Bill Ballantine, a voice for the sea

The world has lost a great advocate for the marine environment. On Sunday, Bill Ballantine, recognised as the father of marine reserves in this country and a pioneer in global marine conservation, passed away, aged 78. 

Written by      

Brian Skerry

I wrote about Bill and that reserve for the first issue of New Zealand Geographic, and took the photograph above at the same time—more than 25 years ago. The photograph shows Bill doing what he loved best: counting molluscs on the rocky shore at Goat Island Bay, comparing what he found with a slide he had taken of the same spot years before.

When I got up to speak at the seminar I acknowledged Bill as one of my “academic ancestors.” I studied for my masters degree in marine zoology during the era when Bill was director of the University of Auckland’s marine laboratory at Goat Island Bay. More recently, whenever I have written about marine subjects I have sought out Bill for his always challenging opinions, pithily and acerbically expressed.

One time he was venting his frustration over the slow pace of marine-reserve creation in this country, when the benefits were so obvious and proven. Trying to get a marine reserve established, he said, was like a drunk trying to get a key into a lock. “You have to be at the right door, and be holding the right key, but beyond that it’s just persistence,” he said.

Persistence was one of Bill’s signature characteristics. His specialist research subject was limpets, and something of the limpet’s legendary tenacity must have rubbed off on him.

When I wrote about marine reserves for National Geographic in 2007, I ended with a story Bill told me about the creation of Goat Island marine reserve, and the virulent opposition he encountered for insisting that it must be a no-take reserve. To Bill, nothing less than full protection would do.

Ballantine’s insistence on no-take reserves has made him a thorn in the side of anglers, politicians, and even some of his professional colleagues. There was a day, late in the Goat Island saga, when the country’s attorney general paid him a visit and spent six hours trying to persuade him to capitulate over his no-take stance. After his guest had left, Ballantine went up to see the farmer on whose land the marine laboratory had been built, to ask him whether he thought he was doing the right thing. Roddy Matheson had lived most of his life overlooking Goat Island. He remembered when crayfish in the bay were so abundant you could pick them out of the rock pools.

“Roddy was never one for a quick answer,” Ballantine says, “so we had a cup of tea, discussed the grass growth, and rolled a cigarette or two. But as I got up to leave, he said, ‘You know, it used to be quite different round here. I would like my grandchildren to see what it was like then.’ That was all he said—but on the strength of that I fought them tooth and nail.”

Fight he did, and New Zealand now has 37 no-take marine reserves. Only a few weeks ago a vast area of ocean around the Kermadec Islands was declared an ocean sanctuary. There is a scientific and filming expedition in the Kermadecs at the moment, and when they received the news of Bill’s passing the team sent a message to say that “we would not be diving in a marine reserve today had it not been for the passion and persistence of Bill Ballantine and allies. We raised our glasses to Bill this evening.”

In October, Bill was interviewed by Radio New Zealand National’s Sunday morning host Wallace Chapman about the Kermadec sanctuary. Bill never passed up a chance to insist on the vital importance of marine conservation. He said in the interview: “We treat the ocean as if it were the ribbon around the parcel, but it’s the main thing. Our hemisphere is 90 percent water. To many people out of sight is out of mind. Most marine life is out of sight. That is slowly changing. Today 100,000 people come to Goat Island every year to look at fish.”

At the end of the interview, Chapman threw him a curve ball. “Do you eat fish?” he asked. Quick as a skipjack tuna, Bill retorted: “Certainly, and I want to go on doing it.”

Because of the marine reserves Bill Ballantine fought for, there’s a good chance we can all go on doing it.

More by