Wildlifemacquarie Island

The Island of Hawaii encompasses 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones in just 4,028 square miles, most of which are devoid of human contact. The result is a dizzying variety of wildlife that gives visitors plenty of incentive to explore both rainforests and deserts of volcanic rock looking for local residents, whether they be plant or animal, on land, under sea, native or non-native.

A vibrant green gecko creeps along the whitewashed wall of my rented room in Kailua-Kona on the Island of Hawaii (aka Big Island). “Aren’t they supposed to be good luck?” I ask my host. She laughs and shakes her head. “They’re everywhere.”

Island County, a political subdivision of the State of Washington and home to 80,000 citizens, maintains a public website to deliver content and services to taxpayers and business partners.

Within walking distance of my room, I glimpse more than just geckos. Scuttling crabs and hard-shelled limpets hold tight to jagged rocks in wave-slammed tide pools, invasive yet adorable mongooses root through private gardens, and a great big Black Witch Moth settles on the ceiling above my bed for the night. This is all in touristy Kailua village, the most densely populated part of Hawaii’s Big Island.

The tropical wonder of Lord Howe Island features in a three-part series starting tonight, Australia's Remote Islands, presented by Tracy Bowden. In episode one, she looks at the blip in the Tasman. With an incredible array of wildlife, Macquarie Island (or Macca) is a World Heritage Site and a wonderful spot to visit as part of an Antarctic cruise. In particular, cruises that visit Macquarie Island visit the colonies of King, Gentoo and Southern Rockhopper Penguins.

The wildlife elsewhere on the island is even more overwhelming and fascinating. It is a world away from anything you can see in continental USA, with new species of plants and animals waiting to be discovered in every corner of the island.

Swimming the Kona Coast

Black rocks and white sand are always battling for prominence on Hawaii’s picturesque beaches. The rocks at Baby Pond Beach near my room keep out the waves and create a calm lagoon of clear blue water, prime territory for first-time snorkelers such as myself.

Beneath the surface, I spot scores of colorful fish like Yellow Tangs and Moorish Idols crisscrossing near sea urchins embedded in underwater rock. The fish occasionally seem to congregate into little meetings, only to disperse in a thousand different directions when I swim through them.

Once I’ve explored other nearby beaches and stepped on one of those painful but only mildly-poisonous sea urchins, it’s time to venture further out into the endless Pacific and swim with the dolphins. The pods of bottlenose dolphins are easy to find close to shore, and they’re not shy about showing off.

A pod of bottlenose dolphins near Kailua-Kona (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

Macquarie island wildlife sanctuary

They surround the small boats that abound in the Kona harbor and leap entirely out of the water, twirling in the air for a moment like aquatic ballerinas before submerging themselves once more. I hop in alongside them and do my best to keep up, often coming within inches of touching their sleek polished skin. Once I’ve finished, my captain has cut into one of the island’s white pineapples, an impossibly sweet, non-acidic summer treat that alleviates the taste of all the salt-water I can’t help swallowing on occasion.

I venture out aboard the same boat once more in the evening, just as one of Hawaii’s world-famous sunsets paints the clouds in fiery orange hues. This time, I’m swimming with the manta rays, buoyed by a surfboard fitted with lights that illuminate the underwater landscape and attract plankton, which in turn attract the rays.

It works like a charm. The gray-winged creatures swoop suddenly out of the darkness every now and again before disappearing. They must be at least 18 feet long. Some do nimble backflips, coming so close to the surface I have to raise my legs to keep from touching their pearly white underbellies, opening their enormous mouths before swimming gracefully onward.


The Rainforests

There are few better ways to see the natural diversity of the Big Island than by driving across it, watching the entire landscape seamlessly blend into something new several times over. Driving from Kona to Hawaii’s other modest metropolitan area Hilo, I spot goats, cattle and Nene – Hawaii’s state bird and the rarest goose in the world – as volcanic beaches turn to arid grassland and then to black dirt desert and finally to dense rainforest.

While Kona is like a collection of businesses made to serve tourists in between snorkel trips, Hilo feels more like a real town: a little gritty and weathered from the sea air but colorful and inviting nonetheless. Pop-up fruit stands dot the roadside now and again, selling guava, passionfruit, poha berries, mango, and coconut water drank straight from the coconut.

