Small Ship Cruises in Subantarctic Islands

A Subantarctic Islands Cruise is a true exploration adventure. Cruises to the Subantarctic Islands, New Zealand, sail south into the great polar ocean around Antarctica. On arrival, you’ll see that your destination bursts with wildlife, much of which is endemic, meaning it exists in one place only, having evolved and thrived on that tiny island for eons. Species endemism in the Subantarctic Islands makes them the “Galapagos of the Southern Ocean.” In these wild, windy World Heritage sites, now protected from human impact by strict tourism guidelines, your camera lens will explode with penguins, seals, seabirds, whales, unique land birds, and dramatic vistas, which are truly a world apart.

Top things to do and see in the Subantarctic Islands

Macquarie Island - Macquarie may be the most famous Subantarctic Island visited by your New Zealand cruise. It owes its high ranking among visitors to the abundance of large, charismatic wildlife. Macquarie, like many of its sister islands, hosts an endemic species of penguin- in this case, Royal Penguins, which have long, yellow eyebrows. Your tour guide will likely draw your attention to the endemic Macquarie Island Shag (kingfisher) as well. Plus, the island hosts a colony of massive Elephant Seals (the larger of the two Elephant Seal species), King, Rockhopper, and Gentoo Penguins, multiple albatross species, Orcas, and Southern Right Whales.

Auckland Islands - Humans seem to have failed every time they probe into Auckland for settlement, treasure, or sailing (the multiple shipwrecks throughout history attest to that), but other animals do just fine. Subantarctic Islands expedition cruises visit Auckland to see beaches strewn with rare New Zealand Sea Lions and windy skies teeming with birds. As you explore the islands on foot, you’ll get to see nesting Royal Albatross up close, as well as the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, rarest penguin species in the world. Endemic mega-herbs vegetation lends colors and strange shapes to the landscape, and regenerating Rata trees host parakeets, Tui, and Bellbird.

The Snares - No introduced mammal has ever touched this island group, which makes the Snares a pristine haven for endemic birdlife. In the past, sailors were wary of landing here because of the shallow reefs likely to trap (or ensnare) their boats, but nowadays, landings are forbidden by the government to protect local species. Therefore, it’s from your adventure cruise ship that you’ll observe the endemic Snares Crested Penguin, the rocky cliff faces with nesting Buller’s Albatross, the Snares Island Tomtit, and others. The Snares hold more species of nesting seabirds than the entire British Isles!

Campbell Island - A variety of land exploration options are available on this ancient, eroded volcano. Subantarctic Islands boat cruises landing on Campbell give visitors the chance to observe huge wildflowers with leaves half a meter long, some of which may be in bloom when you arrive. There’s a mountain with an incredible viewpoint, and an abandoned meteorological station. The local wildlife includes breeding Yellow-eyed Penguins, the critically endangered Campbell Teal (a flightless, duck-like bird long believed extinct), huge Giant Petrels, Southern Royal Albatross and the diminutive Subantarctic Snipe, whose call is wildly disproportionate to its size.

Bounty Islands and Antipodes Islands - The list of wildlife on the Bounty and Antipodes islands, off to the southeast of New Zealand’s southern tip, is astounding. Not all Subantarctic cruises visit here, but if you’re lucky enough to be on one that does, Bounty’s grim, rocky landscape will treat you to thousands of Salvins Albatross, Erect-Crested Penguins, the endemic Bounty Island Shag (rarest in the world), and plenty of large seabirds. Adventure cruises cannot land on the nearby Antipodes Islands, but from your ship you’ll still be able to spot endemic animals including the Antipodean Snipe, Antipodes Island Parakeet (an exceedingly rare creature), and the Antipodean Albatross.

Stewart Island - Just off of New Zealand’s southern tip lies Stewart Island, a paradise where more than seventy-five percent of the landmass is a protected nature reserve, and only two percent is inhabited by humans. Your Subantarctic Islands small ship cruise will have no problem finding untouched, sweeping beaches and verdant rainforests to explore. You will see dolphins, seabirds, landbirds, and the aurora australis (southern lights), but probably no other human soul.

Beach and Bush Walks - Walking through otherworldly habitats and seeing large and small wildlife up close is what makes the Subantarctic Islands cruise experience special. However, the New Zealand and Australian governments forbid landings on a few of the islands which have birds’ nests vulnerable to trampling, or other sensitive flora and fauna. Please understand that these regulations support conservation, and embrace the experience of wildlife-watching from your ship.

Top Tips for visiting the Subantarctic Islands on a cruise

  • Packing layers and outerwear is very important on New Zealand cruises to the Subantarctic Islands, as the weather here can be wet and windy, and you don’t want physical discomfort to prevent you from exploring outdoors, where there’s so much incredible flora and fauna to see!
  • Binoculars and a camera are also a must.

Best time to cruise the Subantarctic Islands

Plan ahead if you want to cruise the Subantarctic Islands, because the summer season is short. Subantarctic Islands expedition cruises in November, December or January are your only options. Stewart Island cruises, on the other hand, run in May.

Where do Subantarctic Islands cruises depart from?

New Zealand adventure cruises to the Subantarctic Islands and Stewart Island depart from the port of Bluff, a small town on the country’s southern tip. Bluff can be reached by car, bus, or shuttle from the local airport at Invercargill. Some Stewart Island cruises depart from Half Moon Bay on Stewart Island itself; to get here on your own, just take a public ferry to Stewart Island from Bluff.

To get to Invercargill, fly into Christchurch or Wellington. Both offer direct flights to Invercargill (Christchurch offers more). If the direct flight schedule doesn’t suit you, just opt for one of the many one-stop flights from either city. Queenstown also offers direct flights to Invercargill, but only flights from Australia are direct.

Book your next adventure cruise to New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands.