I’m back on the mainland after a second visit to Norfolk Island over Christmas. Having explored much of the island on my earlier trip, this visit was more relaxing but it allowed me to do one unfinished item of business. That was a visit to the uninhabited smaller Phillip Island tantalisingly close, 7km to the south. Rough seas stopped me from getting there in October and it seemed I would be frustrated again this time round until the ocean calmed down on my last day.
At 5am that final morning we headed down to Kingston pier and joined a half dozen other tourists for the short journey. A local charter company took us over. Skipper Dave (aboard) guided the boat into the water using the crane. Ron (in the light blue shirt) was our island guide.
We were soon hoisted down and then away through the break in the reef into the open ocean on an overcast morning. It was a quick and bumpy ride over choppy waves accompanied by flying fish who swooped out of the water while birds hovered above.
Fifteen minutes we were slowing down as we approached Phillip Island. I was looking carefully for our landing spot and assumed it was where the two poles were. Whereever it was, it looked basic.
As we pulled in, it seemed our landing spot was just a rock. Ron manouevered himself to the front of the boat and hopped off on to the rocks. I was next but had to wait as we bobbed to and fro in the tide. Eventually Ron gave me the signal and I jumped onto the rocks. It was slippery and I found out it was better to take off my walking shoes and walk on the wet rocks in my socks. After several attempts Dave and Ron got all the passengers off the boat. The concern was how this process would take place in reverse when we had to get back on.
But for now there was exploring to be done. We had landed opposite the poles which were at the base of a makeshift hut used by fishers. It was a tricky landing for anyone, yet it was the best harbour the cliff-faced island had to offer.
Speaking of cliffs, they were right above us and had to be climbed to begin our walk to the summit. I quickly put my boots on. There were steps and ropes but gravity made this an easier deal going up. Like the boarding, the hard part would be later when we had to descend.
Just as I was the first off the boat, I was also the first to climb the ropes (one at a time) before we could start the walk proper. The entire island is part of Norfolk Island National Park.
Though the island is uninhabited, it has felt the brunt of human interference. In the penal era, the British introduced pests such as pigs, goats and rabbits who removed the topsoil. They caused massive erosion devastating vegetation and leaving much of the island looking like a moonscape. The pigs and goats were removed by the early 20th century, and rabbits were exterminated by 1988.
National Parks staff have undertaken a massive regeneration program and greenery is returning to Phillip Island. The island was named in 1788 by Norfolk’s first governor Philip Gidley King in honour of Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales. That put it ahead of its bigger and better known synonym in Victoria named for the same Phillip in 1798.
The island’s isolation is a haven for the birds who inhabit it in large numbers such Sula dactylatra tasmani, or the Masked Booby (Tasman Sea). It breeds on Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands, including satellite islands. Boobies range widely over the ocean and occasionally reach Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. The chick (left) is as big as its parent. Booby comes from the Spanish word “bobo” meaning stupid person. The birds were considered stupid by Spanish sailors because they were unused to the danger of humans and landed on ships where they were easily killed for food.
In the air the booby is far from ungainly. The male advertises his territory to females by flight circuiting—making a short flight and holding his wings in a ‘V’ shape and making a call as he lands. Their prey is the flying fish of which we saw plenty on the way to the island.
Up top we could see Dave making his way back to the island again after dropping us off. The only other people we saw later in the day were a couple of volunteers who were planning to stay on the island for a month to monitor the bird life. There were no other tourists on Phillip Island that morning.
Ron told more about the island. He has a long conservation history with the island and with Norfolk itself where he helped protect the endangered green parrot. Here he showed us subsidence between two ledges. This was level ground as recently as a decade ago and has subsided two metres due to topsoil erosion.
Ron showed us Hibiscus insularis. This is the Phillip Island hibiscus, a species endemic to the island. H. Insularis was believed to be extinct and this is one of two small clumps where it survives. It has been propagated and planted more widely on the island, but only vegetatively which does not increase the genetic diversity. It produces greenish-yellow flowers that fade to mauve through most of the year.
He also showed us this magnificent whitewood. The tree somehow survives despite having all its roots exposed as the erosion does its work.
Birds such as the white-capped noddy love what vegetation survives. These birds are called noddies because of the behaviour of both sexes as they constantly dip their heads during their breeding display. The bird breeds in large numbers on Norfolk, Phillip and the smaller Nepean Island.
The Kermadec petrel ranges over subtropical and tropical waters of the South Pacific but Phillip Island and Lord Howe Island are the only two breeding places in Australian waters. The bird nests in a crevice among rocks and lives on squid and crustaceans.
This old hut on the high end of Phillip Island is mostly disused but was the home of a now dead couple who tagged many of birds on the island. There is a more substantial hut lower down used by National Parks staff and volunteers.
As we approach the summit, we get a view of the south east cliff faces at the appropriately named Lonely Bay. The cliffs are over 250m high and a great nesting place for birds.
This was as close as we could get to the island’s highest point at Jacky Jacky. There was a razorback and insecure cliffs between where I took this photo and the highest point that kept it out of reach.
This was the view looking north from the same spot over the island and the track we had taken with Norfolk and Nepean Islands in the distance.
These cliffs on the south-east side were almost as high. In winter the cliff cavities provide homes for the Providence Petrel. The bird was hunted to extinction on Norfolk Island after the starving colonists arrived in 1798 but survived in this remoter region. Here and Lord Howe Island remain its only homes.
Being summer I didn’t see any Providence Petrels but I did see plenty of sooty terns. Sooty terns breed in colonies on rocky or coral islands and are common on Norfolk and Phillip Islands. This migratory bird nests in a ground scrape or hole and lays one to three eggs. It feeds by picking fish from the surface in marine environments, often in large flocks, and rarely comes to land except to breed.
The way back was less eventful and we all managed to clamber over the rocks and back on to the boat without too much difficulty, thanks to the expert reading of the waves by skipper Dave. But near the end, we did spot another item of unique local fauna. This is Cormocephalus coynei, a species of centipede found only on Phillip and Nepean islands. Also known as the Phillip Island centipede, it has been known since convict times but only scientifically recognised in 1984.