A clear view

On 10 May 2011, HMNZS Otago steamed out of Auckland harbour. On board was a unique group of ‘seariders’ (non-naval personnel)—nine artists, a New Zealand broadcaster, the Minister of Conservation, Department of Conservation (DOC) staff and volunteers, and a representative of the Pew Environment Group. They were bound for the Kermadecs—a vast, 620,000-square- kilometre expanse of ocean and one of the least-disturbed oceanic regions on the planet. Some—the volunteers and DOC workers—would get off at Raoul Island; the rest would depart Raoul after just two days and continue on to Tonga.

As the Otago departed Auckland on that first morning, instinct drew most seariders to the aft deck of the ship, where, through squinted eye and camera lens, they focussed on familiar landforms. Those points of reference, no longer visible after a few hours at sea, would anchor the rulers of the Otago’s navigators over subsequent days as they drew ever-lengthening lines on the maps tracing the ship’s voyage.

The Pew Environment Group had invited the artists on the Kermadec voyage to experience an expanse of ocean that many scientists, conservationists, and cultural and business leaders believe should be protectedas a global ocean legacy. The idea for the voyage had become reality with surprising ease once Pew, the Royal New Zealand Navy and New Zealand’s DOC had worked out the logistics. A wish list of contemporary artists from New Zealand and Australia was put together. All said yes. Navy medical checks, DOC bio-security procedures, and volumes of emails of instruction and requests were not enough to dim anyone’s enthusiasm.

Looking back towards Little and Great Barrier islands on May 10, were Gregory O’Brien, Bruce Foster, Robin White, John Reynolds, Phil Dadson, John Pule, Jason O’Hara, Elizabeth Thomson, and Fiona Hall. Beside them stood broadcaster Marcus Lush and representatives of DOC: Minister Kate Wilkinson, senior managers and field workers. One DOC manager had taken this journey 14 times before. All were eager to hear his tales of Kermadec adventure and survival.

The artists were free to roam the Otago as it steamed north and were soon making their way along the corridors and stairwells. Quarters below deck were tight—each bunkroom was hardly big enough for the requisite six bodies (stacked into bunks three high), let alone the accompanying cameras, stationary, books, instruments, and etching plates. The claustrophobia of being confined to a vessel without windows (apart from on the bridge) prompted the seariders to remain outside on the decks as much as possible. There the artists and their civilian travelling companions could be found from dawn until dusk, watching the shipboard routines around them and taking in the surrounding blue. Just as scientists begin their fieldwork —demarcating study boundaries and establishing baselines
— the artists immediately set to work choosing shipboard study sites from which to define the ocean around them, and recording their strange existence in the
midst of it.

While scientific documentation of the extraordinary marine world of the Kermadecs has been a revelation and inspiration for scientists and conservationists, surprisingly few have had the opportunity to study this vast area of ocean. No one has yet seen the bottom of the 10,000-metre-deep Kermadec Trench. Few have studied first-hand the ocean that sustains such a range of whales, turtles, sharks, and seabirds. The Kermadecs is a region of unique geological and biological convergence—a place where the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates collide, where the tropical waters of the Pacific meet the temperate waters of the Southern Ocean. It provides breeding sites for endemic and endangered seabirds, and a deep ocean that is home to species and interactions of which scientists have only just become aware.

Available scientific knowledge was an important point of reference for the Kermadec artists’ voyage—a place to begin their imagining. So too was the story of the Bell family and its residency on Raoul Island from 1878 to 1914. The hopes and broken dreams of the Bells during their 35-year residence added another layer to the reality of Raoul Island. So too did the stories of Meteorological Service personnel sending up weather balloons, and the more recent labours of DOC and volunteers to (successfully) rid the islands of rats, goats and invasive species. The artists were voyaging to the Kermadecs intent on confirming the known and making their own discoveries—just as scientists do.

As the days passed on the Otago, the artists were to be found—alone and in groups— contemplating, photographing, filming, and recording their impressions of the ocean. Some sat in the ‘captain’s chair’ on the bridge, staring straight ahead, watching the horizon and imagining its offerings. All pondered the extraordinary fact that, directly beneath them as they voyaged from Tauranga to Tonga, were dozens of submerged volcanoes, many of them active. One trained her camera on the ensign fluttering at the stern of the ship, while others captured the ocean’s movement through bollard openings and side railings. For some, this was a time for reading and writing and music making. The Otago was alive with creative industry.

