Of noddies, humpbacks, tubeworms and sea mats

Late last year I wrote an essay about the science and history of the Kermadec Islands for a gorgeous new book, Kermadec. I was just getting an excerpt from it ready to post when I heard that a Department of Conservation volunteer was missing off Raoul Island, presumed dead, probably the victim of a freak wave. Awful. Mihai Muncus-Nagy was from Romania, he was passionate about conservation and had always wanted to visit New Zealand and its beautiful outer islands.

These islands are wild. Another Department of Conservation worker died there in 2006 when the Raoul Island volcano erupted while he was taking temperature measurements at Green Lake.

I’ve never been to the Kermadec Islands, but when I was writing my essay last year, I immersed myself in the topic, and spent several days sitting in a glass-fronted house in Seatoun, while it rained outside, seabirds dived in the wind and waves crashed against the beach across the road.  A perfect setting to be writing about a group of islands and the marine sanctuary around them. There are calls for the Kermadec Islands and the waters around them to be made an ocean sanctuary, to protect the entire area from fishing and mining, and Pew Environment Group, who published the book, are leading the call.

You can buy Kermadec at Unity Books and Parsons Bookshop if you live in Wellington or Auckland or directly from Pew Environment Group if you don’t. It’s a beautiful book, with photographs as well as art from the group of artists who travelled to the islands last year – Gregory O’Brien, Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elisabeth Thomson and Robin White – hard cover, full colour and only $40!

Here is a slightly abriged excerpt from my 3000 word essay that appears in the book. Unusual for me, this time I got to write about critters.

A line in the ocean
On Raoul Island, tuis and red-crowned parakeets forage for nectar and insects in the pohutukawa and nikau that blanket the mist-shrouded slopes. Near the centre of the island, a caldera – a depression formed by land subsidence after a large eruption – holds three lakes that are home to the island’s grey ducks and pukeko. The smallest, Tui Lake, is a pond nestled in the bush, but Blue Lake is large enough for swimming and, until a 1964 volcanic eruption deposited sediment in the lake, was a fresh water source for the island’s meteorological camp.

Green Lake 2011, Elizabeth Thomson, acrylic, optically clear epoxy resin, glass spheres on wood panel, 1200 x 1200 x 30mm

The eruption came from Green Lake, Raoul Island’s steaming volcanic crater, where it’s said that the alkaline water will erase your fingerprints in 10 minutes. The Raoul Island volcano remains active. In 2006, a Department of Conservation worker was killed when the volcano erupted while he was taking a temperature measurement from Green Lake. The 30-minute eruption – the first in more than 40 years – came without warning and deposited metres of ash, mud and rocks around the lake. There have been no eruptions since, but earthquakes are an almost daily occurrence.

Raoul, with its fresh water and cloud forests, is the only island in the Kermadec group with a human settlement. The rest of the islands belong to the seabirds. Six million birds breed on the islands, and twice that many – representing more than 40 other species, including albatrosses, prions, petrels, and frigatebirds – frequent the area. While some seabirds make annual visits to the islands from breeding sites in Siberia and Alaska, 14 species breed in the islands, building their nests in branches of trees, high on cliffs, on rocky ledges and in crevices and underground burrows. Three of the nesting species are endemic – the Kermadec storm petrel, the Kermadec little shearwater and the white-naped petrel. Now that the rats are gone, the bird population is growing.

Some birds, the pelagic species, forage widely. A black-winged petrel was tracked travelling to Tonga and the Chatham Islands, a round trip of 3000 km, before returning to the burrow to feed her chick the oily mix of digested squid, krill and fish she had gathered. Other birds, like the small noddies and storm petrels, stay close to the islands, where they feed on tiny fish eggs, larvae and crustaceans from just beneath the water’s surface; or dive for squid, wings outstretched, as if in flight.

The endless sea
The ocean around the Kermadec islands, once a favourite with whalers, is now home to at least 35 species of whales and dolphins, many of them vulnerable or endangered. Bottlenose dolphins now frolic around the islands while families of sperm whales and mother and calf humpback whales pass by in their hundreds on an annual migration to Antarctic feeding grounds. Alongside them, critically endangered giant leatherback turtles, far from their tropical nesting sites, paddle through the deep water in pursuit of their jellyfish prey. Smaller green and hawksbill turtles forage in shallower waters closer to shore.

For 12 nautical miles around each island, the waters are protected, part of a marine reserve from which no species may be taken. These waters provide a sanctuary for a unique mix of tropical, sub-tropical and temperate species of fish. This is a rare ecosystem, where large predators rule, untroubled by fishing lines or nets. In the shallow waters, the Galapagos sharks and the spotted black grouper swim fearlessly. Deeper down the spiny dogfish competes with bass and bluenose for the tastiest prey.

Raoul Island is only the top 516 metres of a submerged giant volcano whose slopes extend for thousands of metres beneath the ocean. On the submerged flanks of the volcano, giant limpets park on the rocks, and anemones wave their multi coloured tentacles in the crystal-clear waters, gathering and grazing on passing plankton. Strange and wonderful species of corals, crustaceans, and molluscs make up a complex ecosystem that scientists are only beginning to understand.

The zone of imagination
Around the islands, deep beneath the ocean, is an undersea world of seamounts, trenches, black smokers and strange exothermic species that stretch the limits of the scientists’ imagination.

