Growing out of New Zealand’s links to Antarctica and our dependence on huskies for the exploration of the South Pole, dog sledding has transformed into a local sport with a passionate following.
Growing out of New Zealand’s links to Antarctica and our dependence on huskies for the exploration of the South Pole, dog sledding has transformed into a local sport with a passionate following.
I knocked together a chicken coop in our backyard last weekend and populated it with three young pullets. With any luck they will grow to be prodigious layers,furnishing my small family with eggs, eating our kitchen scraps and fertilising our compost with their waste. And when they’re done, we’ll eat them. It’s an elegant symbiosis (with the fleeting exception of the coup de grâce) that brings our suburban life one step closer to self-sufficiency and sustainability. But it also brings us a step closer to the root of ills currently affecting the modern world. Domesticated animals are a reservoir for incubating and mutating influenza-A type viruses, and the avian and swine flus that course through intensively farmed populations can, from time to time, leap into humans. Every now and again those viruses can be transmitted between humans as is the case with the 2009 pandemic, and was not the case with the avian flu SARS. Such pandemics are symptomatic of high-density modern city life and living in close proximity to intensive agriculture that makes our urban habitat tenable. So it’s little surprise that the first major pandemic on planet Earth affected the most populated cities most acutely, and may even be partially responsible for the dawn of the modern world. The Black Plague came in the 14th century, killing up to 80 per cent of the population in the Italian cities of Florence, Rome and Sienna over four consecutive years, and a further 30–60 per cent of the population elsewhere in Europe. But the pandemic also destroyed feudal structures allowing more democratic participation in science, art and thought, a social upheaval which ultimately led to the Renaissance. And by no coincidence this enlightenment began at the point of greatest mortality, Florence. But as well as a portent of malady, viruses are also testament to the vigour of life. They are the simplest, most abundant and smallest forms of life, barely a 20,000th of a millimetre in size. And because of their short life-cycle and large numbers they are an example of evolution in overdrive—evolving in their modus operandi, constantly seeking new avenues, ducking barriers set to arrest them and surprising scientists with their virulence and capacity to adapt. By understanding this almost magical mutability scientists are better able to prepare for the worst, a transmissible zoonotic viral pandemic, like swine flu. Also in this issue Peter Quinn brings us a photographic documentary of Cook Islands’ festivals more than a year in the making, and Derek Grzelewski a dog’s tale of husky racing in the Pisa Range. Continuing south, Rod Rust traces the genesis of big-wave surfing on the frigid Southland coast, Brian Skerry frames a photographic portrait of the southern right whales in the Auckland Islands, and the Viewfinder spread captures midwinter at the South Pole. So enjoy these pages—a journey the length and breadth of New Zealand’s backyard, from the tiniest most virulent form of life to the largest and rarest.
When the great Otago skink recovery programme began at macraes Flat in 2004, the populations of Otago and grand skinks—New Zealand’s largest and rarest lizards—were so low it was thought both species would be functionally extinct within the decade. The sense of urgency prompted DOC to take two management approaches simultaneously, so it could save some skinks and figure out which was the best way of doing so at the same time. The scientists set traps and bait stations over an area as large as they could manage (2000 ha), and also built two predator-free enclosures for the southern lizards. Scientists can now report a 230 per cent increase in the skink populations in the past few years; according to DOC that’s the most dramatic recovery of a critically endangered species on the mainland. Surprisingly, there were similar levels of recovery in both the predator-free enclosure and the predator-controlled area. DOC has now doubled the area under control, from 400 traps over 2000 ha to 800 traps over 4000 ha. As programme manager Andy Hutcheon points out, that’s an area equivalent to the size of suburban Dunedin, although it’s nothing compared to the skinks’ original geographical range. “They used to be across Otago, from Wanaka right through to the coast north of Dunedin. They’re now reduced to eight per cent of their former range.” However, the Otago skink will soon be returning to the Alexandra Basin where they haven’t been seen since the 1970s. This is thanks to the Central Otago Ecological Trust, which has recently completed a 0.25 ha predator-proof enclosure which it plans to formally open in mid-November, and release 12 Otago skinks into the area at the same time. “It’s a pilot study,” says trust chair Grant Norbury. “We just want to see if we can get a viable population going.” Norbury has great plans for the lizards, hoping they’ll act as ambassadors for the dry lands of New Zealand. Half of New Zealand’s threatened flora exists in these areas, but dry lands get only a fraction of the attention given to our wetlands or forest systems. “You need something attractive,” he says. “And these Otago skinks are big, they’re black with gold spots all over them, they’re spectacular.” If all goes well, the trust hopes to introduce other species into the enclosure.
