Campbell Island — A Subantarctic Paradise

A peak near the meteorological station at Beeman Cove.

When I won a contest through Oceanwide Expeditions to visit Antarctica, I expected to see glaciers, penguins, and mountains choking with ice. Our first stop, as it turned out, was the lush, relative paradise of uninhabited Campbell Island, one of New Zealand’s five subantarctic islands. I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar universe of green before spending a month in and around a continent locked in ice. However, this supposedly familiar paradise was more alien than I imagined.

Upon landing, the first sight that greeted us was an Erect-Crested Penguin, just by the dock. This little guy was only visiting Campbell, presumably to molt (penguins don’t usually get to choose where this happens). Erect-Crested Penguins mostly breed on New Zealand’s other subantarctic islands, Bounty and Antipodes. Right away, the alien quality of Campbell was up front and center — no green space I had ever seen included penguins.

Campbell Island supports several endemic species of wildlife, and other wayward travelers that use Campbell as a stopping point. Most notable is the Southern Royal Albatross, one of the larger albatross species on Earth — they sport an average wingspan of nearly 10 feet. Some 90% of the Southern Royal population breeds on Campbell Island, which makes Campbell a unique location just in itself. Indeed, we saw many Albatrosses. We even had the privilege of seeing several parents feeding their chicks — right time, right place! These birds are enigmatic, very large, and seemingly indifferent to our intrusions.

An Erect-Crested Penguin, stuck on Campbell island during a molting.
A nesting Southern Royal Albatross on Campbell island — she is much larger than she looks.

Many of us managed to see the friendly New Zealand Pipit. Pipits are small birds that would come right up to us, driven entirely by curiosity. Very few of us got the chance to see a Campbell Island Snipe, an unusual looking, shy bird with a long thin bill. I managed to catch just a glimpse of a snipe while hiking — it vanished very quickly into the foliage. A flightless duck, the Campbell Island Teal, was even more elusive.

One species that does breed here, among only a handful of other places, is the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, the world’s rarest penguin. Yellow-Eyed Penguins are extremely shy and very reluctant to do anything to bring attention to themselves. If confronted by people, this penguin will just stand unseen in the vegetation and wait for the intrusion to pass. A small fraction of our group managed to see a chick, I am told, hiding in the lush undergrowth. I did not see any on Campbell, but I managed to see some in a conservatory back in New Zealand. They are striking creatures and stand quite apart from the normal idea of a penguin.

A Yellow-Eyed Penguin at The Penguin Place in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The plant life on Campbell Island, at first glance, feels to be a familiar grassland-like ecosystem. Upon close inspection that image quickly falls apart. There are indeed grasses, and “bushes” of a sort, but there are also grass species that have evolved tree-like appearances, and something called megaherbs. Megaherbs are flowering plants that have evolved to be quite large on Campbell Island, possibly through Island Gigantism. The leaf structure of megaherbs seems to be adapted at retaining heat, a key feature given this island’s location in the world. They are an otherworldly sight.

One of the many over-sized flowering plants on Campbell island.
A poorly stitched panorama of Campbell Island
Another poorly stitched panorama of Campbell Island

Overall, Campbell island is a beautiful place…a striking landform and a subantarctic garden of Eden. If Oceanwide had not given me the opportunity to travel here, I wouldn’t have given Campbell Island so much as a passing thought — just another dot on a map near New Zealand. However, after seeing this place, after seeing its exquisite beauty and alien lifeforms, its dramatic valleys and seaside cliffs, I now have an appreciation for what an island ecosystem can be. Now, I am very curious to see what unexpected evolutionary artistry exists on some of these other remote dots on the map.

If you are looking to travel to the remotest parts of the world, then I suggest you book passage with Oceanwide Expeditions. They have the best ships (ours had helicopters!) and a knowledgeable, experienced crew. Check out their offerings here:

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