The pictures we carry with us

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James Frankham

In the moment, says oceans photographer Richard Robinson, you’re thinking about the light, the water clarity, the framing. Getting the shot in the bag. But as he documented Antipodean albatrosses and marine reserves, certain scenes snagged in his mind.

Eight months ago, Robinson and publisher James Frankham sailed to the subantarctic islands. The albatross colony on Antipodes Island was a flurry of big, loud, life. Dozens of chicks were scattered across a plateau. At about seven months old they were still babies, covered in fluff, but they were “ginormous”, Robinson says—standing as high as your hip. “It’s quite surreal, the size of them… And they’re just constantly calling for their parents. They’re sitting on their nests hungry, and they’re crying out for their parents to come back from the sea.”

It takes two adults to raise a chick—one bird alone simply can’t provide enough food. And increasingly, the mother birds, which tend to forage differently from the males, are dying on longlines. So when Robinson and Frankham found a chick dead in its nest, its baby fluff a splotch of white against the moss, they had a fair idea what had happened.

“The death of that chick would have been horrible,” Robinson says. He thought about it all through the three-day sail back to Bluff, and he still thinks of it now.

“That bird just starved to death. And when you hear them calling… it wouldn’t have been nice, you know. That’s something that really quite affected me.”

At the Poor Knights four months earlier, it was the rise of the long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) that left him stunned. Robinson loves the Knights—he’s been diving there for decades—but COVID-19 disruptions kept him away for a couple of years. He quite likes the urchin, too—he’d come across it now and then, and found it pretty to photograph. But on this dive he saw masses of the purple urchins, endlessly chewing. The species, though native,  is exploding in number in our warming seas, and rationally Robinson knew the Knights wouldn’t be immune. Still, he’d hoped the area’s status as a marine reserve would help it withstand the onslaught. “I was shocked to see the numbers, the barrens of them there,” he says. “It just shook me.”

We’ve already officially protected the Poor Knights and the Antipodes Islands, Robinson points out. “That’s not enough.”