Getting approval for the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a complicated and expensive business, and it could get even more so. An inter-council working party consisting of the local councils for the Far North, whangarei, kaipara, Rodney and Waitakere, as well as the Auckland Regional and northland Regional councils, is investigating the possibility of regulating GMOs in the environment under the Resource Management Act, which allows for the regulation of land use through councils’ district plans. A lot of conventional farmers and horticulturalists are concerned about GMOs, and many Maori oppose GM on spiritual or cultural grounds. There is also concern about food safety, environmental effects and the impact on the marketability of produce from an area with GM organisms. A key concern, however, is liability. Someone who uses or releases GMOs in accordance with an Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) approval is not held liable for any damage they cause, says Kerry Grundy of the Whangarei District Council. If organic growers, or conventional farmers, lose their markets because their produce becomes contaminated by GM crops, neither the government, ERMA nor the grower of the GM plants is responsible. According to a letter from the former Minister for the Environment, David Benson-Pope, local councils and the affected property owners could bear the costs. The northern councils have contracted Colmar Brunton to survey public opinion in the region, and other councils around the country are watching developments carefully. One who favours the local prohibition of land being used to grow GMOs is Zelka Grammer, who is on the committee of GE Free Northland and who, with her husband, runs a nursery and grows fruit and vegetables under integrated pest management rules west of Whangarei. “They [GMOs] have not been adequately tested and there is no strict liability to ensure that those who cause harm are held accountable... We already spend a heap of time trapping mustelids, possums and rats as well as dealing to pest plants. We certainly don’t want any more incursions of unwanted new organisms.” Grammer is also active in Rural Women New Zealand, which, she notes, opposed the lifting of the moratorium on GMOs. In contrast, Federated Farmers—many members of which will be married to members of Rural Women—takes a more liberal view, wanting farmers to be able to enjoy the benefits of GMOs, as long as it doesn’t involve an unacceptable risk to agriculture. Inevitably those on either side of the GMO fence will be debating the matter at either end of the dinner table.
Our colonisers sent us bumblebees, and now they want them back. The extinction of the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) in England has prompted conservation groups to reinstate the species using bees from New Zealand. Local bee experts think it will benefit our own bumblebee populations, too. B. subterraneus was one of four bumblebees ushered into New Zealand in the late 19th century for the pollination of another newcomer, red clover—used for cattle-fodder. Our tame winters and plentiful wildflowers meant the bumblebees easily made themselves at home. While B. subterraneus is also found in Europe, it was the English variety that was brought to New Zealand. However, the last sighting of that bee on British soil was in 1988. Bumblebee project officer Nikki Gammans says the initiative has not only focused on importing the New Zealand bees, but on gentrifying bumble bee-friendly habitats in South Kent—where the bee was last seen—to ensure their survival. “In the first six months of the project we have actually managed to double the [habitat] we expected to create, and we’re still going strong,” she says. “The response of farmers and land owners has been brilliant!” Canterbury entomologist Barry Donovan—part of a group of New Zealanders collaborating with Scotland’s Stirling University on the venture—says reasons for the bee’s extinction in England are wide-ranging and “can only be guessed at. But undoubtedly global warming, habitat change and possibly diseases will be candidate causes.” The short-haired bumblebee isn’t exactly abundant in New Zealand either. It’s the rarest of all our bumblebees—found only in certain parts of Canterbury and Otago—and there are fears it is in decline here too. “There is a question regarding the status of our population because of few recent sightings, although there has been no recent really in-depth survey,” says Donovan. As well as capturing queens in order to rear colonies, the project will involve setting traps near Twizel which encourage bumblebees to nest. Rearing the bees won’t be easy—a study in 1991 looking at three of our four introduced bumblebee species found B. subterraneus the most difficult to rear. But Donovan thinks trap-nesting can help the New Zealand bumblebee population as well. “Trap-nesting certainly offers a means of increasing the number of new queens produced annually, thus better ensuring species survival.” There are those, Donovan notes, who will be happy to see the bumblebee go. Some conservationists call introduced bees “the insect equivalent of goats”, having the potential to displace native nectar and pollen foragers. New Zealand entomologists are still waiting for funding approval to participate in the project, with the first bees expected to be released in England in 2010.
