A tōtara falls…

Roger Grace was one of New Zealand’s underwater pioneers. He and his contemporaries changed the way we thought about the sea.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

Richard Robinson

His images are there in the first issue of New Zealand Geographic: a speckled kelpfish resting on a bed of grapeweed, the goggling blue eyes of a little triplefin, kina chewing through the stalk of a kelp plant. And perhaps most tellingly, a snapper materialising out of the misty teal-blue waters of Goat Island Marine Reserve, turning to the camera, seeming to ask: “Where to from here?”

In 1988, when that story was published, Roger Grace, who passed away Friday, had already spent more than 25 years exploring and documenting this country’s marine environment. When I decided to feature Goat Island Marine Reserve—then 10 years old—in the magazine’s premier issue, Roger was one of the people I sought out first. He had been the first marine biology postgraduate student to use scuba as a research tool at the Leigh marine laboratory. I had met him there when I did my own degree in marine biology.

Like the marine lab’s first director, Bill Ballantine, Roger was devoted to marine conservation. He spent more than 15 years as a roving photographer for Greenpeace on their ocean campaigns. He researched, monitored environmental impacts, wrote popular articles and learned reports, mapped the seabed in several Northland marine sanctuaries, and produced a multitude of images of the undersea world.

People like Roger are our eyes in the ocean. They tell us what’s going on in a part of the planet that is foreign to most of us.

He dived into that world for almost 60 years, and reported back the changes he saw, the ecological emptying of reefs and the disappearance of species. Some of those changes are simply incredible. When he made his first dive at Tiritiri Matangi, in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, in 1961 he saw lush forests of kelp and crayfish feelers waving in every crevice. Today the kelp has gone, mown down by kina which have reached plague densities because of overfishing of snapper and crayfish. Good luck if you ever see a crayfish at Tiritiri any more. Good luck if you see large schools of kahawai and trevally in the Gulf. Protection for the stretch of ocean that Roger most loved is still a discussion point, not a reality.

One night I visited Roger at his flat in Leigh to talk about marine reserves, one of his lifelong passions. After talking policy and ecology, the naturalist in Roger surfaced. The sea had been calm for a few days and Roger had a hunch there might be phosphorescence in Leigh Cove. With a mischievous smile that was his trademark, he suggested we walked down to the boat ramp and have a look. Sure enough, the wavelets at the shore were glowing green with light-emitting algae. Roger scooped some up in an Agee jar he had brought with him and carried them home to study them. It was typical of the man—typical of a life of being schooled by the sea, learning its ways, pondering its future, advocating for its preservation.

In a 2018 article for Forest and Bird—an organisation he had belonged to since he was the age of 10 and which awarded him its highest honour, the Old Blue award, in 2016—he wrote that after spending 40 years surveying the ocean for conservation groups, councils and commercial entities, he continued doing that work independently, “just because I think it is important.”

Yes, it’s important—now more than ever. And Roger’s life will long remind us of that fact.