Phytoplankton processes in subantarctic (SA) waters southeast of New Zealand were studied during austral autumn and spring 1997. Chlorophyll a (0.2–0.3 μg L−1) and primary production (350–650 mg C m−2 d−1) were dominated by cells <2 μm (cyanobacteria) in both seasons. The photochemical efficiency of photosystem II (Fυ/Fm) of cells was low (0.3), indicating physiological stress. Dissolved Fe (DFe) levels in surface waters were subnanomolar, and the molecular marker flavodoxin indicated that cells were iron stressed. In contrast, Subtropical Convergence (STC) and subtropical waters had higher algal biomass/production levels, particularly in spring. In these waters, DFe levels were >1 nmol kg−1, there was little evidence of Fe-stressed algal populations, and Fυ/Fm approached 0.60 at the STC. In addition to these trends, waters of SA origin were occasionally observed within the STC and north of the STC, and thus survey data were interpreted with caution. In vitro Fe enrichment incubations in SA waters resulted in a switch from flavodoxin expression to that of ferredoxin, indicating the alleviation of Fe stress. In another 6-day experiment, iron-mediated increases in chlorophyll a (in particular, increases in large diatoms) were of similar magnitude to those observed in a concurrent Si/Fe enrichment; ambient silicate levels were 4 μM. A concurrent in vitro Fe enrichment, at irradiance levels comparable to the calculated mean levels experienced by cells in situ, resulted in relatively small increases (approximately twofold) in chlorophyll a. Thus, in spring, irradiance and Fe may both control diatom growth. In contrast, during summer, as mean irradiance increases and silicate levels decrease, Fe limitation, Fe/Si colimitation, or silicate limitation may determine diatom growth.