Flashes of dazzling colour and swishing grass skirts are the postcard portrait of an exotic South Seas paradise. But behind this romantic image lie traditions pre-dating the earliest European contact, and a calendar of festivals connecting Cook Islanders to their culture.
As far as mythical generalisations go, New Zealand has two contradictory versions of itself. There’s the one about this being a slice of paradise populated by a determined and stoic people. The other is that this is a damp and brooding land populated by people wallowing in rain-soaked melancholy. The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle, although in the process of producing maps for this magazine, our attention has been drawn to a considerable amount of evidence for the latter—the psychology of our forebears is embedded in our geography. You may be familiar with Doubtful Sound, Cape Foulwind and Mount Difficulty, but the country is riddled with natural features named by people who evidently saw this land as more hell on Earth than godzone. This is particularly so in the South Island, as manifested in a number of mountains, such as Mount Awkward, Mount Misery, Mount Bitterness, Mount Hopeless, Mount Awful, Mount Dreadful and Mount Horrible. Look closely at a map of the region and you get the sense that injury, if not the grim reaper, lurks around every corner—as in Breakneck Gully, Broken Leg Knob and at least three Deadman’s Points. There are landforms registering profound regret—Mistake River, Mistake Basin, Black’s Mistake, My Mistake (an address on Mt Mistake Rd) and Boo Boo Stream. Several waterways were clearly the object of considerable ire—Horrible Stream, Slug Stream, Cranky Creek and Stink Creek. We aren’t the first to have noticed this—these markers of pioneer malaise prompted cartographer Roger Smith, of GeographX, to produce A Visitor’s Guide to Dubious, Dodgy & Dangerous Destinations of the South Island a few years ago. Smith says he’d considered doing such a map of the whole country, but the North Island didn’t have enough unhappily named landforms to justify it. Because the North Island is a nicer place to be? Smith suggests a more banal explanation. The North Island’s geographical sites already had a lot of Maori names while “the South Island had more than its fair share of dour old Scottish surveyors with a droll sense of humour”.
Sarah Hillary, principal conservator at Auckland Art Gallery, has spent much of her life examining, scrutinising and restoring other people’s paintings. In the process, she has acquired an intimate understanding of the idiosyncratic methods and techniques of some of our most regarded artists. Such as Colin McCahon who, for a period, used house paint stiffened with sawdust and whose surfaces, under the microscope, can have a lunar-like quality. Or Rita Angus, whose surfaces Hillary describes as “jewel-like...down to a microscopic level, very tidy”. Or Frances Hodgkins, who constantly modified her work, so that microscopic analysis reveals myriad layers concealed beneath the final image. “I have a cross-section of the Spanish Shrine that shows 23 layers,” says Hillary. In recent years, Hillary has begun to practise as an artist herself, holding her first exhibition in 2003, when she was in her late 40s. “I was of the generation that you were only allowed to do art [at school] if you were in the lower streams. The only way I got into art was after I wrote ‘to hell with Hutton’ on the blackboard and got thrown out of Latin.” Hillary first went to university to study the sciences but changed to the arts, graduating with a BA in art history and eventually combining both art and science in a Masters of Applied Science (Conservation of Painting) at the University of Canberra. When she first began to paint herself, she opted for an uncommonly common surface—pipi shells. “They have this wonderful surface. It’s just like gesso, but in a natural form.” More specifically, for an exhibition last year, she painted mountains on pipi shells—miniature versions of mountains as they had featured in the background in the works of key mid-20th century New Zealand paintings, particularly those by female artists. She painted, for instance, a diminutive version of the mountain in the background of Rita Angus’ Cass, and the mountain in the background of her watercolour, Tree. She painted the mountains of Rita Lovell-Smith, Doris Lusk and Olivia Spencer-Bower and then named them after the artist—Mt Rita, Mt Doris, Mt Olivia. She describes them as “little peaks”. “In a way they are the mountains of our art history.” Hillary’s approach must have been partly informed by her day job, which requires scrupulous attention to the details of 20th-century New Zealand art. That she chose to paint mountains must also have had something to do with her upbringing, as the daughter of the world’s most famous mountaineer. “Well, I love mountains,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time around them. I like being there. I like paintings of them.” We met in Hillary’s Grey Lynn home, a former worker’s cottage, elegantly and austerely furnished, and unbelievably neat. She brought out a scrapbook made by her great-great-grandmother Ida Fleming, dated 1875, which she inherited after her father’s death last year. Each page could be described as a preserved work of floral art, of decoratively arranged pressed native ferns. As she explains, pteridomania, or fern-fever, gripped Victorian ladies in the late 19th century. Botany was very much in vogue, particularly ferns, not only as a decorative motif but as something that could be pressed prettily into a scrapbook. “I thought the scrapbook was beautiful. I had a great time looking through it. I told my aunt about it, and she said, ‘But Sarah, fresh ferns are much nicer!’