South West Pacific Odyssey 2015 concludes
6 April - 23 April 2015
Category: South Pacific
Mon April 6 2015
The port of Tauranga greeted us with an overcast day as we meet for the first time and boarded the Spirit of Enderby. After orienting ourselves to the layout of the ship and clearing customs in the bar library we had our first introduction to the staff and ship.
At 1600hrs we welcomed the pilot aboard for our departure. The sun came out as we steamed close to the Mount with Chris and Jim reeling off at least 10 species of bird before we had made the open sea!
The coastal birdlife was quickly replaced by pelagic species as we set our course to pass to the west of Mayor Island. By sun down we had we retreated to the lecture room to go over safety procedures closely followed by a lifeboat drill.
After sundown chefs Linzy and Cath treated us to a fine dinner of steak and salmon before attending the first bird list of the voyage and retiring for an early night in quiet seas.
Tue April 7 2015
S35° 55’.55 E175°09’.52
We were greeted by a calm morning and a spectacular dawn as The Spirit of Enderby approached the Mokohine Islands which lie in the Hauraki Gulf. As we circled the Maori Rocks we were able to get good views of Grey Ternlets roosting on some precarious stacks.
The Spirit of Enderby did three loops of the rocks before heading out to the 200 metre bottom contour were our chances of seeing the New Zealand Storm-petrel were higher. Chris volunteered for the smelly job of laying a fish oil slick from the aft deck and come out smelling of roses as immediate sightings of the Storm-petrel were had.
We did several passes of the slick and were rewarded with further sightings and additional species in Cook’s Petrel, Fluttering Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater and Fairy Prions.
As we steamed north towards Cape Reinga we were able to catch glimpses of both Wandering and White-capped Albatross, Black Petrel and briefly sighted a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins.
Wed April 8 2015
S33° 56’.68 E172°19’.64
Dawn saw the Spirit of Enderby off the Three Kings Islands. There were significant over boils and currents in this area which makes it very productive and rich in birdlife. Early risers were able to catch good sightings of Wilson’s Storm-petrel, New Zealand Storm-petrel, White-faced Storm-petrel and White Necked Petrel.
Chris and Sav surprised the group with a bird in a box! A Black-winged Petrel had been attracted to the ship’s lights overnight and had been rescued from the deck. The bird spent the night in a biscuit box in Chris’s cabin and looked very relieved to be set free from the aft deck by Sav. The petrel circled a few times to get its bearings and headed back south with tales of an alien abduction for its friends.
A nice fish oil slick was laid before breakfast and a couple of passes were made with good views of Long-tailed Skua and a rare glimpse of a Herald Petrel.
In the afternoon Chris gave us an informative lecture on the seabirds we might expect to encounter on our way north.
Thur April 9 2015
S30° 35’.14 E169°34’.36
A distinct pattern to ship board life seems to be developing, with the keenest birders up at daybreak to start scouring the sea and sky for birds. Around 07:00 the smell of a delicious breakfast cooking drifts up over the top deck and slowly, one by one the birders give in to the temptation and head down to eat, hoping that whilst they are gone they won’t miss anything too exciting!
Early risers managed a glimpse of a Tahiti Petrel this morning followed by breakfast and then a distant group of Sperm Whales spouting. With 150 nautical miles to go until reaching Norfolk Island we were over some very deep water which explains the reduced number of birds and presence of whales.
After another delicious lunch from Cath and Linzy the afternoon was relatively bird free with only the sight of a Red-tailed Tropicbird giving an indication of our proximity to Norfolk Island.
At 1600hrs Sav gave an excellent talk on the rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm-petrel: an intriguing tale of chance, bureaucracy and mystery played out within sight of New Zealand’s largest city.
Fri April 10 2015
S29° 04’.13 E167°57’.20
Overnight The Spirit of Enderby came to anchor at Sydney Bay on the south coast of Norfolk Island. At midnight we put our clocks 30 minutes back to align with Norfolk Island time.
With an early breakfast under our belts the Australian Customs and Immigration agents came on-board. The intensity of activity on board ship increased throughout breakfast as everyone got ready to go ashore. The first Zodiacs left the Spirit of Enderby at 0700 for the harbour. Despite a good roll coming into the beach the landing was relatively calm but incredibly slippery. We were welcomed ashore by Margaret Christian and her family who were lined up to show us around Norfolk.
