Home and away
Blogger: Forest & Bird’s Kermadec Campaigner/Advocate, Karen Baird
Today we explored Raoul island – the largest island in this archipelago and one of the most explosive cones in this volcanic arc.
One passenger Peter missed the rock we were alighting onto and plunged into the swirling sea, whereupon his automatic lifejacket instantly inflated and he was hauled back into the zodiac for another go.
Over the years, the island has played numerous roles: farming spot, military outpost, whaling provision station, but now it serves two roles: as an ecological reserve and as a meteorological station.
So it was fitting that our ex-weatherman on board got to hoist the weather balloon!
While the landlubbers explored the island the divers explored the underwater world again, reporting back with fantastic sightings of spotted black grouper, Galapagos sharks, huge schools of blue fish, green turtles and tiny moray eels.
On land, the sightseers split into two groups: some headed to the top for views of Denham Bay and the crater lakes. While our group wandered down to Ravine 8, one of the several deeply incised valleys on the north side of the island.
Like many islands across New Zealand, history remains frozen in time because transporting machinery, or old equipment is just economically unfeasible.
So short-lived military operations, or ill-thought out ideas are memorialised in rusty equipment or buildings gone fallow.
These reminders are dotted throughout the island, and we got to see a relict of Raoul’s farming past: a saggy old woolshed.
The Bell family were one of the earliest European settlers to the island arriving in 1878 lured by the generous rainfall and sub-tropical climes.
Undeterred by the explosive nature of the land they were living on they quickly planted up the rich volcanic soil with an lemons, oranges, tea, kumera, coffee, tobacco, paw paw, grapes passion fruit, guavas, candle nuts, peaches.
In 1889 the government tried to settle the island unsuccessfully by bringing 20 men, women and children. None stayed.
The Bells finally abandoned their beloved island in 1914 after a cyclone destroyed their farmstead.
During our ramble we also came across one of the vital pieces of infrastructure on the island: the airstrip.
This piece of mown grass plays an important transport role, and comes in handy for medical evacuations or even airdrops of supplies via the NZ Air Force.
The DOC staff that live on the island were rather low on fuel supplies, and although we could help tide them over for the next few weeks, fuel was being rationed carefully until next month’s drop.
As we skirted around the bottom of the island, and reached the beach we were amazed to find black coral on the beaches: the cyclone had obviously shaken up even these relatively deep-water corals.
One of the branches still had one of it’s symbiotic snake stars wrapped around it. Anna the dive master on the ship said she saw one at about 20m on her dive, also with its snake star wrapped tightly around it.
One of the other victims of the cyclone has been the birdlife. Several dead tui confirmed that many had succumbed to starvation after the trees in the area were stripped of their berries by the cyclone
One tiny Coprosma tree containing ripe fruit was surrounded by nearly 30 competing tui.
Leaving the island for the last time is hard. I’ve always thought that islands have a way grabbing your attention and holding onto you, demanding that you look further and deeper into every nook and cranny.
I know there are still many unexplored parts – not just the islands themselves, but also the underwater world, whose biological treasures are slower to reveal themselves. I’ll need to come back one day to enable me to delve further into the watery world of the Kermadec Region.
Awoke this morning SE of L’Esperance Rock en route back to Tauranga. It was great conditions for viewing dolphins and whales and sure enough we had sightings of several pods of Risso’s dolphins and a large pod of Sperm whales.
“Whales off the starboard side” was the call and soon every expeditioner was on deck clutching cameras and pointing excitedly.
The whales didn’t come too close, they seemed to be logging and quite spread out, their misty breaths visible in the sunlight some distance away.
L’Esperance was also known as ‘French Rock’ and the very important French Rock whaling grounds to the East attracted American and Soviet whalers in the early part of the 18th century.
It was these very valuable whaling grounds that ensured the settlement of New Zealand would take place. The spermaceti oil taken from these whales would be used to light the cities and lighthouses of America.
The other surprising sighting for the day was a welcome swallow, which arrived this morning and settled itself on the top deck. We were at least 100nm from Raoul and an even greater distance to mainland New Zealand.
White-naped petrels were still seen in good numbers and a red-tailed tropic bird entertained those of us on the top deck coming in close several times to look at us.
These birds once bred on Raoul in large numbers but were exterminated by rats and cats, and are now starting to return. Everyone was out trying to get a picture of this stunning bird with its huge red bill and black paddle feet, including me!
As we farewelled the warm sub tropics and moved closer towards New Zealand, the old familiar parade of temperate species escorted the ship, as well as a few Providence and Gould’s petrels.
Large rafts of grey-faced petrels were prevalent around the Alderman Islands and Campbell and white-capped albatross dotted the sea further out. A couple of sharks including a hammerhead were also noticed as we steamed around the islands…
It was nice to return to New Zealand and be reminded that we also have a lot of fantastic coastline around mainland New Zealand as well as the more exotic locations such as the Kermadecs.
I would like to commemorate two people. Our beloved Don Merton – a visionary conservationist who passed away in Tauranga while we were away on this expedition. My deepest sympathies go out to Margaret Merton and the rest of their family.
Also Sue Larter a passenger on this vessel who died after getting into difficulty while on a supervised snorkelling trip at Raoul Island on this expedition. Sue’s husband John was also on the expedition and my heart also goes out to John and the rest of their family.
Photos: Cameron Russo, Steve Smith and Karen Baird