Islands in the stream

Written by      

There are more than 160 islands making up the archipelago of New Zealand, another 40 or so trapped within our lakes and rivers, some 30 more outlying islands, 20 that are part of the wider Realm of New Zealand (such as Tokelau and the Cooks), and a dozen others that are part of our territorial claim in Antarctica—islands within islands, islands without, and islands far-flung.

As a nation we’ve become used to the idea of living a life adrift in the South Pacific. It’s part of our history and ingrained in our culture and ideology. It has made us tribal—just ask a ‘Mainlander’ about those from the North, or a Chatham Island ‘Weka’ about the ‘Kiwis’ over on ‘New Zealand’. Isolation has created connections and rivalry, it has stimulated innovation and built trading relationships.

In this issue we visit some of our islands, but for reasons as diverse as the islands themselves.

A government-commissioned report by the consultancy firm MartinJenkins looked at the unusual economic environment on the Chatham Islands, where every item carries an import-export tax in the form of ‘council dues’, where the employment is as finite as available work, and where the population has been decreasing at a rate of 10 per cent each decade. The report included some alarming insights and some future scenarios designed to move towards a more self-sufficient economy. On her first assignment for New Zealand Geographic, Anna Pearson travelled to Chatham Island to compare the report’s findings with circumstances on the ground, and to record the story of the islanders in their own voice. She found a situation more complex than the report made out, and within it, some islanders bringing characteristic tenacity to the opportunities afforded by their isolation.

On a separate assignment—my first in some time—I ventured with photographer Richard Robinson to Great Mercury Island in search of kōkopu meant to illustrate last issue’s feature on the native fish. It didn’t go very well—we found just one—but stumbled on a much bigger story besides. The Department of Conservation and the merchant banking partnership of Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite had just completed a unique eradication programme to rid the island of predators. In an environment of diminishing funding for conservation, this public-private model appeared promising. And in an environment without predators, the results were staggering. Within months of the eradication, birds were resettling burrows unoccupied for decades, and the island’s farmers were reporting record numbers of geckos, bumblebees and spiders as the island’s ecology rebounded. But it wasn’t the rebound that surprised DOC staff, it was the rate.

Another staffer, deputy editor Rebekah White, deserted her desk for the relative discomfort of a climbing harness and visited the little-explored islands of life in the tree canopy. “The canopy is one of the least visited, least researched and least understood ecosystems on Earth,” writes White. “As a human race, we’ve spent more time sending spacecraft to Mars than figuring out how this layer of the forest operates, especially in temperate zones such as New Zealand.”

Each of the islands we visited for this issue surprised us. Consider the eruption of an undersea volcano off the Tongan coast, depicted in the Viewfinder department in this issue. In 2009, an island sprang from the sea, firing rocks and steam into the air, and rose to a height of some 30 metres. A few months later, it was gone, devoured by the ocean swells. When it happened again in 2015, it stopped air traffic. This time, the cone towered to an altitude of more than 100 metres of ash and tephra, and joined two adjacent islands. Kiwi scientists cobbled together an expedition to see what the world’s latest island might reveal about the eruption sequences of volcanoes, to see what surprises this island might have, says study leader Marco Brenna, “before it disappears, too”.

Islands appear to concentrate and juxtapose the challenges and achievements of life and culture that are averaged out and homogenised in the wider spaces of continents. In New Zealand, we are all islanders, adrift yet bound together by geography and circumstance, on the last and perhaps most surprising archipelago on the planet.

More by