National Geographic Orion returned to New Zealand for the first time since 2014; our staff in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands captured incredible wildlife close-ups; and sweeping, ice-filled landscapes greeted guests in Patagonia and Antarctica.
Today began with an early breakfast while the ship was moored in Torrent Bay in Abel Tasman National Park at the top of South Island. Departing on Zodiacs, we joined a local operator to explore the beautiful coastal park. Abel Tasman is usually known for turquoise water, sandy beaches, and warm sun. We experienced the tail end of a big rainstorm that dropped a summer’s worth of rain in one day on the northern part of New Zealand. As we began our walks through the forest of the park, the rain subsided, giving us an accurate experience of New Zealand’s temperate coastal forests! Abel Tasman is a recovering ecosystem after deforestation led to most of the ancient kahikatea and tōtara forests to be felled. Our walk took us through a mature kānuka forest with large groves of silver ferns called ponga. Our guides showed us how the forest is recovering with secondary canopy trees like rimu. Alongside the ponga groves were swathes of kawakawa, an important shrub for the Maori who used it in all sorts of applications because of its medicinal properties. Some bolder members of the group even copied the kererū and ate the kawakawa fruit, which has herby orange flesh. Arriving back at Torrent Bay, we split into groups to wander the stunning beachfront and swim in the warm water. We were welcomed back aboard with an incredible feast of pizza and other scrumptious, well-earned food after the morning walk. With the anchor pulled, National Geographic Orion set off to reach the town of Napier on the East Coast. Our route took us into the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands, which was astoundingly calm and mirror flat. As we cut through the still waters, Tua Pittman, the ship’s Cultural Navigator, regaled us with stories of amazing ocean voyages aboard traditional double-hulled wakas. The history of these incredible canoes is full of traditions and designs, and the canoes once sailed across this wild stretch of water in the Cook Strait.
With smooth, following seas, National Geographic Orion made her way north along the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As day broke, the massive peaks of the Mount Cook Range were under clear skies with a touch of alpenglow light on the ice- and snow-covered peaks. At 3,724 meters, Mount Cook – or more appropriately called by its Maori name, Aoraki (Sky Piercer) – is the tallest peak in New Zealand, the crown of the Southern Alps. We sailed for most of the day with this dramatic coastline on our starboard side in clear view. Late afternoon brought light showers and low clouds, only to be cleared off by northerly winds and high pressure. Along with the stunning scenery and very pleasant weather that afforded us the opportunity to spend quality time taking it all in on the decks, we were escorted by a near constant presence of albatrosses and other seabirds. They glided gracefully in the light winds on a near constant quest for food in the waters of the Tasman Sea, the body of water separating New Zealand and Australia, nearly 1,200 kilometers away. Throughout the day, several presentations were scheduled. The first was on “Threats to Seabirds in the Southern Ocean” by Jayden O’Neill. Cultural Navigator Tua Pittman shared the story of the peopling of the South Pacific and their epic voyages. Lastly, National Geographic representative Ralph Lee Hopkins spoke on travel in the days before Covid-19 changed the world. Our day was punctuated with a brief but impressive sighting of two blue whales, the largest animals that have ever lived.
An early wake-up announcement from expedition leader Brent had an exciting tone to it. “You must bounce out of bed and come and see this,” he said. “There are hundreds of sooty shearwaters around us.” And so there were! The sky was light with the morning sun, and a countless number of these seabirds, known to the Māori as “titi,” glided effortlessly over the waves. Soon, we spotted the intricate silhouette of North East Island, part of the Snares Island group, where we will cruise on Zodiacs. The stunning weather complemented the spectacular scenery of the Snares. New Zealand sea lions and fur seals rollicked on the rocks and played in the rock pools while dozens of Snares crested penguins left their nests and headed for a morning bath. The penguins timed their swim to the strong swell. They hopped from one rock to another to get as close to the sea as possible, though their timing was not always perfect as they tried to catch a wave. The higher cliffs and other rocky outcrops were filled with Buller’s albatross nests, and hundreds of birds flew around us. The slopes of this low-lying island were covered in Olearia lyallii, a lush tree daisy that creates a great canopy for penguins and songbirds like the Snares tomtit (an endemic black passerine). We explored caves, small coves, and little waterways until it was time to say goodbye to this wilderness and prepare to head home. The traditional Captain’s Farewell Cocktail party had an emotional twist for all of us. It has been an EPIC voyage in all senses as we traveled 14,200 km together through the wilderness of Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctic Islands. We have shared the first month of 2023 together, and it is time to say ‘hasta pronto!’ Safe travels to all our new friends. See you again soon!
The light at dawn made the calm waters of Doubtful Sound shimmer as National Geographic Orion slowly cruised through, admiring the steep walls of another part of Fiordland. On our way up the western coast of South Island, guests were treated to coastal scenery beyond belief in transit to Milford Sound.
Today started with a beautiful sunrise. The early morning was focused on birds, and we spotted a few albatross species on our way to Enderby Island. Enderby Island is part of New Zealand's uninhabited Auckland Islands archipelago, south of mainland New Zealand. Situated just off the northern tip of Auckland Island, it is the largest island in the archipelago. We split into smaller groups for two rounds of Zodiac cruises. Sunny weather and a light breeze offered great conditions to explore. We spotted Hooker’s sea lions, southern giant petrels, pipits, Auckland Island shags, red-crowned parakeets, light-mantled sooty albatrosses, subantarctic skuas, etc. The highlight of the day was a yellow-eyed penguin, a species of penguin endemic to New Zealand. After a light lunch, we went hiking ashore. A boardwalk leads across the entire plateau of Enderby Island, from Sandy Bay Beach to the cliffs on the western coast. We enjoyed absolutely stunning and unusual landscapes that included what looked like peat marshland with very unique flora – rata bushes, gentian flowers, mosses and ferns, and various megaherbs. During evening recap, we reviewed all the bright moments of the day and discussed plans for tomorrow. We finished our day with chats and a delicious dinner at the restaurant.