The undulating elasmobranch
This issue started life as a marine special, commissioned to mark Seaweek, a perennial maritime feast to which we lend our support. For a nation that embraces, and is embraced by, the sea, it is always an issue set upon with some interest. It was also to be my first issue tentatively stepping into the large editorial shoes of a magazine with a legacy spanning nearly twenty years. Then on January 11th Sir Edmund Hillary passed away, and New Zealand paused. Over the lingering summer we marked the passing of a distinctly Kiwi brand of champion who achieved what few of us could ever hope to. Average New Zealanders go on hikes in the hills and drive around town; Sir Ed climbed the highest mountain, drove a tractor to the South Pole and was knighted, twice. He was not, as he described himself, “an average New Zealander”, yet he embodied the sorts of qualities that all of us could aspire to–determination, modesty and a firm belief in self. Sir Ed was also the patron of this magazine, lending his name to it since the first issue in 1989. So in this issue you will find the marine features accompanied by Vaughan Yarwood’s reflection on Hillary’s life and legacy; from his fi rst school trips into the hinterland, to the giddy heights of Everest, the South Pole and the long legacy of exploration and philanthropy in Nepal that Hillary considered his greatest achievement. From the roof of the world we then descend to its basement—Arno Gasteiger turns his lens upon aliens on earth; the bizarre inhabitants of the deep sea, Kennedy Warne (the founding editor of this magazine) looks at the reserves protecting New Zealand’s submarine treasure chest and we contemplate the enigmatic behaviour of stingrays. And as we remember our patron, a page turns also for New Zealand Geographic. I acknowledge the special contribution of the previous editor Warren Judd, who was with the magazine in one role or another since the very first issue and editor for more than 20—he has left to attend to the pressing realities of a farm and the alluring call of travel. Mark Bathhurst also, whose considered editing went almost undetected yet greatly sharpened stories, also departs. Andrew Caldwell, who has designed 54 issues to date, remains a mainstay of the Geographic team and with nose pressed to the LCD screen once more, puts form to the prose and photos for yet another issue. And we welcome on board a new deputy editor Margo White, who has contributed to the magazine in the past and in myriad ways has shaped the issue before you. Some may have noticed Jeffrey Stilwell’s project digging up penguin bones from the late Cretaceous profiled on One News last month. He was joined by Nina Densley who won our readers’ competition in issue 88 and was thrilled to accompany his team. His work, supported by New Zealand Geographic continues, and in coming months we will also be announcing the establishment of a charitable trust to oversee a fund for various geographical projects—and a new patron, who, I dare say, has even larger shoes to fill than I.
On January 4, 2007, while visiting tarns at Carrol Hut in the Kelly Range, Arthurs Pass National Park, Dr John Flux noticed a pair of redcoat damselflies (Xanthocnemis sinclairi) apparently mating and preparing for egg-laying. He was able to photograph the whole process. The pair backed down a stem into the water, the female first, and once both were submerged, she began to lay eggs with her abdomen bent round beneath her thorax. After remaining submerged for 11 minutes, the pair surfaced but the male was unable to get an adequate grip on the new stalk they were on. After trying to climb it unsuccessfully for four minutes, they taxied—using their front wings half a metre across the surface to a third stem they were able to ascend. In all they spent 21 minutes in the water. Bubbles of air trapped against their bodies supplied oxygen while they were immersed.
It is the middle of January and Steve O’Shea, commonly referred to as the “squid man”, apologizes for the state of his scalp. Having shaved it bald recently, it’s now peeling away in large pink patches. He’s spent a weekend under the blistering sun on the beach at Hikurangi, Northland, carving up a sperm whale that stranded there. He’d gone specifically to find out what the thing had been eating. O’Shea darts out of the room and returns with two large jars in which float the remains of whale supper. Along with his students, O’Shea has been studying the stomach contents of whales and other cetaceans for several years now and everything is pointing to a radical shift in the oceanic food-chain but hard evidence is still needed. The stomach contents of sperm whales help him to build his case. No data on New Zealand whale diet has been collected since 1960s. Back then, according to those records, more than a third of a whale’s diet was commercial fish. “But now there aren’t any fish left so they’ve switched to squid,” says O’Shea. The problem, he argues, is that now there isn’t enough squid either. He grabs a pair of tweezers and pulls out a squid beak; it looks