Yesterday evening, the first lands of New Island were in sight. At night as the sails gradually came down, the Europa approached and dropped anchor at the South Harbour of New Island, the west-most inhabited island of the archipelago.
A surprisingly diverse and rich spot for local wildlife and striking scenery that really makes for spending the whole day in the area. An important spot in the history of the region, as an early site for whaling and sealing.
Looking back to the year 1774, they were the American sealing vessels that anchored here, following a relatively short period during which the island suffered the depletion of marine mammals, penguins, albatross, and other wildlife as sources of oil and food. Framed on these island’s bloody period, one of the most interesting stories here happened in 1813 when an American from Nantucket, Captain Charles H. Barnard together with a handful of his crew, marooned on New Island whilst engaged in a sealing venture around the area on board the Nanina. To survive they together built a rough stone shelter at the head of the nowadays called Settlement Harbour. Right where we made our first footsteps ashore after being at sea since nine days ago. As a reminder of the history of the island here stands the “Barnard Museum”.
A couple of miles further north, the Norwegian entrepreneur Salvesen established the only land-based whaling station in the region that functioned between 1908 and 1916.
Like many other islands and terrains in the area, New Island was leased in 1860 for farming purposes too. A succession of settlers engaged in sheep and cattle farming until as recently as 1972 when the whole of the island was sold to Roddy Napier and Ian Strange, who gradually got more and more involved in scientific research support, Conservation projects, and tourism. Nowadays the island is regulated and manned by the Conservation Trust, depending on the Wildlife Conservation Society.
With high expectations to set foot on land, we welcome the calm sunny morning, and after preparing the deck and zodiacs, soon we head towards “Coffin Harbour”. A shipwreck lays at their sandy beach, the Protector, beached at this shore. Built in 1943, she arrived in the region in 1949 to work for the sealing industry, then she was reassigned as a freighter between the islands, ending her life in 1969. At its back, there’s the Barnard Memorial Museum, opened for us. With a good display of sealing and whaling artifacts, a collection of books and souvenirs locally crafted and informative boards, it represented a good start for heading afterward inland along green meadows to the top of the 170m high cliffs overlooking the ocean on the western side of the island.
Turkey vultures glide over our heads and Striated Caracaras walk around always curious. Falkland steamer ducks, Crested ducks, Upland, Kelp, and the rarer Ruddy-headed geese are soon spotted too.
Contrasting with the gentleness of the eastern coast, the exposed west shoreline is the precipitous home for several Black-browed albatrosses and King cormorant colonies, together and mixed up with large rookeries of Rockhopper penguins. A breathtaking sight both for the scenery and the tame wildlife, which we can approach until a well-marked delimitation perimeter by the locals, who accompany us during the visit.
Many Black-browed albatrosses lay on their eggs, others display courtship behavior. Mixed with them are the ubiquitous Rockhopper penguins. Countless King cormorants with their feather tufts adorning their heads and deep blue rings around their eyes are also incubating and tirelessly picking up grasses and any building material available around for their nests.
They, together with some albatrosses fly and glide at a scarce couple of meters from our heads.
All around, plenty of opportunities for scavengers and predators like the Kelp and dolphin gulls, Skuas, and Striated caracaras to get a morsel stealing the eggs of the other birds.
A wonderful morning, unique experiences with the local wildlife, and a great introduction to the region. But in the afternoon there was more to come.
After a short repositioning of the ship, soon we find ourselves at “Ship Harbour”, where the sun shines and the breeze picks up.
A slightly rougher zodiac ride brought us to a small pocket beach from where evading numerous Magellanic penguin burrows on the soft ground that leads to a sort of dirt road, we start the afternoon bit of a hike.
First, down below we leave a pond around which hundreds of geese breed, and the “North Harbour beach”. Nowadays is teeming with life, in the early 19th century it was home for sealing operations. The locals met us again at about this point to show us a detour on the hike to a secluded and scenic black-browed colony, perched up high on the characteristic cliffs of the north and western coasts of the island. The seas break hard down below, the birds glide over our heads, while others quietly lay on their eggs next to us.
Continuing with a little more walking, we end up at the Gentoo penguin rookery that characterizes this part of the island.
Located at the top of the ample saddle between North Bluff and the rounded Bold Hill, from there a gentle slope downhill leads to an open valley with good access to the sea along a lovely white sandy beach. Sure there it's just amazing to spend some quiet time observing the penguin gatherings both ashore and in the swell, on their way back and forth the water.
Now just a short way back along a well-trodden path led us back to the landing beach, where the wind has increased together with a bit of a swell, making for some a wet ride back to the ship, where soon dinner was served. A fantastic first day spent at New Island, a great welcome to the region, with its friendly and helpful people, stunning scenery, and charismatic wildlife.