...She’s a botanist.” The scrapbook prompted Hillary to paint watercolours of the pressed specimens, which she then mounted beneath the paintings of mountains—“a bushy undergrowth to the snowy peaks”. Clearly she has an inclusive approach to her choice of references, combining New Zealand’s greatest 20th-century artists with her great-greatgrandmother’s scrapbook. “It was lovely to have the family connection. And I love this idea that she had just got to New Zealand, from Ireland, and ended up in Dargaville, where she gathered ferns.” At the time of the interview, Hillary was preparing for her exhibition (opening this month at the Anna Miles Gallery in Auckland) called Dragon Ferns, in which she plans to reprise the still life, only with dragons, Tibetan ceramics and, as the title suggests, ferns. “In the 19th century, still life was considered the lowest form of art, while idealised forms were considered the highest,” she says. “But I like the way still life is very domestic. I like domestic things... One of the things about still life is that it has all this data about what people found attractive, what they valued.” And while her father is internationally renowned for his grand-scale gestures, the daughter has built her reputation working with the miniature details, of art and life. Did Sir Ed ever actually understand her line of work? “I don’t think he had any idea what I actually do, but was just pleased I did something. But he’d been to art galleries.” She smiles. “He knew what he liked.”
In 1896 a New Zealand Herald reporter travelled with the Northern Steamship Company to Great Barrier Island, a journey commemorating the 145 lives that had been lost two years earlier when the steamship S.S. Wairarapa struck rocks at the northern end of the island. Accompanying him was a pigeon, Ariel, owned by Auckland-based pigeon fancier Walter Fricker. Having completed his story, the reporter then filed it—by attaching five pages of letter-sized paper to Ariel, who was back home within one and three quarter hours. The wreck of the Wairarapa had drawn attention to the need for communication services between the island and the mainland, while the story of how the reporter met his deadline offered a potential solution. Fricker’s Great Barrier Pigeongram Agency was formally established the following year and Ariel and her feathered colleagues began their weekly travels over the island by steamer, in order to wing it straight back again. Within a few months fricker faced competition from pigeon buff J.E. Parkin, who set himself up under the similarly named Original Great Barrier Pigeon-gram service. according to an article in Pacific Way magazine, “Even the pigeons were confused, sometimes following the wrong birds to the wronglofts with the wrong messages.” The Service and the Agency locked competitive horns many times; over the design of the flimsies—the rice paper pages on which messages were sent—over a price-war, over each other’s stamp designs. Parkin’s company (then managed by Mr S. H. Howie) was the first to print a run of stamps in 1898. These were the first airmail stamps printed in New Zealand, possibly the world. Fricker countered with a run of triangular-shaped stamps, and later, with a stamp specifically designed for the Auckland to Great Barrier service (as distinct from the Great Barrier to Auckland service). Parkin-Howie’s Service came back again, this time with stamps designed for a service from Auckland to the copper mines on Marotiri Island in the Hen and Chickens Group. And so the pigeons began travelling around the Gulf, transporting mining claims, election results, shopping lists, accommodation bookings, key news events such as the death of Queen Victoria, the occasional urgent request for medical attention. It all came to an end when the first telegraph cable was laid between the island and the mainland in 1908. Only a small proportion of the stamps were ever flown; many were ruined by poor storage and a good number snapped up by eager philatelists. According to John Mowbray of stamp dealers Mowbray Collectables, the stamps can go under the hammer from upward of $100, although the Marotiri Island stamps, the rarest of the eight designs, can fetch $2000 $3000. If the stamp happens to be on its original flimsy, the price jumps substantially. What would have cost little more than a shilling a century ago could fetch up to $20,000.
