By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 22/02/2016

Update: The HMNZS Canterbury is being deployed to the Pacific to help Fiji in the recovery from Cyclone Winston. At this stage, Operation Endurance is suspended. Feb 24, 2016.

It’s not every day you get a phone call asking if you’d like to jump on a boat for a few weeks and travel to a part of New Zealand most people will never get to see.

I have the incredible fortune, some might call it dumb luck, to be headed to the Antipodes Islands courtesy of the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the New Zealand Navy.

But while I’m getting ready for a heck of an adventure, there’s a really important project that this voyage is helping to set up.

Antarctica and the Subantarctic Islands (click to enlarge).

Two hundred years ago, Europeans set sail into the Southern Ocean and along the way they found a smattering of far-flung islands: the Subantarctic Islands.

New Zealand has a bundle of them under our wing: Campbell Island, the Auckland Islands, the Snares, Bounty Island and the Antipodes Islands.

[Looking at the map, it would seem Macquarie Island would be under our protection too but the Aussies have that one.]

Everywhere humans went, we took baggage in the form of small furry things: mice, rats, stoats, rabbits. Some were accidental – stowaways making the most of a free boat ride. Others were intentional: left as food for castaways or following failed attempts at farming in the howling conditions of the Furious Fifties.

Once there, they wreaked havoc. The Subantarctics have rare sets of birds, invertebrates and plant-life that evolved without the nibbling, gnawing rodents or clomping ungulates that their early human visitors left behind.

For over 50 years, New Zealand conservation has been driven in the goal of removing the invasive mammals that we left on our islands so many years ago.

This year, it’s Antipodes Island’s turn.

A few years ago, Gareth Morgan asked some DOC staff how much it would cost to rid Auckland Island of pests. That’s a difficult project and the estimate he was given ($25 million) was hefty, so he asked if there was something cheaper. Yes, Antipodes Island for $1 million.

So Morgan did what he arguably does best: he raised the capital through the Million Dollar Mouse campaign. The public donated $250,000, WWF added $100,000, he matched it and DOC and other partners stumped up the rest.

What do you get for a million bucks? It wouldn’t even scratch the cost of the flag referendum, but DOC and other scientists plan to get mice off Antipodes Island using poison bait this winter.

If they succeed, it will be another feather in the cap of New Zealand conservation. This is something we’ve become really good at. So good we now export our science, scientists and even helicopter pilots to other countries that want to get furry pests off their special islands.

But first, things need to be prepared. For this, the New Zealand Navy has stepped in to help DOC get ready for the eradication. They’re sending the HMNZS Canterbury (pictured above when she was berthed in Wellington on February 14) which will be her first voyage to the Subantarctics.

On Thursday, we leave Dunedin bound first for Campbell Island. There a DOC team will be dropped off and left for about a month. Their task is mostly to maintain and build boardwalks, essential for allowing tourists (only 500 people are allowed to visit the islands every year) to get around without damaging the delicate soils.

The rest of us will carry on to Antipodes Island where major preparations are under way for this winter’s attempt at eradicating mice. The DOC team has learnt from previous experience that it’s best not to leave helicopters outside on the Subantarctics – the conditions are pretty gnarly. So on this trip, they are building a helicopter hangar, ready for the pilots in winter. They’re also taking as much of the necessary equipment as possible so that when the eradication team goes down they can hit the ground running. Time and weather waits for no woman or man on the Subantarctics.

Throughout the voyage I’ll be blogging and posting news stories whenever possible, so be sure to keep an eye out for more Subantarctic stories.

Anchors aweigh!

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