like the beak of a parrot, only larger, darker and considerably sharper. “A fully mature whale should have upwards of 1600 beaks in its stomach,” he says. “Now we’re finding none to 300 beaks...the stomachs are empty and the beaks we’re finding are largely from Antarctic species.” Squid populations are either being directly depleted by commercial fishing or, less directly, by trawling methods that are wrecking their breeding patterns. “These squid have gelatinous egg masses. If we’ve got 250,000 trawls a year, how many of those egg masses are being destroyed? All is not well in cephalopod world.” Hence, he is increasingly certain that there are a lot of hungry cetaceans out there. He is simply finding too many empty stomachs. “It would be dangerous to say they are starving,” he says. “But an empty stomach is any empty stomach.” O’Shea is the director of the Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research Institute (EOS) at the Auckland University of Technology, where research topics range from turtles, sharks and frogs to cephalopod systematics. A few years ago, the institute was made up of O’Shea and a couple of students. When NZ Geographic visited this year it had moved into new premises to accommodate its rapidly expanding population, which now includes seven staff and 34 students. “It’s out of control,” says O’Shea. “But we do some sexy science here.” O’Shea is the nearest thing this country has to a celebrity scientist, having been the subject of magazine profiles and several documentaries, both here and overseas. He is the man the media turns to whenever someone lands a giant cephalopod. You can see why. O’Shea knows his squid intimately, having preserved more than 100 of them. He is also eminently quotable. When he described his next project, a colossal squid, as having “calamari rings the size of tractor tyres” and “eyes like dinner plates”, the analogies were repeated in media reports all over the world. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, which is ideal for any documentary maker looking for a hero. In 2001—much to his embarrassment and the delight of the cameraman—he wept when he discovered that the paralarvae (baby giant squid) that he had finally managed to find after three weeks at sea had all died before they reached the shore. “There they were. Little lumps of snot at the bottom of the tank. Peter [the documentary maker] says, ‘How do you feel?’ and I burst into tears. Of course this is the shot they use, and the whole damn world uses it.” At the time of this interview, O’Shea was steeling himself to preserve the biggest squid of all; the 495 kg colossal squid hauled out of the Ross Sea on February 22, 2007, by far the heaviest squid ever captured and apparently 10 m long. O’Shea plans to start defrosting it in the second half of April, so that it will be ready to be displayed at Te Papa later this year. He has done this sort of thing dozens of times and he can make it sound easy; the squid is slowly defrosted under a continuous jet of cold water, injected with several litres of formalin, soaked in a formalin bath for several weeks, drained, wrapped in cheesecloth, packed into a tuna bin and posted off to its destination. However, the prospect of preserving this particular squid, he says, is particularly unnerving. First of all, the squid is 200 kg heavier than any other squid he’s had to deal with. And, being the largest colossal squid ever captured, the world will be watching. The trick will be to defrost the squid—currently frozen into a 1.2 m cube—so that he doesn’t end up with the exterior parts of the animal defrosted and decomposing, while the insides are still ice. Hence, he plans to submerge the entire block in chilled brine, hold it at 1°C (the freezing point of salt water is 2°C lower than fresh water) and increase the temperature over a period of days, probably 1°C a day. Or maybe 1°C every two days. Or maybe 2°C every day. “Depending on what happens,” says O’Shea, “we’ll be making it up as we go along.” “I don’t know if a week is going to be enough. I’ll be panicking. Cameras will be everywhere. There’ll probably be a webcam on this. Honestly, if we make a stuff up we’re going to be criticised internationally.” What is the worst-case scenario? A repeat of the time that he tried to catch a giant squid from beneath as it slid off the bench and onto the floor, only to have it burst on top of him? Even if that happened it would make excellent telly. And you can’t imagine it would do much to curb O’Shea’s instinct for adventure, at least not for long. “When I last came out and said, these animals grow up to 500 kg, everyone just laughed. So I think it’s marvellous that we got an animal this size. They probably get even heavier. We don’t even know what sex this one is. Generally the females are bigger and heavier, so if this proves to be a male—as the fishermen maintain— we’ve got a considerably larger female out there. And then I’m going to make this wild statement, like ‘this animal gets up to a tonne!’ And everyone is going to laugh. But you know, you’ve got to have fun.”