After getting everyone ashore, we piled into the buses and mini vans for the drive up to the National Park. First stop was Palm Glen, in the foothills of the National Park and perfect for endemic land bird hunting. Somewhat surprisingly the key target species of Norfolk Island Parakeet, Slender-billed White-eye, and Norfolk Gerygone were seen almost immediately with other species such as the Pacific Emerald Dove and Grey Fantail seen not long after.
The generalist party enjoyed a tour through the Kingston penal colony buildings, a peruse of the main street of Burnt Pine and a lap of the island. By 1430hrs both parties were back at the Kingstown wharf and ready for a challenging Zodiac trip through a moderate surge that was breaking into the landing. Once back aboard we were tucked into a superb late lunch prepared by Cath and Linzy and enjoyed the views of the island as steamed our way up the west coast. The late afternoon rewarded us with some great birding from the bow with sightings of Cook’s Petrel, White-necked Petrel and Long-tailed Skua.
Sat April 11 2015
S26° 24’.24 E167°12’.20
In the night the Spirit of Enderby’s clocks went back another half hour to put us on New Caledonia time. With the wind around in the south we made good time over night and arrived at the position of a likely looking seamount just on breakfast. A fish oil slick was put out and promptly lost by Chris as we steamed back to it! After finding the slick we were able to get good views of the only recently described Magnificent Petrel amongst the Collared Petrels.
Significant flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen before lunch.They are on their annual epic migration from Tasmania to the waters of the Russian Far East.
After Lunch the Captain informed us that there was a weak tropical cyclone forming over New Caledonia. At our current speed we were due to arrive while it reached its peak so Nathan decided to introduce a second engine to increase our speed and bring forward the Noumean pilot to 0900hrs.
The afternoon saw a drop in the birds as we traversed deep water. As delightful compensation we passed close by to a large pod of Pilot Whales and just on dusk we were got a close up view of a Sperm Whale on the port side of the ship.
Sun April 12, 2015
Overnight we made good time to New Caledonia beating the increase in wind from tropical cyclone Solo. We had heavy rain and limited visibility but were able to capture a glimpse of a small group of Cuvier’s Beaked Whales on the starboard side of the ship. Small numbers of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Gould’s and Tahiti Petrel and a Whiskered Tern were spotted from the ship. By 0900 we had the pilot on board and entered the reef pass for the short passage towards the Port of Noumea. We were greeted at the entrance to the pass with large flocks of Black Noddys and something that resembled a Fraser’s Dolphin.
By 1030hrs we were tied up alongside and welcoming customs aboard to clear us into New Caledonia. With time available due to our early arrival we were able to spend the afternoon wandering the streets of Noumea in the rain and wind. Chris and Sav lead a small birding walk and were able to catch glimpses of the Dark-brown Honeyeater before finding the only Pub open in Noumea on a Sunday.
Mon April 13, 2015
Katrin’s soothing tones woke us at 3.30am for what turned out to be a big day. Cath got a special birthday morning sleep in while Lindzy prepared or breakfast and had everyone ready to go by 4.30am. The bus kept island time, running about half an hour late, but before long we were headed out of Noumea and into the centre of the island, towards Riviere de Bleue National Park for a day’s birding.
On arrival at the park we had a quick comfort stop, under strict instructions from Nathan that this wasn’t a birding stop! Here we meet Jean Mark, our guide and he lead us to Le Pont Perignon where we left the bus crossed the bridge and were shuttled the six kilometres to the edge of the rain forest by minivan to start birding. The first species on everybody’s wish list was the Kagu and the first bird was soon found. The Kagu was to be the first of many allowing great views and excellent photo opportunities. A little later we saw two more Kagus and throughout the day over 15 individual birds were seen. This is a sure sign that the conservation efforts are beginning to pay dividends.
After finding the Kagu we walked through the forest along the road to Grande Kauri searching for other endemic birds. The road makes its way through second growth forest and at places there are clear views out over the river. The weather was kind to us, being not too hot with only a couple of short showers which caused cameras to be hurriedly packed away. We saw a number of endemics as we spread out along the road. An excellent range of endemic birds were seen amongst our group, with highlights including Southern Shrikebill, New Caledonian Friarbird and New Caledonian Myzomela.
