Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Journey to the Auckland Islands: The lost Islands

Why are New Zealand scientists keen to set up a base on one of the most remote and inhospitable spots on Earth? Science reporter Jamie Morton finds a range of important reasons.

The remote Auckland Islands.
The remote Auckland Islands.

In his last months, Sir Peter Blake spoke of something alarming happening in his familiar Southern Ocean.

Most striking was the lack of large albatrosses that had once surrounded boats during the earliest round-the-world races.

"Dozens of them, and they'd be there day after day," the visionary yachtsman recalled in 2001. "Now, in the same parts of the world you're lucky to see one of these - say, a wandering albatross - one a week, they're nearly all gone."

He suspected poor fishing techniques were to blame, but called on scientists to investigate.

An Albatross nest on a cliff in the Auckland Islands. Photo / Professor John Montgomery
An Albatross nest on a cliff in the Auckland Islands. Photo / Professor John Montgomery

"I think everyone really needs to understand that we are a part of the environment, not apart from it."

His plea will weigh heavily on the minds of those venturing to New Zealand's subantarctic Auckland Islands as part of a Young Blake Expedition this month.

Joining the expedition will be scientists and representatives from the University of Otago, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Education, the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), Auckland University of Technology and the Sir Peter Blake Trust. Their mission: to lay the groundwork for one of the world's most important research bases on one of its most remote islands.

A seal on the Auckland Islands.
A seal on the Auckland Islands.

Auckland Island itself - the main island in the group - is New Zealand's fourth largest island and lies 465km south-southeast off the coast of Bluff, or about a third of the way to Antarctica.

The tussock-covered islands are wind-swept, rugged and mountainous, with steep cliffs and deep valleys.

This harsh, bleak and uncompromising environment has made the few attempts at settlement short-lived.

But for some of our most precious wildlife the islands are an important stronghold.

Historically, the islands are perhaps better associated with shipwrecks than science - several vessels, among them the famed General Grant, have met their ends on the rocky coasts.

But scientific expeditions have been made since the mid-1800s, and during the years of World War II, scientists manned a weather station based there as part of a coastwatching programme.

A Southern Right whale breaches in a bay. Photo / Will Rayment
A Southern Right whale breaches in a bay. Photo / Will Rayment

The islands are today identified as one of the world's best vantage points for observing the earliest indicators of a changing climate and ocean. As the globe warms, scientists must determine how vulnerable Antarctica's ice sheets, shelves and sea ice are to climate change.

The frozen continent's response to global change, along with that of the Southern Ocean, will have a direct influence on New Zealand's own natural environment and beyond. This would happen through global ocean and atmospheric circulation, which in our part of the planet is dominated by Antarctic processes.

Last year, the Government recognised the need for more research in this area by making the "deep south" one of its funded National Science Challenges.

As 60 per cent of New Zealanders live and work within 5km of the coast, the need to better understand the rate of climate change was urgent.

"We need to go to the places that are most sensitive, so we can pick up that change early," NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson said.

"The last thing we want is to be sitting in the least sensitive parts of the country and watching for change there, and just not being prepared - we want early warning."

New Zealand is one of the first countries to receive the Antarctic circumpolar current as it enters the South Pacific Ocean, where the cold water mixes with the warm subtropical inflow off the North Island to create our climate.

The Auckland Islands, among the wider subantarctic, sit within steep gradients across a series of oceanographic fronts that define the northern boundary of this current.

Where these gradients are steepest - or where temperatures and winds change most dramatically - measurements can made more precisely, and earlier.

The range of iconic species that exist within the subantarctic and are highly adapted to their environment could also act as sentinels of change.

Biodiversity around the islands is expected to be particularly sensitive to environmental change, providing researchers an excellent opportunity to undertake long-term ecological research.

There was also an economic incentive for a new outpost, Professor Wilson said.

"Some of our biggest fishing grounds are down there, along with some of our biggest conservation challenges, and we don't know what impacts the changing ocean and climate are having on both of those."

Under the joint proposal, a base including research facilities and staff quarters would be constructed on the island early next year.

A small boat would allow researchers to get out on to the water and check various marine indicators, from plankton rates to temperature and ocean chemistry.

Members of the Young Blake Expedition would carry out a survey around the islands, making baseline measurements to ensure the base would have a low impact on surrounding ecology.

At the same time, scientists travelling to the islands on board Otago University's research vessel Polaris II will collect sediment cores to track historic evidence of climate change.

"The next stage is to put a proposal to the Department of Conservation to build the station"

The estimated cost of building the station would be around $1 million, with a further $500,000 needed each year to keep it operating.

Presently, the majority of human activity on the island is conservation work by DoC staff.

"It's a really challenging and expensive place to get to, because essentially, for one science project you have to get a ship and live off that ship," Professor Wilson said.

"For example, if one is to use a large scientific vessel, that costs around $50,000 to $60,000 each day, whereas we can find other ways to transport the people. Because there are regularly ships in that area that can transport people, once we get them there we've got a way of supporting them. It becomes a whole lot more cost-effective."

Because of funding systems and limitations, New Zealand scientists typically did not work on such a scale.

"With the National Science Challenges, we can now start to think at this scale, because the problems the country needs to face in terms of future-proofing itself for a changing environment are of that sort of scale," he said.

"We need to lift the science to that scale - and this expedition is really the start of hopefully what will be an even bigger and longer term effort."

Young Blake team honouring vision

For the Sir Peter Blake Trust, a landmark expedition to the subantarctic this month will prove the perfect way to honour the great Kiwi's vision.

Before he was murdered by Amazon pirates in 2001, Sir Peter had dedicated much of his life to environmental work, and had a special connection with the Southern Ocean.

"He was the one New Zealander who we probably identify most with the Southern Ocean, because he spent so much time there," trust chief executive Shelley Campbell said.

An expedition that took 30 Young Blake voyagers to the Kermadec Islands in 2012 stayed true to Sir Peter's wish to inspire young people outside the classroom.

"But we wanted something that had a much clearer line of sight to Blakey."

The trust began talking to Professor Gary Wilson, a Blake Leader and director of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, and the subantarctic emerged as an area of growing interest.

What became an expedition to the Auckland Islands to investigate setting up a new research base will prove to be the trip of a lifetime for the 12 secondary school-aged leaders attending. The young ambassadors will work alongside scientists, conducting a survey on the island and in its fiords to ensure the station will have little impact on the environment.

"It's really about the adventure of it all, and learning through doing," Ms Campbell said.

"Every single one of our voyagers absolutely realises that very few people in the world get to go there, so they are really excited and want to make the most of it."

On returning home, the voyagers will share what they learned with their schools and communities.

The 12 students

Elizabeth Huang, St Cuthbert's College, Auckland; Tremayne Reid, One Tree Hill College, Auckland; Sedef Duder-Ozyurt, Auckland Girls' Grammar; Ben Richards, Tauranga Boys' College; Mania Oxenham, Rotorua Boys' High School, from Matamata; Jed Long, Taumarunui High School; Katrina Jensen, Palmerston North Girls' High School; Jessica Jenkins, Paraparaumu College; Mitchell Chandler, Nayland College, Nelson; Isabella Brown, St Margaret's College, Christchurch; Samantha Kingsbury, Buller High School, Westport; Hamish Lilley, Otago Boys' High School.

- NZ Herald

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