In 2012, Experiencing Marine Reserves (EMR) was part od the inaugural Young Blake Expedition to the Kermadecs. With the aim of inspiring New Zealanders to understand the global significance of the Kermadec Islands and to encourage stewardship of the Kermadec Marine Reserve and the planet's oceans generally, The Sir Peter Blake Trust, together with EMR, the Ministry for the Environment, the Royal New Zealand Navy, Department of Conservation, Pew Environment Group, Air New Zealand and LEARNZ, achieved this goal and successfully followed in the footsteps of Sir Peter to mobilise and inspire the next generation of kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists.
The Kermadec Islands have been protected with marine reserve status since 1990, so were an appropriate yet extremely ambitious destination for EMR. EMR's programme director Samara Nicholas had consulted with Dr Roger Grace and various scientists who had dived the Kermadecs previously to identify the safest snorkel locations; her main role on the expedition was snorkel director (responsible for snorkel planning, snorkel equipment and all in-water leadership), but she was also involved from the inception of the idea, to contributing to the logistics and part of a team contributing to the success of the expedition as a worthy tribute to Sir Peter Blake in 2012.
Daily snorkel adventure life on the HMNZS Canterbury included donning our helmets, life jackets and boarding the Navy Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) where we were deployed into the water via hoist – an unusual addition to the EMR experience!
It was a fascinating experience to be immersed in one of our most unique marine environments, surrounded by new life forms and to have shared that experience with thirty students and crew made heading to the remote Kermadec Marine Reserve the ultimate! EMR’s mission is to get as many people as possible to learn from and experience marine reserves, even if it is from your classroom, many Northland schools could tell you all about the marine biodiversity at the Kermadec’s now!
The reef communities are transitional between tropical coral reefs and temperate rocky reefs. Algae forests, common around mainland New Zealand, are absent and instead rock-faces are covered in turf-forming algae. Individual hard corals stood out on the reef as unusual occupants of New Zealand waters.
Students were excited to see the famous giant Kermadec limpet and bright yellow pigmentation of the grey drummer. The waters teemed with northern kahawai and large kingfish which schooled around us. We encountered a green sea turtle and colourful tropical species such as the moorish idol and lion fish. Endemic species of fish such as the Kermadec scalyfin and Kermadec demoiselle were identified and a personal highlight. We encountered two large predators that play a major role on the Kermadec reefs: the Galapagos shark and the spotted black grouper. Although the spotted black grouper has a wide distribution, including southeast Australia, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island and much of New Zealand, the Kermadec Island’s population is the last remaining stronghold.
Wade Doak first described the concept of marine reserves to me as a ‘Wet Library’; the Kermadecs was a ‘wet museum'. Spotting Galapagos shark was invigorating, but the most satisfaction came when Samara saw the reaction of the students and to her surprise, they looked like the paparazzi and they were beaming!
The 30 student voyagers rated snorkeling with the sharks as one of the highlights of the expedition. The Galapagos sharks did not express any aggressive behaviour towards the snorkellers, however if required, they were prepared to quickly abort. As snorkel the snorkel leader, Samara had prepared to recognise changes in shark behaviour and they always snorkelled in a tight group, all precautions were in place, as sharks are wild animals.
While anchored around Raoul, Department of Conservation shark expert Clinton Duffy had a permit to fish within the marine reserve to collect scientific information and add value to the voyagers learning about science. Galapagos shark have a world wide but patchy distribution, they are found around oceanic islands and are subject to overfishing. They are often incorrectly reported as bronze whaler sharks. Part of Clinton’s work at the Kermadecs was to collect genetic material from Galapagos sharks and compare them to other populations; some of the bigger sharks were also released with tags. While fishing from the lowered stern ramp at night, student voyager Melania Napa’a caught a species of shark new to science, this was exciting as it was only the fifth specimen to be collected and the species is currently undescribed. The Kermadec smooth hound is suspected to be endemic to the Kermadec region. Clinton Duffy describes the Kernmadecs as the centre of endemism and undescribed species.
An unanticipated outcome for Samara was a remarkable insight into the life of the Royal NZ Navy. As snorkel director on the expedition, voyagers and crew went ashore to Raoul Island; however, Samara was based on board for 12 days. Every morning we were woken up by a piped message ‘Wakey Wakey Wakey’. The Navy served three wholesome hot meals per day; we were made extremely welcome to explore all parts of the ship and engaged in routine activities such as ‘cleaning stations’ and 'physical training'.
Whangarei voyager Jack Hamilton is now a keen underwater camera man, after an opportunity to use an underwater camera for the first time at the Kermadecs; Jack is also now a regular EMR volunteer snorkel guided at our popular community guided snorkel day events, which are now held throughout the country during the summer months.
Samara is pleased to have a special connection with all of the young voyagers, we are delighted to have contributed to the ignition of passion in them, and will follow their journey and future Young Blake Expeditions with pride.