The ocean plays a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change – its health determines the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat, and the excess carbon dioxide we store. We are talking to three New Zealanders who are working hard to ensure that this precious resource is taken care of.
Lorna is the national and Auckland coordinator at EMR (Experiencing Marine Reserves), an organization that works with school groups running free community snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding days, and the annual “Mountains to Sea” Wānanga. The goal of EMR is to teach people to snorkel and participate in an action project so that they can help their local environment.
Why is it so important to experience the ocean as opposed to learning about it from a book?
Putting on a mask and looking under the surface for the first time provides a door to another world. The impact this has on learning potential is profound. If you don’t know it, how can you love and protect it? Books give a taste of understanding the other 70 percent of our planet, but there is no substitute for the real thing.
Tell us about your personal connection to the ocean.
I was exceptionally fortunate to be able to form a deep bond with te moana at a young age by boating and beach adventures with my family. Many hours were spent exploring the rocky pools of Mairangi Bay.
Get manicures from glass shrimp, feeding anemones and passing triple fins. When we weren’t in Auckland our playground was Opito Bay, Coromandel. Boating, snorkeling through sea caves and learning how to go spearfishing.
My grandparents bought a section next to two other friends in the 70’s. We laughed that Opito had to breed marine biologists because at least one person from each family went into the sea field.
Throughout the four generations the changes have been severe. We still have a huge crab mounted on the wall from my grandfather’s time where he collected it from a rock pool. During my lifetime the film sterilizers spread and the mussels disappeared from the rocks. In the short lifetime of my 1.5 year old daughter the pecten fishing absolutely collapsed in the bay.
However, not everything is terrible. There is a rāhui now protecting the scallops and it feels like the tide is changing for marine protection. One of my favorite places to snorkel is at Takapuna Reef, right next to a major downtown area. If you hit the tide and conditions, you are absolutely indulged in a bunch of nudity (colored sea snails) and parore schools.
I wouldn’t have been able to snorkel in that place as a kid because of the raw sewage pumped out to all of our inner-city beaches. At least now you’re just snorkeling with poo after a big rainy event!
Tell us something incredible readers may not know about the ocean.
The narrowing between the body and tail of a fish is called the caudal peduncle. Kina has five teeth that are constantly growing and sharpening. Stars are hydraulically propelled; they move their arms through water in their stone channel system instead of blood.
Do you have a memorable story about snorkeling or being at sea?
In 2018 we hosted our first event at Waiake, Torbay, which is an urban snorkeling area. Of all the locals who came for breathing, most never saw what was beneath the surface in their yard. At that event we had a Persian family, aged 5 to 75. Grandma had never put her face underwater before. They left the day radiant after seeing a parore school … At an event at the Poor Knights recently I had a father tell me: “I’ve done a lot of things in my time and I’m not often speechless. But this is absolutely amazing. “
In my personal spirit tube career I have swum with sharks, whales and turtles. Being able to celebrate the little things, hear a child’s excited cry at the sight of the blue tuft of a pipe worm, or just seeing a starfish rekindles my own passion and memories of those rock experts.
Why is your work so important right now?
Our healthy ocean provides a huge carbon sink and buffer against the effects of climate change. This protection decreases when our moan is degraded due to the effects of overfishing, habitat loss due to sedimentation, dredging and pollution.
What can we do to help protect the ocean?
Get involved with your local moan – put on a mask and experience your local area yourself. You will be amazed at what you may find. Check out our website and see if we work in your yard. Get your school involved in a program, jump into a community event, volunteer, and help others experience the ocean.
Find a local restoration group and work on riverside planting of your water collection. Become a more conscientious consumer – if you eat seafood, know where it came from and what methods were used to catch it. Minimize your consumption of single-use products. Jump on your local beach clean.
Jacob is a program manager at Blake (the Sir Peter Blake-inspired organization established to continue its environmental leadership legacy). Jacob runs programs for teachers and ambassadors, delivering environmental education programs around Aotearoa. As a Sir Robin Irvine scholar, Jacob undertakes his PhD at the University of Otago, his research focusing on past Antarctic climate and ice sheet behavior.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I could be halfway to Tonga on the Rangitāhua / Kermadec Islands, or in the South Antarctic Islands in the Southern Ocean. These Blake Expeditions take students, teachers, and scientists to explore distant biodiversity hotspots and study ocean health and climate change.