The Kermadec Islands stretch over 2 degrees of latitude, or 250 km. But in recent years, exploration of the ocean between New Zealand and Tonga has revealed that these islands are part of a 2500 km chain of mostly underwater volcanoes. This line of mountains – the longest underwater volcanic arc on the planet and the most hydrothermally active – is the result of a collision between the Pacific and Australian Plates. On the east side of the collision zone is the Kermadec-Tonga Trench, a slash in the ocean floor that extends 10,800 metres deep and into which no one has seen. West of the trench, stretching from New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty to Tonga, are more than 50 underwater volcanoes and the Kermadec Islands.

A crown for the Kermadec King 2011, Gregory O'Brien, acrylic on canvas, 460 x 460 mm

Scientists are only just beginning to learn about these underwater volcanoes, or seamounts, which were discovered in the 1990s. Recent underwater excursions, by deep sea submersible, have found widespread volcanic activity in the form of diffuse hydrothermal vents, where gas-rich hot water flows into the surrounding sea, and black smokers, where high pressure plumes of super-heated, mineral-rich water jet out of the rock, leaving chimney-like deposits of heavy minerals like iron and manganese, copper and gold.

Some of the strangest creatures in the Kermadecs exist around the hydrothermal vents. Living so far from sunlight, with no opportunity to photosynthesise, these “chemosynthetic” species draw energy from chemicals and minerals in the hydrothermal fluids. Around the vents are forests of stalked barnacles and clumps of giant mussels that provide food for predatory starfish and gastropods. Tiny orange shrimps swarm towards the warm waters where hot vent fluid mixes with the cool sea. Among the many odd creatures are the giant tubeworms, with their symbiotic bacteria that turn hydrogen sulphide – a poison to many species – into food. On top of the vent mussels, strange and tiny marine animals called bryozoans, whose intricate structures can only be seen through powerful microscopes, form colonies of hermaphrodite clones. Other species of bryozoan are found throughout the Kermadec waters – from the shallow waters around the islands to 8000 metres down the Kermadec Trench. The scientists who first named these creatures had an creative bent, and their names are rich with metaphor: different types of bryozoan are known as lace corals, moss animals, or sea mats.

The first major scientific exploration of the Kermadec Islands was in 1908, when New Zealand naturalist Walter Oliver led a small group of scientists in a year-long exploration of Raoul Island’s flora, fauna and geology. More than 100 years later, visiting geologists and biologists are still making discoveries about this remarkable group of islands and the ocean that surrounds them. Even so, the Kermadec region remains the least explored of all of New Zealand’s waters, and every visit yields new discoveries. In 2011, a group of plant, fish, shark and ecology specialists travelled to the Islands on a biodiscovery expedition that revealed new marine species, like the brilliant orange zebra fish, a small left-eyed flounder and a silver flying fish that landed on the boat in front of a surprised photographer.

Shoot the Breeze, 2011, Fiona Hall, tin and video, 230 x 190 x 30mm

Just as the biology and geology of the Kermadecs have long inspired scientists, who have shared their understanding of this world through scientific articles, lectures and photographs, the islands have now inspired a group of artists, who are sharing their experiences through poetry, paintings, sculpture and music.

Science and art might seem, at first glance, to be two different worlds, but in these islands the disciplines intersect, with both artists and scientists diving into this new environment, driven by a desire to discover, to interpret, to see things no one has seen before. Art and science merge when a scientist lovingly renders a map or an illustration, or carefully frames a photograph, or when an artist spends hours watching a bird or a fish, immersing herself in her subject and obsessively recording every detail. Beyond the specialist languages of science and art, the visitors use a common language, describing the Kermadecs as “exhilarating”, “spectacular” or “stupendous”; “a frontier of wonders” that’s “better than my imagination”; a “classroom”, a “mystic garden” that’s “wonderful and frightening”. But there’s one word that comes up more often that most. Again and again, visitors refer to the islands and the marine ecosystem as “pristine”. To scientists, this pristine, unspoilt environment is a “baseline of normality” that shows us what the world was like before humans began changing the planet.


For artists and scientists, the Kermadec Islands, where birds fly underwater and fish jump into the air, where black smokers spew into the sea and earthquakes shake the land, are a place of imagination and inspiration. For the seabirds, sea creatures and marine mammals that live on and around the islands, they are a safe passage from breeding grounds to feeding grounds or, to many species, home.

But at the same time as new underwater species and ecosystems are starting to be documented – many of them weird and wonderful, and some of them endemic to the Kermadecs – they are under threat. The Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve, established in 1990, protects the waters near the islands, but outside of the 12 nautical mile no-take zone around the islands, fishing boats gather to net species shoaling above the newly-discovered seamounts, and mining companies fund exploration to assess the seafloor for minerals like gold, copper and lead.

Ghost Net 2011, Fiona Hall, Tongan tapa dye, ochre on barkcloth, 2040 x 2400 mm

Our planet is currently in its biggest mass extinction for 65 million years. If we want to protect our planet’s biodiversity – which scientists believe is essential for the health and resilience of our earth ecosystem – this pristine group of islands, and the expanse of ocean around them, is a great place to start. There are not many “baselines for normality” left on this planet. Let’s protect the ones we still have.

You can find out more about the campaign to protect the waters around the Kermadec Islands at The Pew Environment Group’s Global Ocean Legacy site.


About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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One Response to Of noddies, humpbacks, tubeworms and sea mats

  1. Pingback: Kermadecs Islands: New Zealand’s Remote Ocean Wilderness - Military News | Military News

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