Jacky Price had a problem, a big one. He shouldn’t have stolen those stashed sealskins. At least, he should have never let himself be caught doing it. Alas, it was too late and now the enraged owners of the treasure made sure he had plenty of time and space to ponder his sins. And that he would not be tempted again, not anytime soon. To this end, they had unceremoniously dumped him and his wife Hineawhitia, daughter of the chief Te Pahi, on the most god-forsaken place they could think of: Solander Island, a storm-battered whale-tooth of a volcanic rock smack-bang in the Roaring Forties. In a direct line it was some 22 nautical miles back to the mainland but there was no hope of ever making a beeline across the Foveaux Strait, some of the roughest seas on earth. Both Jacky and Hineawhitia knew what happened to the last party of sealers marooned here in 1808. They were not rescued until 1813. Still, they did not despair. There was good shelter on the island’s east side, the Sealers Cave, plenty of fat tucker—seals and albatrosses—and there was timber for firewood. Thus Jacky and Hineawhitia began hatching an escape plan. It was desperate at best, but some time later they were ready, their escape craft bobbing among the beds of kelp. It was the most fragile looking thing, a coracle made of driftwood and sealskins, waterproofed with animal fat, barely bigger than a bathtub. They picked the day when they thought the weather would be kindest. Then they paddled for the mainland. The story of Jacky and Hineawhitia is only one of the remarkable tales now told in the newly-open Heritage Centre and Museum at Riverton, a community driven and manned project. “We’ve tried to bring Riverton’s history alive again,” said Dave Asher, one of the project originators. Local iwi, Oraka-Aparima Runaka, particularly brothers Ron and Stewart Bull and their sister Nan Barrett, have been especially helpful. Flax muka costumes were woven by Wini Solomon, a talented local traditional weaver, and many others have also helped. They have certainly succeeded. Some of the display mannequins have been made by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital. They are so lifelike that touching them, you’re surprised to find their skin cold. Formerly a Southland engineer, now a film-maker, Asher is best known for his videos of New Zealand’s back country and its people. Some of his films, like The Last Great Adventure, Good Keen Men and The Venison Hunters, have achieved an almost cult status. Not surprisingly, the anchor point of the entire museum is one of Asher’s docudramas featuring several episodes from the area’s history set against spectacular flyovers of the wild coastlines and islands. A black-and-white sequence of whalers in a skiff, made fast to a whale and racing across the huge swell—rope smoking on the bollard, unabashed fear etched on the men’s faces—is particularly memorable. The film is shown in a theatrette stylised into the aft deck of a wooden ship, with a screen coming down from among the rolled-up sails. Add the booming soundscape of the Southern Ocean and the sensation of being out there is complete. Riverton’s residents are quick to point out that theirs is one of the oldest towns in the South Island, and a frontier town at that. Despite its tempestuous seas, southern Maori had always favoured the area for it was an unrivalled source of kai moana, particularly the titi, the mutton birds which come to nest on the outlying scrub-covered islets after their remarkable around-the-world migration. (Recent tagging experiments have shown that birds breeding in New Zealand may travel 74,000 km in a year, reaching Japan, Alaska and California, averaging more than 500 km per day.) The first Pakeha settled in the earliest 1800s, and they were mainly sealers migrating from the exhausted seal rookeries of Bass Strait, between Tasmania and mainland Australia. There was bloodshed and cannibalism in the 1810–11 period over unauthorised sealing, bloody massacres of sealers in 1817 around Otago harbour and further bloodshed and utu in 1822–23 until a peace accord. But things settled down. The blending of cultures at Riverton went on relatively peacefully, with both Maori and Pakeha coexisting, eking out a living from the unforgiving sea. The sealers and whalers began to marry into the tribes and the Maori were quick to benefit from trade, muskets and superior seacraft like whaling skiffs. Over the ensuing decades this process of cultural mixing produced some colourful bloodlines. For example, a Colac Bay publican now proudly introduces himself as a “Portuguese Maori from Codfish Island”. The early mixed marriages and the children they produced became the key to peaceful and harmonious race relations and trade in Southland. Once the seals were gone—within a few years—the migrants’ attention turned to whaling. In December 1845 Ruapuke Island’s resident missionary, Rev. Wohlers, wrote: “A considerable number of European men live on the shore of the region, and from the whaling ships that stop, more and more people remain here who like the freedom of this country. All of them amalgamate with the natives and from this a new race is emerging, which will probably devour and fuse with the remainder of the pure natives.” In the same year, Dr Edward Shortland, Protector of Aborigines to the New Zealand Government, added this observation: “The most westerly of the whaling stations...and the last which we visited was Aparima [today’s Riverton]. This is a small bar harbour, capable only of admitting vessels of some 20 to 30 tons. The huts of the residents were built on the southern slope of some well-wooded hills, and being white-washed, and having near them green enclosures of corn and potatoes, presented, while shone on by the morning sun, the most smiling and refreshing aspect imaginable. In my mind I at once pronounced it to be one of the loveliest spots in New Zealand.” Though Maori and Pakeha continued to live in relative harmony, this was soon shadowed. Not by conflicts but by plagues. Measles, influenza and tuberculosis, against which the Maori had no natural resistance, devastated their population. In August 1835 alone, hundreds had died, including the chief Te Whakataupuka. Waves of the epidemics continued to wash over the southern shores—in 1838, 1840, then again in 1858. They caused the chief Tuhawaiki to lament: “We are but a poor remnant now, and the Pakeha will soon see us all die out, but even in my time we were a large and powerful tribe...We had a worse enemy than even (Te) Rauparaha [whom they successfully repelled with the newly-acquired muskets] and that was the visit of the Pakeha with his drink and his disease. You think us very