A comfort stop back at the park entrance added Long-tailed Triller and Rufous Whistler to an already extensive list.
The drive back to the ship was much quieter than our outbound journey, with the early morning start taking its toll and many people dozing off. The Spirit of Enderby departed Noumea at 1500hrs. We passed several small islands with distant views of Fairy and Greater Crested Terns. By 1630hrs the Pilot had departed and we had set course to traverse the south west coast of New Caledonia before heading north to the Solomons. The late afternoon brought us several hundred Gould’s Petrels and a brief view of a Providence Petrel. By anyone’s standards this was a big day for the birders!
Tue April 14, 2015
A well-deserved sleep in was had by all after the long day ashore yesterday. Overnight we had made good time along the coast of New Caledonia with a following breeze. The early morning bow watchers were rewarded with sightings off Kermadec, Tahiti and Collared Petrels, Short-tailed and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a close up glimpse of a pair of Cuvier’s Beaked Whales.
After lunch, Nathan briefed us with an update on our schedule. Unfortunately the chief of Anuta Island had been taken seriously ill and we were asked by the village to cancel our day ashore there. Nathan and Chris were looking for other landing options in the area.
Afternoon bird watchers managed sightings of White, Sooty and Greater Crested Terns as well as what appeared to be a Blainville’s Beaked Whale.
At dusk we were entertained by a couple of Red-Footed Boobies which used the Spirit of Enderby as a roost overnight.
Wed April 15, 2015
It was a quiet day on the birding front as we neared the northern end of New Caledonia and set course for Rennell Island. Before breakfast Chris laid a fish oil slick. As the ship turned to face the 20Knots of SE wind the gallery on the bow got a couple of good soakings!
The slick produced little in the way of bird life so headed back on course for Rennell and retired to the dining room for breakfast.
All eyes were out for a view of the Polynesian Storm Petrel with none to be seen all morning. While some of us were watching the BBC series Wild Pacific in the lecture room Chris announced a Polynesian Storm Petrel on the port bow. David and Megan departed rapidly for the 400 level!
Windy wet conditions for the rest of the day saw many retire to the interior of the Spirit of Enderby
Thur April 16, 2015
Overnight the strong SSE wind abated which meant a much more pleasant motion and tropical conditions for being on deck. It was a quiet day on the birding front with the tropical heat really starting to kick in.
After lunch Chris cast another fish oil slick that attracted a couple of Wilson’s Storm-petrels. This is a sight usually associated with the Southern Ocean, which tells of the fortitude of these small birds.
The afternoon was notable for distant sightings of beaked whale species, lesser frigate birds and for Steve’s unusual D shaped sunburn spot on his head, the result of wearing his baseball cap backwards like a gangster rapper!
Nathan gave an informative lecture on the workings of the ship and the finer points of leading expeditions in the South Pacific.
Sun down saw some weary birders retiring to the bar after a day in the heat. Discussion revolved around our pending arrival at Rennell overnight and what the day might bring tomorrow.
Friday April 17, 2015
During the early hours of the morning the Spirit of Enderby arrived offshore of Rennell Island, the southern most of the Solomon Islands. The waters around the island are too deep to anchor, so the Captain needed to maintain a position offshore. The morning call was made at 05:30 and breakfast was served shortly after this. Well before first light, Nathan, Matt and Chris felt their way into the beach over the reef and went ashore to wake up the Solomon Islands Custom and Immigration Officials and brought them on board. Once the officials had completed formalities, we started taking passengers ashore. As it was high tide the Zodiacs had no trouble negotiating the narrow reef entrance and were soon inside the calm turquoise lagoon heading for the sandy beach. We were welcomed ashore at Lavange Village by Johnson and his friendly band of helpers. After a quick briefing by Nathan and Chris we headed inland to start birding.
The road from the beach climbs up a steep slope and then meanders through the main village for some time. The birders continued along this road, which initially passes through land cleared by villagers for growing crops and regenerating scrub/forest. As the road gets further inland it enters mature primary rainforest. After about two kilometres it joins a wider forestry road, along which came barreling the odd truck. At places we headed off this road along small trails which the villagers use to harvest timber for their own use. These trails gave us a much better sense of the nature and structure of the rainforest and in particular the rough jagged limestone nature of the forest floor. The birding was great, with good sightings of all the targeted endemic birds. Highlights included excellent views of the Silver-capped Fruit Dove, Rennell Shrikebill, Rennell Fantail and both endemic White-eyes.