Catching the monstrous swells that roll around the hip of the Catlins Coast, big-wave surfers challenge nature’s greatest forces simply for the rush.
Much of our social life has to do with figuring out what is going on in the minds of others. Does he love me? Have I offended her? And the lecturer’s nightmare: Do they understand what on Earth I’m talking about? This awareness of what others might be thinking is known as theory of mind. It underlies our natural tendency to empathise with others, to share their happiness or distress, but it also allows us to interact with others in more complex ways, some of them devious. Emotion is the easiest state to read, as it is usually written on the face or in bodily signs. Even mice react more strongly to pain if they perceive pain in others, and monkeys refuse to pull a chain to get food if doing so delivers a shock to a companion. Chimpanzees, but not monkeys, offer consolation to others in distress. A juvenile chimp, for instance, puts a comforting arm around a screaming adult who has been defeated in a fight. Chimpanzees also seem to know when another chimp is looking at them, and steal food when a dominant chimp is not looking. It is a step up, though, to know what another individual knows or believes, a talent perhaps restricted to humans. One way to assess it in children is the Sally-Anne test. The child is shown a scene involving two dolls, one called Sally and one called Anne. Sally has a basket and Anne has a box. Sally then puts a marble in her basket and leaves the scene. While Sally is away Anne takes the marble out of the basket and puts it in her box. Sally then comes back, and the child is asked where she will look for her marble. Children under the age of four typically say Sally will look in the box, where the marble actually is. Older children will understand that Sally did not see the marble being shifted, and will correctly say that she will look in the basket. They understand that Sally has a false belief. In contrast, people with autism seem to lack the ability to read minds. One celebrated case is Temple Grandin, who has a PhD in animal science and works as a teacher and researcher in the US. Otherwise clearly intelligent, she has written several books, three of which describe her own condition and the manner in which she has dealt with it. She has had to teach herself painstakingly how people act in different circumstances, so that she knows how to behave appropriately in social settings. One bonus arising from this strategy is that her habit of detailed observations of behaviour has provided insights into the behaviour of animals. A BBC Horizon documentary about her in 2006 had the rather unkind title, “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”. Such cases aside, theory of mind can operate to establish intricate networks that guide much of our social activity. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria foresees that Sir Toby will eagerly anticipate that Olivia will judge Malvolio absurdly impertinent to suppose that she wishes him to regard himself as her preferred suitor. Each italicised word attributes a state of mind. Theory of mind is recursive we may fancy we know not only what others are thinking, but also what they think we are thinking. In his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud tells a story of a man who meets a business rival at a train station and asks where he is going. The business rival replies he is going to Minsk. The first man then says, “You’re telling me you’re going to Minsk because you want me to think you’re going to Pinsk. But I happen to know that you are going to Minsk, so why are you lying to me?” It has been suggested that theory of mind arose in the Pleistocene, when our hunter-gatherer forebears had to bond socially in order to survive on the open savanna, foraging for food and competing with lions, hyenas and other dangerous animals. But once they had conquered nature, tribes of hominins began to compete with each other, leading to the subtle combination of co-operation and deception that drives our social lives today. The dangerous animals we must now deal with are not so much snakes as sellers of snake oil. And they are everywhere—in commerce, politics, religion and even, dare I say, the university.
Minute and lethal, the virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people in a matter of months. Now it is evolving into new, highly infectious strains—including swine flu—that have scientists fighting to contain them.
