reminded me that it’s never too late to restore what’s been damaged. Joy and beauty and excitement and adventure lie in nature.

Sometimes we need to go to the wilderness to connect with that wild part of ourselves. For me, a bunch of windswept islands on the edge of the Southern Ocean helped me connect with the person I am and want to be, and now I’m reminded of that every time I step into a wild place once again.