corrupted, but the very scum of Port Jackson shipped as whalers or landed as sealers on this coast. They brought us new plagues, unknown to our fathers, till our people melted away.” Still, those who survived the plagues prospered. In 1857, Surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, reported: “On my late visits to Jacob’s River, more proofs of comfort were to be noticed than any other part of the province outside of Dunedin, the capital. The inhabitants both Native and European, possess abundant supplies of wheat, potatoes which they have grown. They have plenty of pork in their enclosures and fish for the trouble of catching them, while the wealthier possess large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep feeding on the extensive pastures surrounding the village.” Notable from the very beginnings too, was the frontier town’s free spirit. Thomson mentions that arrivals of American whalers looking for fresh provisions were always an opportunity for “quick traffic in things contraband”. He also added: “So much are the inhabitants attached to free trade that, on an exciseman being seen in the village, all the houses were shut, locked and barred.” Oh, those were the days. You can glimpse many snapshots from those times walking the display rooms of the new museum. There is a section on the largest community of Chinese goldminers in the country, the story of 16-year-old James Caddell, who in 1810 was kidnapped near Stewart Island’s South Cape by a band of Maori warriors, and who was miraculously spared and accepted into the tribe to became Southland’s first Pakeha Maori, teaching his new whanau the ways of the musket, leading them on raids on sealers until a trade deal was reached in 1822. There is also a story of a cooper who brewed his own cabbage-tree rum. His lost art is about to be revived. This bottled “taste of the old Riverton”—not unlike its Gore counterpart Hokonui Moonshine—will be available through the museum’s souvenir shop. Apparently, it’s just the thing to ward off the South Coast chill. What happened to Jacky Price and Hineawhitia? Eventually they made it to the mainland but they did not dare to return to their home, perhaps in fear that the offended sealers would relocate them again, this time somewhere even more remote. Instead, they went to live in a cave in south-west Fiordland and continued sealing until Jacky’s death in 1829. The replica of their coracle is one of the new museum’s choicest exhibits. It’s seaworthy, too. It’d only need another southern man and woman to paddle it from Solander again. In a way, Jacky and Hineawhitia’s extraordinary feat set the tone for how things are done in Southland quietly and together, without fanfares but with maximum commitment. That a community of 1900 people could raise some $400,000 to self-fund the project is remarkable enough. But the fact they’ve built something so significant and worth visiting is an indication of how keen they are to have their stories told. Robert McKee, perhaps one of the world’s greatest authorities on the craft and essence of screenwriting, once said that: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.” Obviously, the people of Riverton have understood that. The quality of the new museum is clear proof of that. There are many more tales worth telling from this land’s end jutting into the Southern Ocean. About the fishermen of the fiords, the paua divers of Foveaux Strait, the Codfish Island kakapo. About modern-day heroic feats, like that of the diminutive Jacinda Amey who, on 24 April 1992 off the coast of Campbell Island, swam out to rescue meteorological officer Mike Fraser, bleeding to death after a great white shark tore off his forearm. Amey received the New Zealand Cross, the highest award for civilian bravery, though in Southland they take such things with quiet understatement. All in a day’s work, they’d say. After the construction dust has settled and the nervousness of the museum opening subsided, Asher, the Heritage Committee and the rest of the team just might start thinking about building an extension to have these other stories told as well.
There is gold buried in our ocean beds, deposited by submarine volcanos. “The grade of the gold is spectacular,” says Cornel de Ronde, the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science (GNS) principal scientist who leads the Offshore Minerals part of the Economic Growth for New Zealand through Mineral Wealth programme. “But the tonnage has yet to be determined.” The Kermadec arc is a line of volcanoes stretching 2,500 km from White Island towards Western Samoa, some of which emerge out of the sea as volcanic islands, such as the main island of Raoul, while others are completely submerged under a thousand metres of water, such as Brothers volcano. Although scientists at GNS and NIWA finished mapping the arc in 2004, they are now getting a more comprehensive and detailed picture of things, particularly of Brothers, one of most hydrothermically active volcanoes of those known along the arc. With the help of an Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE), an unmanned torpedo-like instrument, GNS scientists have been able to produce an extremely high resolution map of the volcano. They have also been able to collect data on the chemical composition of the surrounding seawater, the magnetic properties of the lavas that form the sea floor, and changes in the turbidity of the seawater. Scientists will be now be able to overlay this data on the bathymetric map, and identify the precise location of hundreds of hydrothermal vents, or chimneys, scattered within the volcano’s caldera. These chimneys, commonly known as ‘black smokers’ are formed when the super hot (300ºC) and highly acidic hydrothermal fluid mixes with the cold water of the ocean as it exits the chimneys, leaching minerals as it goes. Among them are valuable metals, including copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver. Mining companies are interested in commercially exploiting the deposits. (Nautilus Minerals, for instance, has plans for sub-sea mining off the coast of Papua New Guinea beginning next year.) Unsurprisingly, talk of mining the ocean floor has also aroused the concern of conservationists. “And I’m a conservationist at heart,” says de Ronde. “But unlike the vast majority of people who object to mining the seafloor, I’ve been down there and looked out of submersibles and I’ve seen the black smokers and seen the mineral deposits. And while I think some of them should be preserved as conservation assets, some could be exploited - acquiring knowledge will let us make informed decisions on what is the best course to take, for our nation and for our planet.”