Robert fitzroy is famous to most as the captain of the Beagle during the voyage on which Darwin made his discoveries, although many New Zealanders also know him as the Governor of New Zealand before George Grey. To meteorologists, FitzRoy is famous as one of the pioneers of weather forecasting. In fact, FitzRoy coined the term “weather forecasting” mainly to disassociate his work from prophecies of an astrological nature. He was also a superb navigator and surveyor whose charts of South America were still in use more than 100 years after he made them. FitzRoy’s career got off to a strong start at 14 when he topped his class at the Royal Naval College. After four years at sea as a midshipman, he was the first candidate ever to pass the lieutenants’ exam with perfect marks. Aged 23, he was given command of the Beagle, assisting Captain Phillip Parker King in surveying the coast of South America. A few months later, off Patagonia and hurrying to a rendezvous, he ignored the danger signs of a plunging barometer and threatening sky, with fatal consequences. A violent pampero wind caught the Beagle with too much sail up and threw the vessel on her side. Topmasts and jib-boom were blown away, along with two sailors, who drowned. FitzRoy ordered the dropping of both anchors, which righted the Beagle and pulled her head into the wind, saving her from foundering. But while he was praised for his seamanship in saving the vessel, FitzRoy felt he should have better anticipated the sudden onset of the gale. The coastline of Tierra del Fuego and the Magellan Straits proved so complex that eventually the survey was broken off and the expedition returned to England. It was resumed the following year, upon the urging of the navy hydrographer, Captain Francis Beaufort (now known for the Beaufort Scale for measuring wind strength), and FitzRoy was ordered back to South America. He took Charles Darwin, a gentleman naturalist, as a companion. Constrained from conversing freely with officers under his command, FitzRoy hoped Darwin would mitigate the loneliness of his position on such a long and stressful expedition. (The previous commander of the Beagle had committed suicide after a breakdown.) The voyage lasted from 1831 to 1836, was hailed as a triumph, and FitzRoy was honoured with the Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society. But with the publication of On the Origin of Species, late in FitzRoy’s life, the voyage eventually became more famous for finding evidence for the theory of evolution. FitzRoy resented this bitterly. By that time his religious views had hardened into a literal interpretation of the Bible, and he argued that all he had seen only confirmed that Earth had developed after an extensive flood. Darwin famously retorted, “It is a pity that he did not add his theory to the extinction of the Mastodon from the door of the Ark being made too small.” In 1841, FitzRoy was elected to Parliament and two years later was offered the position of Governor of New Zealand. Backed with few troops and little money, the job was a poisoned chalice. He arrived in time to adjudicate the Wairau massacre, finding that the New Zealand Company settlers had no right to try to arrest Te Rauparaha, but that Te Rangihaeata was wrong to have executed the prisoners taken in the affray. This pleased nobody. The settlers were infuriated, while Te Rauparaha sent a message saying that FitzRoy should not trouble sending soldiers to find him at Waikanae as he’d be happy to turn up in Wellington with a thousand warriors on any date FitzRoy cared to name. In less than two years, political allies of the New Zealand Company engineered FitzRoy’s recall to England while the settlers in Nelson burnt him in effigy. FitzRoy’s voyage home was notable for a storm he forecast when the ship was anchored for the night in calm weather in the Magellan Straits. Both of FitzRoy’s barometers were falling fast but the captain ignored his warnings and retired below deck. FitzRoy persuaded a young officer to put out a heavy anchor on a heavy chain. When the storm struck at 2am, the heavy chain broke but tangled around the lighter chain. This saved the ship from crashing into sheer cliffs and losing all lives onboard. It was these encounters with storms at sea that led FitzRoy to weather forecasting, and the opportunity to develop his ideas came in 1854 when he was appointed Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade. Initially tasked with compiling weather statistics for each part of the globe from ships’ logs, he took advantage of the invention of the telegraph to initiate forecasting. He established a network of early prototype weather stations around the coast, each with an early standard barometer and thermometer. Readings were telegraphed to FitzRoy’s office every morning and within hours a forecast would be telegraphed back. If FitzRoy thought a storm imminent, warning symbols of drums and cones were displayed from a mast. The storm warnings proved both successful and popular, but they were not infallible. FitzRoy also sent forecasts to the daily papers. Whereas his storm warnings were displayed as soon as the telegram arrived, the newspaper forecasts usually took another 24 hours to appear, by which time conditions could have changed radically. The newspapers that ran his forecasts also became some of his strongest critics. In 1863, FitzRoy published his Weather Book, which included his theories on how wind patterns and storms evolved, advice on how to use a barometer and a litany of horror stories of ships wrecked in storms. FitzRoy was working 13 days a fortnight to improve his forecasts, but criticism of his methods and results came to a head in Parliament in 1865. FitzRoy had a nervous breakdown and, on 30 April that year, bolted himself in a bathroom and slit his throat. FitzRoy was born rich but died poor, having expended much of his wealth advancing his work. A collection was taken up for the support of his widow and children. Notable among the contributors was Charles Darwin, who praised FitzRoy as “an ardent friend to all under his sway”. The storm warnings issued by FitzRoy’s staff were discontinued but soon reinstated by public demand. They remain his greatest legacy. Another testament to his abilities is the number of people who served under him on the Beagle who went on to distinguished careers. Today, FitzRoy is enshrined in the name of one of the sea areas in the British marine forecasts, a mountain in Patagonia and numerous streets in New Zealand.