What’s the most alarming thing your research has discovered about the health of the ocean, and what makes your work with Blake so important in this regard?
When you work in Antarctica, you quickly realize that the Antarctic ice sheets are not compatible with a warming world. As a geologist, I study rocks and sediments that have been deposited by ice sheet and glaciers in the past. Understanding how the ice sheet has reacted to warmer climates in the past offers ways to predict future ice sheet responses. Part of my work at Blake translates terrestrial and ocean science to education and action and equips people to be environmental leaders.
What can the average person do to help protect the ocean?
Reduce carbon emissions. The ocean absorbs more than 90 percent of excess heat, and a third of carbon emissions. The best ways to reduce your carbon emissions are to take public transportation, ride a bike, or drive an electric vehicle, reduce food waste, and reduce red meat. This will also help slow down the rate of sea level rise.
Support marine protected areas: Studies report that protecting 30 percent of the world’s ocean is one of the best things we can do to build ocean resilience in the face of climate change.
Less than 1 per cent of New Zealand’s marine environment is currently protected compared to a third of our land. Fish and eat fish responsibly: discard the big ones – a big lute produces more eggs and eats cinema. Great Lutjan supports Chinese populations. Grab only what you need, don’t treat the catch limit as a goal.
How did you come to this line of work?
I grew up exploring Hauraki Gulf, swimming in the sea most days during the summer. I was always curious about the sea, the scale, the power of the waves, the life in and around it. Some of my strongest memories include diving in marine reserves such as the Poor Knight Islands, and Goat Island.
Marine protected areas like these give a glimpse into what the future might be like with more protection. Imagine if we protected more of the ocean, thriving with fish, crabs and drone forests!
What is a memorable story from your Antarctic expeditions?
We were camping in a snowstorm of -50C, with 50 knot winds, and less than 5m of visibility, and when the weather finally settled and we had a blue sky again, Adelia penguin was wandering to our camp. After that, you have no choice but to want to protect these amazing places and the species that call them home.
Inspired by the team behind Ghost Fishing, Rob founded Ghost Diving in 2014, calling for a group of technical divers to help remove tires, bottles, plastic, and other debris from the ocean. Their regular seabed and coastal clean-ups are carried out in their spare time, while the group is bringing the phenomenon of “ghost fishing” (when discarded gear continues to “fish”) to the public.
Is there anything you can’t get out of the ocean?
There’s nothing that beats my team in terms of size or difficulty – but having access to a barge equipped with a crane makes it possible to deal with some of the seemingly impossible things.
Why is this work so important? What would happen if you didn’t do it?
We literally removed tens of thousands of tons of garbage: 11,500 kg in Dusky Sound Fiordland alone in just nine dives! The fish and creatures and the environmental damage and implications of not disposing of this waste are enormous.
What do you personally have to do with water?
Living on a hill above the ocean since I was 8 years old, I’ve always been fascinated by “what lies below”. I always wanted to be an astronaut exploring outer space, but surprisingly we didn’t even really start conquering the cosmic gulf so I had to decide to be an inner space explorer in our oceans.
The mysteries of what the ocean held under its green glow were far too much for me, so I decided to start snorkeling as a very young boy, which progressed me to get my scuba diving license.
Can you treat us to some underwater stories that show the impact of your work with Ghost Diving?
In Wellington City, we see life return to areas once barren and lifeless from oxygen-starving seabeds. This was due to the suffocating effect of layers of bottles or rubbish. Social media posts about the number of dazir rays and eagle rays returning to our local lagoon alone have been incredibly rewarding, the direct result of over 10 years of work.
What can people do to help?
We welcome everyone to our events and we desperately need help and donations because we are 100 percent volunteer and not government funded or subsidized. Coming to help in the water, on the water or on the upper side, or even just taking a few photos or video, is in itself extremely helpful. Also, making active choices when it comes to single-use plastics and the like is important. “Think globally, act locally” is a great phrase when it comes to being sustainable.