The age of discovery may have ended in the early 17th century, but now scientists are exploring new frontiers in the deep sea. Here in New Zealand this new age of discovery has a name: Ocean Survey 20/20—an exploration programme designed to survey as much of New Zealand’s ocean area and its resources as possible by 2015. New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers over 4,000,000 km2, 15 times the country’s total land area, yet only with recent technological advances has mapping and surveying this large area become feasible. It is a costly and time-consuming endeavour, but it is considered critical to planning for New Zealand’s future. “It will eventually guide decisions in minerals exploration, fisheries, maritime safety, oceanographic science, conservation, resource management, recreation and tourism,” says Mary Livingston, project scientist at the Ministry of Fisheries. As part of Ocean Survey 20/20, 26 scientists and 18 crewmembers are now nearing the end of an eight-week voyage on the Research Vessel Tangaroa that began on 31 January. Their mission has been to conduct a biological census of the Ross Sea ecosystem in Antarctica. This will not only provide a glimpse into life in the deep waters of the Ross Sea, but a baseline for monitoring the effects of climate change in the region. The scientists on board are working 12 hour shifts to survey all aspects of life in the Ross Sea—from bacteria, viruses and plankton to cephalopods, whales and sea birds and across different environments and sea depths. Eight weeks at sea is just the tip of the iceberg; it will take three years to analyse all the data collected in that short period. The survey is also part of New Zealand’s contribution to the International Polar Year (IPY) and the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML), a multinational research project aimed at better understanding the Arctic and Antarctic environments. By the time the scientists and crew from the Ross Sea voyage return to port, the ink will be drying on preliminary maps of biodiversity and habitat types resulting from the first Ocean Survey 20/20, known as the Chatham-Challenger project. The aim of this multiyear collaborative project is to compare and contrast seabed communities at fishable depths in the Chatham Rise and the Challenger Plateau. It involves three voyages (one in 2006 and two in 2007), as well as three years of data analysis. One reason the Chatham Rise and Challenger Plateau were chosen as study territories is that they are physically comparable yet distinct in their plankton productivity, which is likely to be reflected in the variety and quantity of life supported in the areas. The Chatham Rise, located to the east of New Zealand and supporting substantial deepwater fisheries, including hoki, hake, ling, orange roughy and oreo dory, has high plankton productivity. Scientists believe this is due to the subtropical front—where the warm and salty waters of the subtropics meet cooler subantarctic waters—sitting just above the rise. In contrast, the Challenger Plateau—which lies to the west of New Zealand—is thought to have low plankton productivity and support only a moderate diversity of fish. Scientists also expect the research to offer insights into the effects of trawling on seabeds. The Chatham Rise is a commercial fishing ground, and therefore affected by trawling, while the seabed of the Challenger is relatively undisturbed. Cameras, sleds, beam trawls and corers were used to plumb depths between 30 and 1800 m in the two areas, and a total of 445 known species were found on the Chatham Rise compared to 219 on the Challenger Plateau. Scientists also found iceberg scours 450 m beneath the ocean’s surface that possibly date from the last ice age, currents 1000 m down strong enough to leave sand ripples on the seabed, and several new species. Mapping swathes of our EEZ within the next 10 years is an ambitious goal. Says Livingston, “To date, Ocean Survey 20/20 has not only given us a peek at life in various parts of our EEZ, it has also shown what can be accomplished with so many institutions and scientists working together.”
Rolling a fresh cigarette, Bill Ballantine gives a sardonic laugh as he recalls the headline in the local newspaper when New Zealand’s first marine reserve was opened in 1977—“Nothing to do at Goat Island Bay any more.” He had fought for 12 years to protect five square kilometres of marine habitat on the Northland coast. That protection was finally in place. To Ballantine it was the start of a new era. To the newspaper, voicing community opposition, it was the end of one.