Arriving at Raoul Island was an event. After two days at sea, the sight of land was a morning surprise. Going ashore was much anticipated—a chance to get land-based bearings again and to explore Tom Bell’s ‘imagined kingdom’. The Otago was not alone when it anchored off Raoul Island. For three weeks of that month, 13 scientists on board the exploration vessel Braveheart were on their own voyage of discovery, exploring the surface and inshore waters of the Kermadec Islands. During their 14 days of diving and shore visits, the group, led by Tom Trnski from Auckland Museum, would identify species new to science and many new to New Zealand waters.

Although the scientists barely noticed the arrival of the Otago, the crew of the Braveheart was to play an integral part in the artistic project during the hours ahead.

Sea conditions were rough, which made the transfer of seariders to Raoul Island difficult—so, while the Navy’s rigid hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) worked with DOC to unload six months of supplies (and the seariders’ luggage), it was Braveheart crew who collected the artists from the Otago in their Zodiac (requiring those disembarking to descend a rope ladder and then, on sharp command, drop into the bottom of the waiting boat with as much dignity as they could muster). After a flying ride through three-metre swells, a generous dousing of saltwater, a perfectly timed leap onto the rocks, a grasp of the yellow rope, and a DOC- assisted heave up onto Fishing Rock, all the seariders found themselves on Raoul Island.

Flying around the visitors as they walked the steep path to the DOC hostel, were flocks of tuis and kakarikis—the kakarikis back on the island after 100 years confined to offshore islets by rats. Between beach and orange grove (a remnant of the thousands of orange trees planted decades earlier) and between crater rim and cliff-top, the artists and their DOC companions found plenty to see and absorb. While familiar from mainland New Zealand, the pohutukawa canopy, groves of nikau palms, and the resident pukekos, all appeared altered and magnified on the island.

Only hours after arriving on Raoul Island, Australian artist Fiona Hall focused her video camera on the burrow entrance of a black-winged petrel. Inside was a parent feeding its chick. A few weeks earlier, scientists had been watching those same burrows—catching and tagging parents with electronic devices as they left for the sea to collect food for their young, some flying as far south as Campbell Island, while others went as far north as Tonga. What Fiona captured that afternoon was the short period of food exchange between parent and chick. When the scientists saw Fiona’s video, they were enthralled. Here was the moment of interaction that gave reason for the lengthy journeys that their research was recording. Together, the video and the flight-recordings tell a story that until now has been lacking content and colour. The black-winged petrel video was not the only time that art and science came together during the Kermadec voyage. The discovery of a dead flying fish on the deck of the Otago one morning led to another unexpected connection. Chased by piscine predators, flying fish emerge like silver bullets from below the surface of the sea, glide metres through the air to escape, and then return quickly to the invisibility of the depths. From the moment the Otago arrived in the more tropical waters of the northern Kermadecs, the artists watched the fishes and pondered their unique existence. When one found its way onto the deck, the documenting and collecting instincts of the artists took over. Photographs were taken, and the creature’s wings were eventually detached and placed between the pages of one artist’s sketchbook for later study.

When, a few days later, the scientists on the Braveheart found another flying fish on the deck of their ship, they thought it might be a species new to New Zealand waters. When they heard of the artists’ discovery, they asked whether photographs could be dispatched to Auckland Museum for further study. Photographic documentation was forthcoming, and the wings offered as specimens—although, without the body, species identification was impossible.

Since then, representatives of the Pew Environment Group have discussed with the crew of the Otago a more systematic collection of flying fishes from the deck. Rather than clearing the decks of dead fish each morning (as ship crews usually do), the Navy personnel would pick them up, put them on ice, and, on return to home port, deliver them to scientists at Auckland Museum. If Pew, the artists, the Navy, and scientists had not come together on their voyaging, this on-going collection of specimens potentially new to science would not have been set in progress.

While on Raoul Island, the artists were always exploring. On their second day ashore, a small group (Robin White, Jason O’Hara, Marcus Lush, and Bronwen Golder) followed a DOC Raoul veteran, Mike Ambrose, across the island. To get there, they clambered over trees and rocks brought down in a recent cyclone and made their way down steep rock faces with open vents through which steam was escaping. Robin dispensed with shoes to get a firm grip on the soil and rock beneath her feet. The group walked through magnificent groves of Kermadec nikau nestled amongst pohutukawa, along a ridge high above the steaming caldera, and down a treacherous cliff to Denham Bay. All the while, their thoughts and conversation returned to the Bells—the family whose lives they had each read about in Crusoes of Sunday Island. At Denham Bay, the group wandered the beach and encountered and photographed the rusting hull of a fishing vessel caught unawares in the Kermadec waters, and the grave sites of those who had come to the island—some a century before—and never found their way off.