Those not so obsessed with birds spent their time exploring the village, wandering along paths and discovering how locals live in such an isolated location. Alejandro appointed himself head soccer coach and had a great game with the younger boys of the village. A visit to the school and the playing field was followed by a trek back through the more dense part of the village. The locals provided each of us with a refreshing fresh coconut to drink on the return from our walk. As the day warmed up many headed to the beach to swim and snorkel. The coral and fish life in the lagoon, especially in the deeper water by the lagoon entrance was quite spectacular as where the odd rain shower that rattled through.
At 1200hrs the last Zodiac left the beach and we waved the Lagange Villagers farewell. Barely anything of note was sighted during the afternoon, and an early night was had by all.
Sat April 18, 2015
Chris’s morning call at 0430hrs saw us anchored off Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Cath and Lindzy had again got up earlier to provide us with a hearty breakfast before our day ashore. The first Zodiacs headed to the bustling wharves at 0600hrs. Our local agent Wilson and his drivers were waiting for us and we transferred to the shuttle bus and four wheel drive vehicles for the trip up to Mount Austin.
After a quick briefing by Chris, we headed off into the forest. From the clearing at the top of the hill, the path dropped off steeply down into a river valley, followed shortly by a wide vista which provided good views over a large area of forest. Some time was spent here targeting birds and was the only place that the Buff-headed Coucal was seen (several others were heard, but not seen). As the track continued to drop into the valley it passed through a variety of habitats from areas of thick forest to regenerating forest and then small grassy clearings. The birding was just as productive as Rennell Island, with the tally of targeted birds slowly increasing as the group moved further along the trail. The Ultramarine Kingfisher was spotted and the bird stayed perched for some time allowing excellent views and photo opportunities. Most ended up with a pretty healthy bird list for the area, with highlights including great views of Blyth’s Hornbill, Solomon’s Sea Eagle, Bluff-headed Coucal and Ultramarine Kingfisher.
Those who didn’t want an early morning start headed into Honiara at 0700hrs and spent the day exploring the city. We started at the bustling market and moved on to the industrial waterfront and the humbling American World War II memorial and finished off with a walk in China town and an exploration of the remains of the botanic gardens.
After a quick trip back to the ship for lunch a return to the city for an afternoon’s exploring was in order. By 1600hrs all of us had returned to the ship and before the Spirit of Enderby departed north.
Sun April 19, 2015
Overnight we approached the northwestern end of Santa Isabel Island and on daybreak anchored off the entrance to Dart Sound. We had chosen this destination after we had our schedule rearranged by the sudden illness of the chief of Anuta. By 0700hrs we had departed the ship for a new and unexplored adventure into the sound. Nathan and our Solomon Island guide Wilson went on ahead to scout the sound and look for potential landing sites. Within minutes of entering the narrow sound we had good birdlife in the rain forest on either side, enjoying great views of Beach Kingfisher as we cruised in.
The tidal stream in the sound was vigorous and our flotilla of zodiacs was swept through the narrow section at a rate of knots. Nathan and Wilson met us half way and guided us to Vakao Island and the unique resort on the island. We were greeted by Lydia and her team who run the resort for a mainly surfing clientele. Chris and Sav headed away with the birding group, quickly finding the endemic Yellow-throated White-eye and Red-capped Myzomela, while Matt, Lindzy and Katrin went for a walk along the coastline spotting Sea snakes, Iguanas, and sampling some of the delicious versions of Coconut.
We returned to the ship to shower, cool off and take in a tasty lunch before splitting into two groups. The snorkelers found a nice beach and reef not far from the ship while the birders traveled back into Dart Sound, taking a big step back in time and landing at Kupikoko village. With 20 souls this village is remote even by Solomon Island standards. The entire village welcomed us ashore and Chris played bird calls to the guides and explained what we were looking for. Within minutes the birders were on the trail and with a bit of acoustic magic from Chris we managed to get a glimpse of a Melanesian Megapode. Wilson and Matt stayed back at the village and did talk talk with the chief and his family and it became apparent that Wilson does indeed know everyone in the Solomons!