The realm of New Zealand is the fourth largest marine territory in the world, with an incredible diversity of sea birds (greater than 110 species) and whales (22 species). Most whales are relatively uncommon, but some, such as the sperm whale, are more abundant and form the basis of Kaikoura’s “Whale Watch” attractions. Commercial whaling under the guise of ‘scientific study’ continues on our oceanic doorstep, and the recent protests on the Southern Ocean have made world headlines with accusations of piracy. A visit to the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) website reveals the organisation’s main aim “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. I must say I’m surprised; perhaps naively, I thought the IWC was devoted to the preservation of whales! As a pragmatist I agree with the concept of sustainable management—what’s wrong with harvesting a few whales if the populations can sustain it? It’s not as if we don’t eat other mammals such as cows and sheep. But these are land animals and easier to count and keep track of, which cuts right to the heart of many of the arguments that keep the candles burning well into the night at IWC meetings. How can you accurately define historical whale populations? How many whales were there prior to whaling, how many remained when commercial whaling stopped (if it really has stopped), and what has been the recovery (if any) of populations since? As Jennifer Jackson points out in her postdoctoral work at the University of Auckland, these questions have significant ramifications; underestimating the pre-whaling population would result in an incorrect overestimate of the whales’ ability to recover from commercial exploitation. But how can we travel back in time and estimate historical population abundance? One relatively new technique that Jackson and colleagues used to estimate the historical population of southern right whales in the Antarctic waters was to measure mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotypes. Haplotypes can be thought of as DNA lineages within a population, i.e. family groupings or populations with distinct similarities in their DNA that are different to other haplotypes. In a recent paper published in Molecular Ecology, Jackson and co-authors identified 68 distinct mtDNA haplotypes in southern right whales. Jackson’s modelling predicts that these haplotypes could only have survived in the present day population if somewhere between 656 and 1676 animals existed when commercial whaling of southern right whales ended in 1935. Using this genetic information with additional modelling, Jackson estimated that the pre-whaling population of the southern right whale was between 136,000 and 700,000, higher than previously thought. Establishing what the population was is crucial, as the IWC allows for a resumption of commercial whaling when current populations reach 54 per cent of the pre-whaling population. According to the IWC’s current high growth rate model, that threshold will be reached by 2013. More conservative estimates (using equally plausible models) suggest this won’t happen before 2043. Given the stress on our southern oceans caused by other human factors such as climate change and pollution, the 54 per cent threshold may require re-evaluation. Either way we are sure to see more clashes in our Antarctic waters if we are to preserve these unique mammals.
Below the thrashing surface, the depths of our oceans are a wonderland of creatures designed to a very different pattern from anything found on land. In the spirit of the first explorers, French curator Claire Nouvian embarked on an expedition to collect underwater anomalies from our own backyard and exhibit them in the halls of Europe.
It is a Question that has vexed many gastronomic afficionados, myself included: how can you pick a good avocado from a bad one? I certainly have my own method. However Chris Clark, a scientist from Hort Research in Hamilton, has been conducting more controlled experiments to help growers grade their harvested crops. Taking a leaf from Archimedes, the famous Greek scholar who reportedly ran naked down the street shouting “eureka” having suddenly understood the relationship between volume and displacement of an object in water, Chris has been attempting to apply density grading to avocados by floating them in water. The amount of dry matter (DM) in avocados is critical to their grading. Low DM (less than 20 per cent) indicates poor tasting fruit, whereas high DM are high in oil and ideal for conversion to avocado oil. In other crops such as potatoes, citrus and feijoa, flotation has been a commercially feasible method of grading internal characteristics such as DM. Unfortunately avocados are never that simple and the diametrically opposed densities of the flesh and seed are the principle stumbling block. The seed, which is of varying size (as we are all acutely aware) is heavier than water, whereas the equally variable flesh portion is lighter than water. Additionally, the flesh characteristics (such as air, oil content and DM) also radically affect an avocado’s buoyancy. These variables combine to give fruit with different characteristics the same degree of flotation, making grading an impossible task. So for those of you wanting the inside scoop on what makes a good or a bad avocado you will be sadly disappointed. But if you are working at HortResearch’s Ruakura campus you might be breathing a sigh of relief as you won’t have to see Chris streaking across the tea room shouting “eureka”.
Whats rarer than a tuatara? Amblyomma sphenodonti, of course, the blood-sucking ectoparasitic tick that chooses to dine on our national icon, the tuatara. Charles Daugherty and Hilary Miller from Victoria University in Wellington have undertaken a nationwide survey of 28 islands inhabited by tuatara, but only found the rare tick on eight islands. Why is the tick so rare in these natural populations and on islands with populations translocated for conservation purposes? An obvious cause for the absence of ticks from trans-located populations are animal husbandry practises; ticks were sometimes removed during island translocations by wildlife staff. However, in the recent transfer of 70 tuataras to Karori wildlife sanctuary the ticks naturally disappeared. The most logical explanation is that the ticks detached from their host as part of their life-cycle but with insufficient tuatara roaming the new sanctuary they were unable to reacquaint themselves with a suitable host. The inability to transfer between hosts at low densities may explain the demise of Amblyomma on some islands. Detailed molecular analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA has revealed that A. sphenodonti is genetically distinct from other known Amblyomma tick species, and could even represent a new genus. Hilary’s work is fascinating, and highlights an important debate in conservation biology, one that requires us to examine ourselves: Why do we value lizards above ticks? Tuatara have been the focus of an intensive conservation management programme for many years, and like all other reptiles, mammals (native), amphibians and birds (except game birds), tuatara are afforded the protection of New Zealand’s Wildlife Act. Unfortunately our endangered tick did not make it on the initial list of 32 terrestrial invertebrates that were given honorary “animal” status and thus included in the schedule of protected animals. As such, Amblyomma was not afforded the same attention as their iconic hosts. This is not a uniquely New Zealand phenomena—conservation programmes frequently attempt to reduce the prevalence of parasites to increase the health and breeding success of host animals. So where does this leave us? What is the value of one species compared to another? Should the mere trophic rank of parasite vs predator, vertebrate or invertebrate determine our conservation priorities? I guess this greys into an area of value judgements where scientific debate often comes second place. However, you never know when you might need a blood sucking tick, so I support the Noah principle of protecting all species in our global ark.
