The first view of the Kermadec Islands
- words by Stephanie Rixecker
It’s funny how people react when you say you’re taking a trip. They’re curious, genuinely want to know where you are going, what you’ll do. It’s often a good conversation starter. But, with the Kermadecs, it was more of a hesitation, a slow ponder. “Sorry, where are you going?,” was a fairly common response. Alternatively, there were also a few head nods and exuberant outbursts – “oh yes, I hear it’s incredible to go to the sub-Antarctic Islands!”
And so it was that each person in these encounters learned that the Kermadec Islands were not part of the sub-Antarctic Islands, but were actually over 1000 km north of New Zealand on the way to Tonga. And so, each person also patiently listened as I explained why they are so amazing: aligned with one of the deepest trenches on the planet, along a live volcanic chain of islands, uninhabited, hosting 3 to 5 species of sea turtles (all endangered), resident and transiting whale species and 150+ species of fish – and that’s just what we know about this place! There’s so much more to discover. Oh, and by the way, the legislation to protect it – as a 640,000km ocean sanctuary – is also underway in the New Zealand Parliament.
It’s the love of the marine environment – especially under the water – that attracted me to the Kermadec Islands. Of course, there are also creatures to admire in the sky - wonderful seabirds across many varieties of petrel, shearwater, noddy & booby, just to name a few. And, yes, albatross also wander in these climes. While I came to see what a remote, protected area looked like and to observe and snorkel with the marine life, there are plenty of birders onboard taking photos, making lists and speaking with delight about their most recent encounter.
Nearly 40 hours of sailing (does one call it sailing with a motor?) without land or ship in sight, and we have now witnessed the first of the Kermadec Islands known as L’Esperance. Passengers and crew were delighted to see a masked booby, a red-tailed tropical bird and a variety of petrels as we drew closer to the island. And then, a beautiful pod of bottlenose dolphins burst through the water and played along the ship’s bow waves. It was as if we were given a marine mammal welcoming party. They seemed to play with the ship while the passengers grinned with delight, taking photos or just taking in the moment. It really was spectacular.
Besides the dolphins and birds sharing this wondrous place, we also had the pleasure of seeing pilot whales and a sun fish. A couple of Pilot whales were spotted in the distance to murmurings of pleasure and appreciation. Then, zoom lenses and high-powered binoculars were again focused at the sea until another call arose - “Hammerhead shark at 10 o’clock!” And sure enough, there it was with its dorsal fin and – if you looked closely and at the right angle – its so-called hammers.
And so goes this ocean faring portion of the trip to the Kermadec Islands. It’s a matter of staying on deck, keeping one’s eyes open and spotting the variety of life that calls this place home. And, home it is to these creatures.
Not so long ago, it was suggested that this area should be used for mining purposes and further commercial fishing activity. The Kermadecs are in New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - a zone which allows New Zealand exclusive use of its territories for economic purposes. Although New Zealand had protected some parts of the Kermadecs, e.g., a total ban on bottom trawling in the Kermadecs since 2007, other economic uses and potential exploitation were still under consideration. For this reason, the announcement in 2015 - by Prime Minister John Key at the Climate Change Summit - that the Kermadecs be turned into a 640,000km ocean sanctuary was a blessing for those who believe in marine reserves. This announcement was especially precious because, if passed by Parliament, it would mean t he complete protection of the species who live here – no mining; no fishing.
And protecting these species is essential. Let’s not forget it wasn’t all that long ago that whales were still hunted in these waters. They are a much-diminished population that takes long periods to recover. So, protecting their environment and them is an essential contribution to healing the harm done by previous generations. It’s not just the whales that need such protection, however. It’s evident right around the world that wherever there are no-take marine reserves we see a significant improvement in the local fish species. Given the significant impact of commercial fishing, there is an even greater need for such marine reserves. Indeed, some scientists suggest we need to protect 30% of the oceans in order to protect its biodiversity – and, ultimately, ourselves. Therefore, securing the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary enables one important part of the planet to have a ‘safe space’ – a place where humans do not take.
Watching and delighting in this special wildlife is clearly what the passengers aboard the Spirit of Enderby are here to do. The first 40 hours have been at sea, but it is not an empty sea. It’s a sea and sky full of life, much of it lived under the waves and most of it not yet fully discovered. The next few days will unfold new discoveries as we see new islands, make landings and discover the wonders of the Kermadecs further.
Stefanie Rixecker is an environmental policy professional and an advocate for marine environments through her blog, Planet Blue Hope