With only a few hours warning of our arrival the village did a marvelous job of accommodating us and as a gesture of our thanks Chris donated a bird identification book to help them find the target species in the future. Our voyage back to the ship in the approaching dusk allowed another spot of drift birding from the zodiacs before a spectacular rainsquall complete with double rainbows had us scurrying for the ship.
After dinner and a briefing on our next day of activities on Kolombangara Island it was an early night for most.
Mon April 20, 2015
Another early morning wakeup call we prepared for big day on Kolombangara Island. By 0630hrs we were ashore at Kukudu village in Ringi Cove ready to be loaded into the trucks that would take us up onto the mountain and to visit the unique Imbu Rano Lodge. The Island has a very successful forestry and conservation management system which supplies sustainable hardwood production with significant areas of conservation land providing essential habitat to the wildlife.
The lodge proved an excellent viewing platform for bird watching in the cool mountain air. The birding group remained here for some time reluctant to break the spell. Excellent views of Pale Mountain Pigeon, as well as Solomon Islands White-eye and Crimson-rumped Myzomela were had at the lodge and later on back down the access road.
Linzy lead a small group of the young and energetic down to the river for a dip and a spot of rapid riding. The trip back up the hill was blessed with cooler conditions and a tropical downpour to match.
After a trip back to the landing site in the rain we retreated to the ship for a delicious lunch and rest. By 1400hrs a small group departed for a snorkeling expedition to a small point west of Ringi Cove where we were greeted by Eric and his family who run a small home stay there. The reef was rich in life and made a nice change of scenery for some of the birders. By 1600 we were all back aboard the ship and ready to depart north to PNG. The Solomon Islands gave us a great send off with some spectacular displays from Spinner Dolphins and Rough-toothed Dolphins. A major bonus for the birders was a group of 4 Heinroth’s Shearwaters.
Tue April 21, 2015
A solid night’s sleep was followed by the luxury of a 0800hrs breakfast this morning. After four days of early starts it was much appreciated. At first light we were off the western coast of Bougainville over a very deep trench and enjoying the flat conditions. We had been pushing current all-night which had us slightly behind time. By afternoon we had made up some ground and were able to take the time move in closer to the coast of Bougainville to lay a fish oil slick.
The slick seemed to make very little difference to the numbers of birds. This is an area which in the past has produced good birding and cetaceans so our expectations were high. The day proved to be a little disappointing with only a small number of birds, whales and dolphins seen. A possible explanation was the sea temperature. At 5 metres down in the hull at the engine water intake the temperature was 30˚C and at the surface the water temperature was an astounding 33˚C! Any fish life would be deep down to escape the heat, hence the lack of life at the surface.
Even so, the short bird list for the day included more Heinroth’s Shearwater, Streaked Shearwater and Grey-backed Tern.
Wed April 22, 2015
Dawn break on our final day at sea saw all the usual suspects on deck, keen to make the most of their last opportunity for more ticks. While a fish oil slick was laid Matt and Nathan erected the shade sail on the monkey deck to provide blessed relief from the torments of the sun.
The slick didn’t produce much in the way of variety, but it did bring in one of the “big” birds of the whole voyage – Beck’s Petrel. At least 20 sightings of Beck’s Petrel were made through the day, with 5 individuals on the original slick at one point. A fairly large pod of Spinner Dolphins caused smiles all around. After several stops during the day we made our way around the southern end of New Ireland just on dusk. At trip recap briefing Alejandro produced an excellent video of the voyage that captured some great memories. The day was capped off with a delicious final dinner by Cath and Linzy.
Thur April 23, 2015
Dawn found us on station off Kokopo PNG. Nathan took a zodiac ashore to pick up the customs officials and before returning to the ship. Due to PNG arrival requirements we had to do a short voyage to the Rabaul pilot station and back to officially clear in. Once back at Kokopo we received the immigration official who had forgotten his stamp! With the stamp retrieved we were able to clear in to PNG and head ashore for some birding and a trip to the market at Kokopo.
Birding was good around the landing site, with several local specialties found in the searing late morning heat – Black Sunbird and New Britain Friarbird being the pick
On the beach we said our final farewells to the 16 of us who were departing the ship in PNG with some fond memories and shared experiences that we will remember for the rest of our life. Others were continuing their journey with us to more destinations in the South Pacific islands.