It was Hillary’s long-time friend Jim Wilson, a student of Eastern religion and culture, who wrote: “Life gives and takes in a way indifferent to individual human desires. Wisdom consists in realising that it cannot be otherwise; enjoying when it gives and enduring when it takes”.
“Slip, Slop, Slap”—it’s a phrase we hear regularly throughout summer, so as good Kiwis heading to the beach we slop on some sunscreen. However, I am sure that the swimmers at St Kilda’s beach in Dunedin were unaware that the phytoplankton surging beyond them in Otago’s coastal waters are also capable of slopping on some sunscreen. Mycosporine-like amino acids (MAA’s) are one of nature’s answers to ultraviolet radiation. These naturally occurring sunscreen compounds are synthesised by many species of phytoplankton and are subsequently incorporated into many other marine organisms that feed on them, which are incapable of synthesising these compounds themselves. Undine Riemer and colleagues at the University of Otago have recently published one of the few in-situ examples where MAA concentrations in phytoplankton have been correlated with seasonal UV levels. They found that the concentration of MAA compounds increased in summer, matching greater UV exposure at that time. Effectively phytoplankton were actively protecting themselves against harmful UV radiation. It has been hypothesised that such seasonal increases in MAA in phytoplankton could prevent UV damage in other organisms that feed on them, such as krill. However, in the same study Riemer found that MAA’s, although present in Nyctiphanes australis (a species of krill), did not vary in concentration with the seasons.
Only 4 mm of rain fell at Ruakura during January, the lowest since records began in 1906 and only four per cent of its average rainfall. Coming after dry months in November and December, Waikato’s driest ever January has turned its iconic green pastures into a dusty brown landscape, more typical of a Canterbury summer. Rainfall was also well below average over most other North Island districts south of Waikato, as well as eastern areas of the South Island. As soil moisture plummeted, drought took hold in many farming areas. It was a hot January as well. The average temperature for the whole country was 18.3°C, which is 1.3°C above the long-term average. The persistent hot weather shows up in the average of daily maximum temperatures calculated by NIWA’s National Climate Centre, which were more than 2°C above normal in many places and record highest in Pukekohe, Ruakura, Nelson, Tekapo, Dunedin airport, Clyde and Gore. In Central Otago, Alexandra’s average daily maximum was 28.2°C, which is 4.5°C above normal, although only the second highest since records began. The heat and dryness were to be expected during a La Niña summer, although the number of records broken is probably a sign of global warming adding to the drama. La Niña is one phase of a weather pattern known to climatologists as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which affects the whole Pacific basin and beyond and is the major climate pattern after the seasonal cycle. During a La Niña summer, anticyclones are more frequent over southern New Zealand, bringing dry weather there, while outbreaks of warm northeast winds bring rain to areas in the north and east of the North Island, such as Gisborne, Coromandel and Northland. The easterly trade winds across the tropical Pacific are also strengthened and the temperature of the sea surface near the equator lowers by several degrees. There is both cause and effect here, because the trade winds are made stronger by the larger temperature difference between the Pacific Ocean and the waters around Indonesia and northern Australia, while the stronger trade winds cause surface waters in the Pacific to spread away from tropical latitudes to be replaced by colder water welling up from below. ENSO is an example of a system linking the atmosphere and the ocean through a feedback mechanism. It oscillates between El Niño and La Niña and back again in an irregular cycle usually taking between three to five years. The stronger trade winds occurring during La Niña increase the low-level air converging over the western end of the Pacific, which in turn strengthens the upward motion of the air, leading to more condensation and heavier rain. The condensing water vapour releases enormous amounts of heat into the air, increasing the upward motion, leading to further condensation and rain, and so on in another feedback cycle. This means much heavier monsoon rains over the western end of the Pacific; repeated flooding and landslides have occurred in Indonesia over the last few months, causing dozens of deaths. In Australia, the rain is welcome as it is breaking the worst drought in over a hundred years, although there has also been significant flood damage. The heaviest rains, so far, have been in Queensland and down the east coast but only small amounts of rain have penetrated the major agricultural area of the Murray Darling river basin. However, the signs of change are encouraging, and rain has also fallen over Western Australia after a long dry spell there. Over the Pacific, La Niña causes the main rain band, known as the South Pacific Convergence Zone, to shift westward. Tonga, for example, had almost a month’s rain in six hours on the afternoon of 12 February. Towards South America, La Niña typically brings drought to the Galapagos Islands, causing a major die off of plants and animals. Although New Zealand is warmer than average during La Niña, the global average temperature goes down as many