Blogger: Forest & Bird’s Marine Advocate, Karen Baird
After my sailing adventure through the Kermadec Region last year, this time I am joining 48 other passengers on an ecotour adventure to the Kermadecs with Heritage Expeditions.
Tourist trips to this isolated archipelago are very rare with expeditions occurring once every year, or couple of years. I’m interested to find out what draws this select bunch of ecotourists north to our farthest outpost. I’ll be posting a blog every day with highlights from our trip.
Oh bugger! I left one of the bags going around the carousel at Tauranga airport but the taxi driver just laughed and turned around. Normal chaos was apparent as I arrived ship side. Mountains of luggage appeared and vanished as staff whisked our gear into the various cabins.
A safety drill ensued. I was very impressed that we actually had to don our bulky life jackets and then clamber into 1 of 2 self-enclosed lifeboats – each fitted out with actual motors for propulsion!
Once out of Tauranga Harbour we were hit by a stiff southerly wind but that did nothing to dampen the excitement of the expeditioners on the top deck as we sailed towards the high seas.
After exploring the layout of the ship, unpacking and trying out the bunk it was time for lunch and the first opportunity to get to know some of the passengers.
I hadn’t seen Mary Carney from Whangarei for many, many years and I hoped she didn’t remember me as one of her dive students, with the least aptitude! Mary, like 17 other expeditioners is travelling to the Kermadecs to dive. A highly trained and experienced diver, she is like many of the other divers on the trip. They are knowledgeable about dive locations around the world and the Kermadecs is ‘up there’ as a dive destination.
Other passengers are interested in the islands themselves. Peter Hallinan is ex MetService from 1955/56 and a keen tramper. He remembers communicating with the Met Staff on Raoul Island, and has always been curious about what the island is like.
Dr Gwen Struik and husband Roger are ecologists (retired from their professional lives) but are still involved in long term studies in fisheries ecology. On top of this, they run a local environmental group in Tasman Bay. But points out Gwen that, isn’t why they are here. “We’ve just always enjoyed snorkelling with myriads of fish”.
Amateur botanists, Tararuaites & Forest and Bird members, Marianne Jenna and Syd Moore, were inspired by my article in the December issue of our Forest and Bird magazine!
Indeed, there doesn’t appear to be any one draw card to the Kermadecs so far from talking to people except perhaps the remoteness itself. One enthusiastic diver said to me “It’s like the Galapagos of NZ”. That’s how he described it to his friends so they would have an inkling of what he was on about.
Full day at sea. Today we woke far from land anywhere but somehow a white-faced heron found us, spotting the ship and then flew over to land exhausted on the upper deck.
Passengers gradually filtered out onto the upper deck outside to enjoy the early morning sun. Most passengers had grown used to the pitch & roll of the ship overnight and any queasiness was quickly vanquished with our first sighting of three beaked whales (what we believed to be Cuviers Beaked Whales). They all had a brownish white heads and wore cookie cutter shark scars along the length of their bodies. These beaked whales have a bulbous fatty melon on their foreheads which is thought help with echolocation. It is thought that each species evolved in the different deep ocean trenches.
The rest of the day was interspersed with presentations including my “Introduction to Seabirds of The Kermadecs” and an “Introduction to the Marine Life at the Kermadecs” by divemaster Pete, and sitting around on deck admiring the entourage of black petrels, grey-faced petrels and albatrosses that accompanied us.
But it wasn’t just sea-birds that stayed close, our weary hitchhiker was still sitting on the life boat as the sun set!
Great excitement this morning – our first glimpse of the Kermadec Islands L’Esperance or French Rock as it was known by early whalers.
This jagged piece of scoria dripping with white mineral leachate thrusts out of the sea and quickly drew camera-wielding passengers to the deck. Standing at 30 metres in height, and fitted with just 5ha of soil, very little grows on this island apart from iceplant. Despite its imposing look black-winged petrel and grey ternlets are known to breed there. White-naped petrels and black-winged petrels were commonly seen, but as we got close enough red-tailed tropic birds could be seen wheeling over the top of the rock.
Just as we departed French Rock a large school of 30+ bottlenose dolphins joined us for some bow-riding. These Tursiops species appears smaller than the Tursiops seen around NZ coasts and it has been speculated that they could be a genetically distinct, isolated population.
During my introduction to Raoul Island talk on the ship, Adam our other bird guide spotted some unusual species for this region: two Gould’s petrels and a Providence Petrel. Later on many people got fantastic views of both flying fish and flying squid!
A few hours later we arrived at Cheesman and Curtis islands – these island are the most pristine islands in the group with no known human impacts. Curtis is an active volcano, entirely made up of steep sided crater walls rising to around 130m with steaming vents on the crater floor. The black-winged petrels are believed to number between 10-20,000 and an estimated 3000-5000 pairs of the ‘at risk’ Kermadec little shearwater, also make their burrows in the thermally heated soil. Wedge-tailed shearwaters, sooty terns and large flocks of feeding grey ternlets are also present.