Denham Bay discoveries
Sarah Wilcox, Anton van Helden and Stefanie Rixecker have just set off on a trip with Heritage Expeditions to the Kermadecs. Tune in to our blog for daily updates from their trip!
Waking up to a call of bow riding bottlenose dolphins, is a pretty good way to start any day. A trio of dolphins guiding the Spirit of Enderby along the coast past the DOC house and weather stations, on our way to Denham Bay.
Denham bay was the first area where the Bell family settled on the island in 1878 and stayed there until they finally departed in 1914. Although others settled periodically on the islands the Bells are the one family that really could call Raoul Island home (actually they called it Sunday Island). My reading material for this trip a book called “the Crusoes of Sunday Island” is the account of their life here.
Denham Bay looks pretty idyllic from sea, but it like so much of the island is never to be taken for granted. We had a plan of taking everybody ashore in the zodiacs. This turned out to be quite an undertaking, as the waves break in a strong dumping fashion on the steep beach. Once successfully ashore however we spent a leisurely morning visiting a number of sites that are reminders of the difficult and sometimes grim history of this place.
In the back of the dunes there is an area of flat land below very steep and imposing cliffs. Low pohutukawa forest and a tangle of other vegetation has over grown some of these secret places. We hunted around and found the location of one of the heritage trees, an early planting experiment, a Shaddock. This is a kind of citrus tree with large bulbous green grapefruit like fruit. Various other citrus trees have been planted on the island including the Bell’s famous orange grove, still producing fruit to this day.
Along the track from the small hut was the occasional odd reminder of settlement, a couple of teapots and a mincer by the side of the path.
The swamp as it is now known was once called the lagoon by the Bell family that used it as their water supply. It has become sediment laden over the intervening hundred years and now only the very thirsty would consider drinking from it.
Nearby we stumble upon the site of a mass grave, an area where a “black birder”, a sort of slave ship, had off loaded its ‘cargo’ of plague stricken Tokelauan slaves. The insanitary conditions aboard the ship had no doubt contributed to the spread of the disease which included dysentery and quite possibly cholera. These victims were dumped on the island to die. An American named Halstead was living in the bay at that time with his family and members of his family tried to tend the sick and fell victim themselves. Certainly a horrible and sombre tale. The site of the graves, marked in part by a collection of rocks forming a large rectangular mound, was such a tranquil place that it made us all pensive and yet made us feel that somehow this island had made its peace with this villainy.
We made our way back out onto the beach, over weed covered dunes to the spot where the Kina Maru, a Japanese Tuna fishing boat had come ashore. Deemed to be unsalvageable it had been torched, the hulk of its rusting iron remains now slowly being consumed by the beach. Not far from here just behind the dunes is the grave of Fleetwood Denham, the 16 year old son of Captain H.M Denham who led the trip to the islands with the H.M.S. Herald, as part of a survey of the Pacific. It is after Captain Denham that the Bay is named.
When reading the stories of this place there is a considerable amount of tragedy, losses and hard fought battles to carve a niche in this remote island ‘paradise’.
One thing the Bell’s children were forbidden to do was to swim in the bay, partly because of the strong undertow off the beach but also because of the presence of sharks. So once all our people had been uploaded back on to the zodiacs to the ship, we were left as the last group. I was asked to be one of two people to hold the last boat in to the shore so that our crew could get on board. The consequence of this being that once the zodiac was pushed away from the beach we then had to swim out and be hauled into the boat. Somehow the forbidding words of Mrs Bell were ringing in my ears, but if there were sharks there I did not see them.
That afternoon was a different story as we had another wonderful snorkelling session at the South-eastern end of the bay. This was wonderful, so many fish, including large yellow tail kingfish, and Galapagos sharks, but also large schools of blue fish and maomao (amongst numerous others). The highlight for me however was a green turtle that swam past underneath me, and the excitement of having our bottlenose dolphin friends join us again on our trip to our evening’s anchorage by the Meyer Islands.
Raoul Island is without question a place of many and varied challenges, but it is an extraordinary and beautiful place. I hope that the new Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary offers further opportunities for this island to be the launching place for future study of this remote Northern subtropical part of New Zealand.