A baby elephant seal was making eyes at me. True, I must have looked alluring in my rubber boots and layers of down and Gore-Tex, almost as plump as the mother seal that had recently weaned my admirer and returned to sea. Here on Macquarie Island, a lonely sliver of upthrust seafloor halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, the beach was littered with these young seals, most at an age when they’re called—I’m not kidding—weaners. Hundreds of blubbery tubes with smiling, whiskered faces lay in clumps and piles, flippers draped over one another, emitting a chorus of grunts and raspberries. Dapper king penguins waddled purposefully among them like impatient business commuters.
But my weaner was all alone on the charcoal-gray sand, uncuddled, gazing at me. Miraculously, it began to scoot closer, until it was near enough to arch up and snort in my face. Then, it heaved its damp, velvety bulk across my lap. You’re probably thinking you’d like to cuddle a weaner. You can, too, but it takes effort. First you have to get yourself to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, board a ship, and bash south for several days through the notoriously windswept latitudes known as the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. Once at Macquarie, you will need to clamber into a Zodiac raft and motor across a short but ornery stretch of water amid curious, swimming, head-swiveling penguins. Wind and swell are the norm, so a successful landing is by no means guaranteed.
But if you do get your wellies on that gray beach and find yourself among the crowds of penguins and heaps of seals, even if your arrival doesn’t coincide with the brief period in November and December when the weaners miss their moms and will settle for a girl from California, take a good long look around, because you are in a wonderland. But unless you happen to be an extremely intrepid sailor, a climate scientist, or an actual elephant seal, you aren’t getting to Macquarie on your own. I went on a 13-day, multi-island voyage offered by New Zealand-based Heritage Expeditions. The trip is billed as “the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean” and, in addition to Macquarie, an Australian territory, includes several of New Zealand’s most remote and windy island groups: the Snares, the Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island.