insights from the ultimate cruising team

Go Wild in the Subantarctic

Go Wild in the Subantarctic

When you think of New Zealand, images of the spectacular Bay of Islands or the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps usually spring to mind. But there’s far more to this gem of a country than meets the eye. Of course, meandering through beautiful blue waters dotted with islands is undeniably idyllic and the action, adventure and scenic beauty in Queenstown and Milford Sound are well worth the visit, but what many people don’t realise is that New Zealand is home to the incredible Subantarctic Islands, where you’ll find incredible sea, bird and marine life in an unspoilt, pristine environment.

These islands, lying south of New Zealand in the Southern Ocean, are home to a myriad wildlife. In fact, those who have had the pleasure of visiting often rank them right up there with Antarctica.

Here are some of the species you are likely to see during a Subantarctic cruise:

New Zealand (Hooker’s) sea lions

The rarest and currently the most endangered species of sea lion in the world. So rare and so few in numbers, you’ll only find New Zealand sea lions on a handful of sites in the Auckland Islands, Campbell Island and Stewart Island.

Fur seals

Unfortunately New Zealand fur seals were nearly wiped out by sealers in the 19th Century. The good news is that the population is increasing and you can often see them among the rocky coasts.

Southern elephant seal

Another species that nearly came to an untimely end due to being exploited for oil in the 19th Century. Australian-owned Macquarie Island is the main breeding ground for these seals, but you’ll also find them on the Antipodes Islands.

Leopard seals

While leopard seals don’t make the Subantarctic Islands their main home or breeding ground, they’re frequent visitors here.


Lying bang smack in the migratory route for many whales, the Subantarctic Islands often play host to a variety of whales, the most common being the southern right whale.

Reischek’s parakeet

Named after pioneering naturalist Andreas Reischek, this small green parakeet is found only on Antipodes Island. It thrives in this environment but because it only lives on this one island, it is vulnerable to threats such as the accidental introduction of rats, for example.

New Zealand snipe

You’ll need good eyesight to spot these endemic birds. They’re small and speckled brown in colour giving it an ideal camouflage in the dense vegetation. They’ve been extinct on the mainland for around 1,000 years, yet they thrive on The Snares, Antipodes Island and on some cat and pig free islands in the Auckland Island group.


There are masses on seabirds on the Subantarctic Islands, with 40 different species calling this area their home. In fact, 11% of the world’s seabird population can be found here. The remote islands are an ideal nesting ground for these birds being free from predators and human interference. From petite and delicate storm petrels to the mighty albatross with a wingspan of over 3 metres, this is a seabird lover’s paradise!


Speaking of the great albatross, you’ll find 10 species of albatross breeding in the Subantarctic. Six of these only breed here and nowhere else in the world – Gibsons, Antipodean, Souther Royal, Campbell, Salvins and White-capped.


Ten species of penguin have been identified in the Subantarctic Islands. Four of these (yellow-eyed and three species of the crested penguin) breed in the Subantarctic.

Now if you’re running to pack your bag and you’ve got your binoculars and camera ready, the next step is to check out the cruises going to the Subantarctic Islands. Small, expedition or luxury-expedition ships venture into these waters as there are strict restrictions on how many people are allowed to visit each year. You won’t find ports filled with almighty liners, or throngs of people bustling about on the shores. Only a handful of ships are permitted and there are strict restrictions on where – and if – you can go ashore. Expedition teams however will take you out on Zodiacs and the emphasis is to do as many Zodiac voyages as weather and wildlife allow.

Every year, people travel from all over the world to take up one of the coveted spots on board the few cruises that travel here so the 2020/2021 season is a great time to get on board while there are less international visitors.  We currently have some incredible offers for Subantarctic cruises – a $2000pp Air Credit with Ponant* (in addition to other incentives!) for.  Click here to see more details or request a call from one of our Ultimate Cruising experts for more information.


*Terms and conditions apply.




Image credits:

Title Image; list image; seabirds; Albatross and Penguins copyright Nathalie Michel Ponant
Hooker's Sea lion
Fur Seal
Elephant Seal
Snow Leopard
Richek's Parakeet Wiki Creative Commons
NZ Snipe by David Boyle