Elsewhere on the island, artists wandered, observed, and recorded: John Reynolds performed the weather balloon release at 10 a.m. exactly (a daily event since 1938); Phil Dadson sought out the singing rocks that roll and shift under arriving waves; Gregory O’Brien explored the remnants of previous communities that had formed and then retreated from the island; Elizabeth Thomson studied the mosaic of a forest, free of pests now and home to abundant fruit and populations of birds; Bruce Foster captured evidence of intrusion and collision with the nature of the island; and John Pule inhaled the sights and sounds of this new reference point in the middle of his Pacific.

Places and impressions were recorded on film and in sketchbooks. Colours and textures were captured and catalogued for later reference. Stories and hospitality were shared with DOC staff and volunteers. A picture of Raoul was captured. A world, once only imagined, began to feel real.

Leaving Raoul—by inflatable dinghy through large swells and pounding surf—was more thrilling than arriving. Transferred with impressive skill by DOC hosts into their boat, then into the care of the New Zealand Navy, the seariders were under way again. This time, as much as they wished to stay longer on Raoul, they felt more comfortable saying goodbye to land.

When they looked back to Raoul, it was not for the reassurance they had sought when looking back to Auckland a few days before. They raised their arms in farewell to the group of DOC ‘castaways’ the Otago was leaving behind. The group of New Zealanders standing under their country’s flapping flag, on the edge of a volcano, in the middle of the Pacific, left a powerful impression on everyone on the ship. By keeping the most distant island in New Zealand territory pest-free, ‘Raoulies’— as veterans and residents of the island are known—are providing the world with a place as near to untouched as one can imagine in modern times. There was not a searider on the Otago who did not wish to stay on Raoul a little longer and share in that mission.

Since the visit of the artists and scientists, DOC staff and volunteers on Raoul have been sending (by email and passing naval vessel) new recordings of the ocean world that surrounds them. Footage of turtles swimming near Raoul has been shared by the Pew Environment Group with scientists tracking critically endangered leatherback turtles from their nesting beaches in the western Pacific through Kermadec waters. Reports of migrating whales fog-horning, tail slapping and singing all night, have been shared with wider audiences.

On May 15, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the Otago crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and stopped in the middle of the ocean. At the call “hands to bathe,” the ship’s captain, followed by officers, crew, artists, and DOC managers and volunteers, jumped and dived from the decks of the Otago into the blue of the Pacific Ocean. On the deck of a helicopter, a rating with a gun stood watch while, in the water, a RHIB hovered between the swimmers and the horizon. Both were watching for sharks. For all the Otago voyagers—swimmers and watchers alike— it was an hour that brought the Kermadecs into full focus. While some imagined the sharks and fish swimming beneath human feet, others saw a magnificent blue that reached from the sunlit surface to the dark and unknown worlds thousands of metres below. In the hour before “cease hands to bathe” was announced over the ship’s intercom, everyone on board the Otago shared a unique encounter with the ocean and inhaled the sense of space and freedom that it allows. It was as beautiful and magical as anything anyone there could ever imagine.

The physical voyage from large island to small ended for the seariders in Tonga. Arriving in its tropical waters, the Otago was met by the Tongan navy. Although travel by plane accentuates differences between the places of departure and arrival—by temperature, culture, colour, or smell—the Otago seariders found that arrival by sea provided a seamless connection between where they had come from and their final destination. Like the marine species that swim through Kermadec waters to connect their tropical days to their temperate ones, the voyage of the HMNZS Otago from New Zealand to Tonga had connected them not just with the Kermadec ocean, but through it, with the wider Pacific.

The voyage was a chance for artists and other seariders to experience an extraordinary ocean and a very special island in its midst. Framed by New Zealand to the south and Tonga to the north, the Kermadecs connect cultures and species by arc and trench, islands and current. It is an ocean realm— only lightly touched by humans—that cannot help but inspire the imagination and emotion of all who venture into its heart.

—Bronwen Golder

 

Tomorrow we leave (detail) 2011
John Pule oil on stretched canvas, enamels, ink, varnish, polyurethane