parts of the world suffer colder conditions than normal. In North America, for example, La Niña is associated with colder than average weather from Alaska, across western Canada and down over the Great Plains. Where the cold air meets warm humid air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico conditions are favourable for rare winter tornados. Some of these tornados occur during the night when they are harder to spot and their victims are sleeping and unable to respond to warnings. A particularly deadly outbreak occurred in February, killing over 50 people in the states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Arkansas was one of the states holding primaries that day for November’s presidential election and some polling booths had to close as the tornados approached. Ironically, Clinton, one of the towns struck by tornados, had the same name as one of the main candidates. La Niña, combined with global warming, has also taken the blame for the drought affecting the American southwest where Lake Powell, on the Colorado River, has fallen below 50 per cent capacity. As this drought intensifies, interest is growing in the story of past climate as revealed by tree ring studies. Thick growth rings show the 20th century to have been the wettest in the last thousand years, while, disturbingly, periods of prolonged drought are showing up. During the driest decade in the 13th century, the flow of the Colorado River appears to have been much less than the total amount of water currently removed to supply the farms and cities of the 30 million people living in the region. Parts of the world where La Niña is linked to cold weather include Western Europe and Asia from India through to Japan, where unusually heavy snow has fallen. Other areas prone to heavy rain during La Niña include southeast Africa, where the Zambezi caused major flooding in Mozambique this summer. When will it end? Once established, both El Niño and La Niña tend to persist through the southern hemisphere summer into autumn then break down around April or May. Odds are we will see a change then, although global warming will still be with us.
On 10 April, 1968, the southbound cyclone Giselle hit Wellington just as a cold front swept up from Antarctica, creating one of the most ferocious storms in New Zealand history, with winds that ripped the roofs off houses, overturned trucks and toppled trees. The inter-island ferry, Wahine, entered Wellington Harbour at 5.50 am but soon after, a massive wave drove the ship off course and toward Barrett Reef. Captain Hector Robertson struggled to drive the ship back out to sea against 160 kp/h winds, but the turbulent seas swept it back onto the rocks. The Wahine then began drifting into the harbour, dragging anchors for two hours before finally holding 500 m off Seatoun. Numerous rescue efforts were made over the following hours, but at 1.30 pm, the ship began to list so severely that passengers and crew were told to abandon ship. The pitch of the boat meant only four starboard lifeboats could be launched. The first one was swamped as soon as it hit the water. Others, overloaded, capsized as they approached shore. Some people had no choice but to jump into the sea where they were swept towards Eastbourne, some 5 km away. Around 200 people struggled ashore there, but slips on the road prevented rescue teams getting through and many died from exposure. The Wahine disaster remains the most famous of New Zealand’s maritime tragedies, one that was witnessed by hundreds of would-be rescuers who stood by helplessly as people were swept past so close to shore but out of reach, and by thousands of shocked New Zealanders who witnessed the event on television. Of the 734 passengers and crew on board, 51 people lost their lives.
Austrian born photographer Arno Gasteiger made New Zealand his home in 1988. He landed his first assignment with New Zealand Geographic in 1989 and has been a mainstay photographer with this magazine for two decades. Included in his many contributions have been stories on Marlborough, the Paparoas, Samoa, sand dunes and Auckland Museum. For this issue Arno accompanied author Claire Nouvian on the research vessel Tangaroa in search of the strange denizens of New Zealand’s deep oceans. Says Arno: “I was slightly hesitant to join an expedition that involved being on a ship that was operating in the Roaring Forties in the middle of winter. And I was not sure how visual this assignment could be or if I might end up photographing dead fish in a freezer. “However Claire Nouvian’s passion for her work with deep sea creatures quickly ignited my interest and curiosity. I boarded Tangaroa via the Chatham Islands and a few hours later watched with excitement when the trawl-net surfaced. I found myself immersed in a completely alien world, one which had to be explained to me by NIWA scientists and Claire. “This photography was difficult and involved working in all kinds of light conditions, often at night and below deck. It also involved keeping my laptop from flying off the table, keeping equipment out of sea-spray, holding on and not getting seasick.” Aside from NZ Geographic, Arno’s work has appeared in Smithsonian, Marie Claire, New York Times, Spiegel, Geo (Germany & France) and many local publications. His photo essay on the memorial to Sir Edmund Hillary also appears in this issue.
Thanks, you're good to go!
Thanks, you're good to go!
Ask your librarian to subscribe to this service next year. Alternatively, use a home network and buy a digital subscription—just $1/week...
Subscribe to our free newsletter for news and prizes