The southern right whales of the Auckland Islands were once reduced to a population that included only 25 mature females. Now numbering more than 1000, their recovery is a testament to the natural resilience of marine mammals and provides hope for the ailing North Atlantic species.
The mutton bird harvest in Foveaux Strait is one of New Zealand’s oldest food-gathering traditions—radiocarbon dating has suggested that the custom began in the area around 600–800 years ago. The annual harvesting of the chicks of the titi (sooty shearwater or) traditionally involved two sub-seasons. April was nanao, when chicks were harvested by daylight—pulled out of their nests and killed by a swift bite to the back of their head. May harvesting was called rama and required hunting at night, which was when the chicks would be taking their first tentative steps out of their burrows. It usually involved a club, and dark and cloudy nights reaped the most bountiful results. A sealer, John Boultbee, described going muttonbirding in 1927 and witnessing his companions skin the birds, remove their bones and roast them before stuffing them in bags made of kelp: “I have eaten of them after they had been 8 months in these bags, and found the meat as fresh as when put in.” These bags, poha titi, were constructed out of large bladders of bull kelp that were then inflated to make a container. After being stuffed with freshly boiled titi covered in the bird’s own fat, the bag was wrapped in totara tree bark and strengthened with sticks or flax, then the base was inserted into a basket of woven flax. Birds preserved this way would last two to three years. After the arrival of Europeans, the birds were commonly split and packed in salt. Having been fed on the regurgitated oil of pilchards, shrimps, sprats and squid, they are frequently described as fishy-flavoured—which explains why early settlers often regarded muttonbirds as honorary fish. In, a history of New Zealand cooking, author David Veart notes that muttonbird was a difficult staple to anglicise, but the author of made a game effort, recommending that the birds be boiled, minced and seasoned with anchovy essence before preservation. The customary harvest of titi is today a large-scale commercial enterprise for Maori from Rakiura who have the right to take the birds from 36 islands on the east coast of Stewart Island, collectively known as the Titi Islands. Very little about the tradition has changed over the decades, although the birds are more likely to be stored in 20-litre buckets than hand-made kelp bags.
In production of this issue our gallant contributors braved frightening cold, giant waves, microscopic viruses and fish of unusual size. While Brian Skerry’s images of southern right whales present a vision of a Southern Ocean utopia brimming with accommodating cetaceans, the reader must be reminded that every so often one encounters a grumpy whale. Skerry’s nemesis appeared on day four of his assignment, a juvenile male hurtling out of the blue. “It blew by like it was strafing me,” he says, behaviour that he is at pains to point out was radically different from that of the other whales. Surmising that it was a “frustrated adolescent”, he moved to shallow water. The whale followed until the pair were in water significantly shallower than the whale was long. “It came over the top of me and started to swing its tail down like it was going to swat me. I did my best to get out of the way—God forbid it had made contact, I would have been killed". Finally, the whale faced him and produced a gunshot sound—a loud crack usually associated with male–male competition—before Skerry escaped to the safety of an inflatable boat. The whale, which also sabotaged a subsequent photo shoot, earned the moniker “Moby Prick”, and Skerry, the dubious honour of being the only human known to have been “shot” by a whale. “But,” he says, “I’m just grateful they don’t have teeth.” Facing a smaller foe, Arno Gasteiger was ushered into a sanitised world of space suits and facemasks to photograph the feature on viruses. Priming himself with copious quantities of olive leaf extract, he set to work in a swirling miasma of H1N1. “I had made it through the whole winter without getting sick,” says Gasteiger. “But after a while I realised that the lab was probably the safest place in New Zealand—certainly safer than the flight to Wellington with everyone coughing and sneezing on the plane.” Living and working on the remote outpost of Centre Island in Foveaux Strait in the 1970s gave writer Rod Rust the opportunity to pioneer what has become recognised as one of the finest big wave surfing locations in the country. He recalls his first wave at the island, which turned out to be significantly bigger than he had anticipated. “The wave was sucking out and the bottom coming up so fast. I picked a line and leaned hard into a turn. The wave hissed loudly