The long and colourful history of Campbell Island

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A Sperm whale tooth decorated with a message reading: For good friends / from RUSSIAN SS "GNEVNY" / 14-15/I65. A map of Campbell Island has been drawn on the opposite side of the tooth. The tooth has been mounted on a metal rod affixed to a round wooden base. Collection of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha.

MOTU Ihupuku, or Campbell Island, is a cold, windswept and rather rugged subantarctic island about 600km south of Rakiura Stewart Island.

If you think Southland’s weather can be challenging, it rains on Campbell Island 325 days a year, has frequent galeforce winds and rarely gets above 12degC

With no permanent residents (or their associated pests) on the island these days, the lucky few who get to visit find a veritable naturalist’s paradise filled with unique flora and fauna, such as mighty mega-herbs and six resident albatross species.

In such a rich and seemingly untouched natural setting, one could be forgiven for imagining it has always been this way.

But Campbell Island does have a long and colourful human history.

At various times in the 19th century, it was a sealers’ base, a whalers’ haven, the site of a French scientific expedition to view the transit of Venus, and from 1894 until 1931 what must have been one of the most remote sheep farms in the world.

Then, during World War 2, the New Zealand Government established a covert coastwatchers station on Campbell Island, with two other stations on Auckland Island.

These units were tasked with observing and reporting any potential enemy activity in New Zealand’s subantarctic waters. As it happened, there was little to report other than the weather, so the teams (which included scientists from 1942) undertook important scientific research on the islands geology, wildlife and vegetation.

After the war and until 1995, the island had a staffed meteorological station which continued to transmit weather reports back to New Zealand. The 1965-1966 Meteorological Service team in particular, had one of the worst summers on record. Icy winds, persistent rain and low temperatures kept them all confined to their station.

Yet it wasn’t all bad.

During a gap in the stormy weather, the station was visited by the “Gnevy”, a Russian research vessel. With visitors few and far between, the staff were delighted to give the ship’s crew a hearty welcome. During this brief visit many friendships were developed, vodka toasts were liberally shared (perhaps a few too many in some cases), and gifts were exchanged, including this whale tooth scrimshaw, etched with “For Good Friends” to mark the occasion.

Even though the world at the time was mired with Cold War tensions, it is interesting to note the warm camaraderie shown by these two groups gathered on a remote and inhospitable island in the subantarctic. A reminder, perhaps, that in these troubled times friendliness knows no political boundaries, and that generosity of spirit (vodka optional) can go a long way.

  • David Dudfield, Curator Manager, Southland Museum and Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha
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