Despite the trappings of civilization, the vegetation is unstoppable on this half of the island. I’m particularly amazed by the banyans: trees that start life growing on other plants but eventually become vast systems of interconnected branches gathered into thick trunks and spread out over large areas, with their broad glossy green leaves blotting out the sky above.

Wildlife on macquarie island

A Gold Dust Day Gecko near Akaka Falls (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

I drive north on Highway 19 and the rainforests become even more dramatic, with layers upon layers of trees and other plants looming high above, so impenetrable and thick with plant life I can’t imagine how they ever cleared enough space to create a road through it all. I make a short hike to the gorgeous drop-off of Akaka Falls through the most oppressive humidity I’ve ever experienced. A few geckos scurry along the edges of the path, looking much more vibrant in this environment than they did on the walls of my hotel room.

My day trip to the east side of the island ends at Waipio Valley, the first in a chain of gorgeous valleys where waterfalls cascade down to gently curved beaches hemmed in by cliffs covered with more of that unstoppable vegetation. The hike to the beach is short but almost impossibly steep, blocked in one place by a wild horse frozen in place with fear, one rear hoof poised and ready to kick anyone who comes too close or moves too suddenly. Several more wait and watch in the trees as I snap photos and creep by as cautiously as I can.

For my final guided tour of the trip, I drive to the rainforest town of Hawi, which receives about a hundred extra inches of rain per year compared to the arid, resort-heavy Kohala coast just a few miles to the south. The area was once home to dozens of sugarcane plantations, which relied upon a complex irrigation system simply called “the ditch,” constructed by underpaid and overworked Japanese laborers in 1905.

Sugarcane disappeared from the region as labor became cheaper elsewhere, with the last plantation closing in 1996, but the manmade flumes remained, carving out a remote path through rainforests otherwise untouched by civilization. The tour is something like an amusement park log ride but with authentic, untouched surroundings, offering another way to see some of the Big Island’s remarkable plant life.

When he isn’t telling irresistibly corny jokes, our guide gives some context for the abundance of edible vegetation that’s been around me the entire trip. Invasive guava trees sprout up along every roadside, vibrant palms dangle unripe green bananas, and multicolored mangos droop from their branches just waiting to be picked. He even convinces me to eat a tiny flower called the blue porter, which tastes remarkably like a Portobello mushroom. As with seafood, Hawaii has no shortage of delicious edible vegetation.

The Volcano

A visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the south of the island shows me how little I really know about volcanoes. Here I can see how the island continues to be shaped by a fresh lava flow from the hyperactive young Kilauea volcano, which has been continuously erupting since 1983, adding upwards of 600 acres to the island in that time. Steam vents throughout the park spew warm water vapor into the air, the result of rains evaporating in the unbearable heat just beneath the ground.

The volcanoes are marked not by obvious summits, but rather by sprawling, smoking craters where the wildlife, so dense elsewhere on the island, just seems to disappear. In the distance I can see more smoke rising from the spot where the lava meets the Pacific Ocean and solidifies into rock. Past eruptions have left only rocky alien landscapes in their place, but from the cliffs above these wastelands, I can still spot a few signs of life emerging between cracks in the rock.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

Understandably, there aren’t many animals to be seen so close to such volcanic activity. But with time and plenty of erosion, even jagged volcanic rock can become hospitable to life. I can tell that much from my stop at Punalu’u Beach just 20 miles south, where basalt and volcanic rock have been worn by the waves into a fine, almost powdery black sand.

Here, green sea turtles lounge beside tide pools filled with tiny crabs fighting amongst themselves, and shrimps seizing unsuspecting minnows for food. Nene and a red-faced oddity called the Muscovy duck emerge from an adjacent pond full of blooming lily-pads. It’s comforting to see that even in the shadow of the volatile Kilauea, life abounds on the Big Island.

By Fiona Breen

Updated April 20, 2015 07:58:05

After decades of being overrun with feral rabbits, World Heritage-listed Macquarie Island is on its way to returning to the wildlife haven it once was.

At Sandy Bay on the east coast, royal penguin colonies are coming down from the steep hillsides, with groups of breeding pairs waddling down a well-worn track to the ocean.