behind me and the wall of the wave loomed in front, looking as if to smash me and then, as it spat me out onto the shoulder, it exploded in a roar,” he writes. “I realised the irony of challenging the very reef I was responsible for warning people to avoid!” Derek Grzewelski’s Airedale puppy Maya accompanied him for much of his assignment on huskies for this issue. It was a story that he admits was “close to his heart”. In writing it he was able to sign-off on the passing of his previous dog Mops, to whom he dedicated his last book: “To Mops, the best dog there ever was, and to Maya who is ever better.” While Maya may never pull a sled, Grzelewski hopes to train his fellow powder hound to dig for avalanche survivors, a role suited to energetic Airedales and a task increasingly relevant considering the three avalanche fatalities in the South Island back-country this year. Whether driven by catharsis, nostalgia, enquiry or intrigue, every contributor to this issue has invested a lot of personal energy to bring these stories to print. Energy that we hope will be evident in the words and pictures.
In 1979, we had just moved to Brisbane from Sydney to take a position at the Queensland Museum. In this position, I dealt with the public who came in to report any number of strange things, ranging from petrified frogs, to web-footed furry creatures, to hairy wild man-like beings. Among my responsibilities was looking after those who discovered fossils of prehistoric creatures. And so it was that I met Joan and Pont Wiffen from the North Island of New Zealand. As soon as they began to speak it was clear that, unlike many who came into the museum, they actually knew what they were talking about. They were quite aware that dinosaurs were a specific group of creatures—and not just any big, dead animals—and their visit led to the description of the first dinosaur bone recovered from New Zealand, and to a fruitful collaboration. New Zealand, at that time, was not known to have hosted dinosaurs, although fossils of large sea-dwelling saurians had been known since the 19th century from the South Island. The Wiffens’ discoveries were no matter of dumb luck, but intelligent preparation. I think it was mainly Joan who realised that one did not just go out and look for fossils, but researched where they had already been reported and where rocks likely to yield them were to be found. It was certainly Joan who decided that if there were no professional vertebrate palaeontologists in the North Island to study the fossils they found, then she would need to become one. After all, how hard could it be? Well, in Joan’s case not that hard. Indeed, if one is accustomed to thinking clearly and logically, becoming a scientist is not difficult—provided one chooses a field in which expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators or planetary landers is not required. The bases of science are logic and observation (sometimes disguised as experiment), and Joan was obviously logical and had her own specimens to observe. As for the background knowledge, as long as one can read, the material is there. Joan also realised that finding fossils had broader implications than merely showing that some creatures lived in some place at some time in the past. But her work—which spanned marine fishes, turtles and reptiles, probably five kinds of dinosaurs and at least one flying reptile (pterosaur)—illuminated not only the evolutionary and geological history of the islands of New Zealand, but also that of Antarctica, from which New Zealand separated 80 million years ago. These creatures would have lived in a polar climate, not what one usually thinks of as a dinosaurian habitat. Her work also revealed the kinds of dinosaurs that lived on islands and also when these creatures lived. She also appreciated the role that could be played by detailed microscopic examination of fossil bones, to determine the physiology of the creatures. In particular this revealed that some of the marine reptiles (plesiosaurs) started life near the shore, moving out onto the high seas only when adult, a discovery which had broader implications for those of us elsewhere in the world. Joan collaborated with scientists in Australia, Canada, France and the USA, a serious achievement for someone self-taught in science. On a personal level, Joan was an inspiration to others in the museum in different ways. To some she showed what a determined woman could accomplish, to others that being over 50 was by no means ”over the hill”. But to me Joan’s accomplishment was, in a time when many in this world feel their lives are lacking in significance, to show that with interest and rational thought, one can contribute significantly to the understanding of our world. And that, after all, is what determines our perception of our place, and our significance in it.
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