Patea reef life surprises and excites

By Laurel Stowell -
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Jewel anemones, Corynactis australis. PHOTO/ JOSH RICHARDSON
Jewel anemones, Corynactis australis. PHOTO/ JOSH RICHARDSON

A reef offshore from Patea is not being explored in order to find life forms that seabed mining could endanger - but that may be one of the benefits, project co-manager Karen Pratt says.

"We're not doing it just for that, but as it happens it will provide baseline data."

The South Taranaki Reef Life Project started last year and is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. It is one of six Taranaki community science projects and Taranaki is one of three New Zealand regions where Government's Curious Minds science programme is being piloted.

The project is focused on a 100m-long horseshoe-shaped reef of hard rock and fossilised shells, 11km offshore from Patea in 20m-23m deep water. The reef was chosen by fishermen, who knew what riches it contained.

The aim is to find out what life forms are down there - and what's been found so far has people amazed.

Karen Pratt, co-manager of the South Taranaki Reef Life Project.  2016.
Karen Pratt, co-manager of the South Taranaki Reef Life Project. 2016.


"A hundred per cent of the people say to us "We had no idea." That's been quite rewarding and mind blowing," Mrs Pratt said.

Her background is in management accounting and auditing. She has lived in Hawera for 18 years, helped her children with science projects and is "majorly into fun education".

She started wondering what was out there on the ocean floor after Trans-Tasman Resources' first application to mine iron sand there in 2013. She began by talking to people who fished and dived offshore - and felt ashamed at her lack of knowledge.

She was amazed at what she was told, read what information she could find, and made a 192-page submission on the application.

Then she heard Government was using Taranaki as a pilot region for science projects. The reef project was dreamed up by marine biologists and the South Taranaki Underwater Club and she helped the club apply for funding.

All that science and activism has had an influence. She has since decided to stand for election to both Taranaki District Health Board and Taranaki Regional Council.


The reef project is administered by Venture Taranaki on behalf of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The South Taranaki Underwater Club has now had two grants of nearly $20,000 each, with about $10,000 spent on a "ground-breaking" underwater camera designed to film the sea floor 24/7.

The TSB Community Trust has donated $4400 for a second camera for divers to use to photograph and video underwater. It will get better colour than the moored camera.

Other funding has been used for microscopes, to pay two marine scientists and for charter vessels to take high school students to the reef.

The most expensive camera is not yet in place. It needs a powerful anchor and on August 20 nearly a tonne of concrete was put in place for that purpose.

Seas can be punitive in the South Taranaki Bight. Weather permitting, the camera will be moored to its concrete anchor this month.


The cameras are just one way reef life will be discovered. Another is a hydrophone, also attached to the mooring, to record sound.

A scarlet wrasse, at the  reef 11km offshore from Patea.
A scarlet wrasse, at the reef 11km offshore from Patea.


Divers will also record life forms on the sea floor in a systematic way, and there will be "hook and line surveys" done by fishing above the reef, recording catch and then throwing it back.

Hawera High School and Patea Area School are deeply involved. They are to present their findings to the community in December. When the moored camera is in place the high school will also record observations on the NatureWatch website.

Four of its Year 9 students have helped with one fishing survey so far, and school science teacher Anna Campbell said they were dying to do more.

"They're loving it. They're bugging me about when their next trip out is. They're always thirsty for more information and being able to get more involved."

The students have had talks about the project - especially marine science and camera technology. The class will carry on its involvement next year and will even have opportunities to volunteer in 2018.

Also involved are coastal Taranaki iwi Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru and marine scientists Joshua Richardson and Thomas McElroy.

Underwater club members have provided time, boats, fuel and photographs and club co-manages the project.

The finds have been extraordinary, Mrs Pratt said. The area offshore from Patea has many reefs. It is relatively shallow so that sunlight penetrates to nourish plankton and plants and other life forms feed on them in turn.

The presence of fish, a few kina and crayfish was well known. Now samples from numerous types of sponge have been sent to New Zealand expert Dr Michelle Kelly, fish species not known in the area have been identified and life forms like shellfish, starfish, eels and sea cucumbers are being observed.

Some of the colourful and unexpected ones are nudibranch - soft bodied sea molluscs - and salps - tubular organisms that filter food out of seawater. Their gelatinous tubes often join together and they can look like fairy lights.

The project has caught the attention of another group investigating the presence of blue penguins. Fishermen and divers are now reporting other species seen while out at sea, including blue penguins and white capped mollymawks.

 A clown nudibranch and its rose-shaped egg case, both tucked into a sponge.
A clown nudibranch and its rose-shaped egg case, both tucked into a sponge.


The project has fascinated a lot of people already, and Mrs Pratt has been approached by radio and television crews who want to get out on one of the reef visits, and broadcast about it.

Taranaki's Josh Richardson finished studying marine biology and went travelling for six months. When he returned to New Zealand he thought he'd have to leave Taranaki to get a job.

"I was really stoked to find out about this project running in my home province. I felt really lucky," he said.

He had specialised in using underwater video to record reef fish species, and initially helped out just as a volunteer. He had done a lot of diving, but none on the North Island's west coast before.

"Even I was really surprised at the abundance of life and diversity and colour on this reef smack bang in the middle of nowhere."

He's been out there about six times so far, and always makes sure to check out a favourite spot - a cluster of jewel anemones in blue, pink and orange colours.

South Taranaki Underwater Club secretary Richard Guy has an engineering background and has been a diver for 24 years. He said in the past divers had concentrated on taking fish, and especially crayfish, without noticing other life forms.

He said the rivers emptying into the South Taranaki Bight could muddy the water, but occasionally diving conditions were superb.

"Two or three times a year, when there's settled weather and a westerly flow and wind bringing in nice, clean water, you can just about see the bottom."

He's been surprised by the beautiful sponges and anemones too, and said the colour was incredible.

All that colourful and varied sea life is in no danger of being over-observed, because South Taranaki sea conditions are so fierce. It could be vulnerable to a sand mining industry though.

The reef is 11km closer to shore than the area Trans-Tasman Resource proposes for seabed mining, but the sediment plume from mining could drift inshore to cloud the water, prevent sunlight entering and changing the reef ecosystem, Mrs Pratt said.

Mr Guy said if the mining went ahead according to the current proposal it would do "a huge amount of damage in a relatively short period of time". Effects on any aspect of the ecosystem would affect the whole, and he believed they could reach as far south as Kapiti Island.

Information from the project could also help Taranaki Regional Council, which is formulating its coastal policy.

For Government, the project ends in December this year. But more funding can be applied for and Mrs Pratt thinks it will keep going.

The state-of-the-art camera will take three second videos day and night, recording both daylight and night time species. Divers will retrieve the footage and download it.

For more information, see the project's Facebook page South Taranaki Reef Life Project. For video of South Taranaki ocean life go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlagTDOD3TQ. is provided by members of the South Taranaki community. Most of the footage is from the reef project.

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