Wildlife On Macquarie Island

It is a precarious route. Along the way hungry petrel seabirds hope to pick off a weak penguin for dinner.

It is the penguins' annual trek.

'They're heading off to seas to the north-east, near New Zealand, for winter foraging,' Macquarie Island ranger Chris Howard said.

These penguins have had a successful breeding season, living off shrimp and fish in nearby waters.

But as temperatures recently dropped, so too did their food supplies. So they are headed to relatively warmer waters.

'They'll fatten up in warmer seas over winter and return in about October to start breeding again,' Mr Howard said.

Just a week ago there were thousands of royal penguins shuffling in their circles, slowly moving round and round to keep warm. Now the colonies are nearly empty.

However, there are plenty of king penguins left.

'They do leave, but it depends on when they breed, so there is always some king penguins on the island,' Mr Howard said.

Closer to Macquarie Island's main base, at the northern end of the island, there are small numbers of gentoo and rockhopper penguins as well.

Penguins and seabirds shelter themselves in the island's growing vegetation.

Successful rabbit eradication gives Macquarie a fresh start

Seabird scientist Rachael Aldermann spent most of this trip down the south-west end of the island.

'I've been down on these slopes with some of our field team assessing how the vegetation is recovering since the successful pest eradication, which has been a real threatening process for seabirds on the island,' Ms Aldermann said.

Rabbits came to Macquarie Island with sealers in the early 1800s as a source of food. By the 1980s their numbers had exploded.

This prompted a massive island rescue mission that included releasing the callici virus into the rabbit population, large-scale bait drops, and teams of hunters and sniffer dogs.

Last year, the eradication program was declared a success.

And now that the Macquarie Island pest eradication team's mission is complete, they have left. And there is little evidence they were ever there — just the way they want it.

'Within a couple of years the footprints [of us being there] will fade and they will be photos on a hard drive,' eradication team manager Peter Preston said.

They will, however, be leaving an island in a state of recovery.

Reporting from Macquarie Island

The ABC has followed Macquarie Island's journey from ecological disaster to recovery since 2011, recording this island's transformation along the way.
For cameraman Dave Hudspeth and myself it's our second subantarctic adventure, and it's taken some grit and determination to work in such changeable conditions.
We've had five days on land crisscrossing the mountainous landscape in snow, rain hail and even some sunshine.
Every hill climbed has been worth it. We've been mingling with king and royal penguins, sharing beaches with elephant seals and hungry seabirds and experiencing amazing auroras.
We've met a passionate group of scientists, rangers, and tradespeople excited about this island's vegetation recovery now the rabbits rats and mice are gone.
They're a tough and fit group, appointing themselves as protectors of this World Heritage-listed land in the middle of the Southern Ocean.
The journey is coming to an end, we're on the Aurora Australis but we've left 13 hardy expeditioners on the island as caretakers for the winter.
It'll be six months before they see anyone else again.

'I think it's incredible. I came down here in 2010 and I could see rabbits on the hillside and a lot of the damage and now we are still seeing rapid change, with increasing tussock coverage on the hillside, little fungi popping up all over the place, insects, and it's going to just keep going,' island ranger Angela Turbett said.

It is now clean-up time on the island and the extra huts used by hunters and dogs during the eradication program are being removed.

Mr Preston said the huts made a great short-term home.

'They were great places, in bad weather they were really a very friendly little home to come home to,' he said.

'They had everything you needed — two bunks, a gas oven, gas heater, plenty of supplies, and a cold porch where you could put your wet gear outside. They made the life of hunters considerably easier.'

Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife rangers have been given special permission to keep one of the huts on the island's wild west coast, the last of the shelters used by hunters.

'The plan is that researchers into the future, coming through here, will be able to use the hut as a safe refuge whilst they work through here,' Mr Howard said.

'Typically we're looking at southern petrels, gentoos, a bit of marine resurveying, and the southern elephant seal senses.'

Gallery: In pictures: The natural beauty of Macquarie Island

Topics:environment, environmental-management, animals, pests, macquarie-island-7151

Macquarie Island Wildlife Sanctuary

First posted April 19, 2015 09:04:08