In 2015, Chris Battershill won a national award for communicating the environmental impact of the 2011 Rena disaster. Eight years on from the event, Carly Gibbs discovers he's still making waves but this time with plans for a marine research centre.

On a Wednesday morning in 2011, marine ecologist Professor Chris Battershill arrived for a routine meeting but was instead confronted by "mayhem".

As he walked into the offices of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, a volley of nervous voices flew at and around him.

Although Battershill didn't know it yet, he was about to become the public face of New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.

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It was October 5 - and news that the 236m container ship MV Rena had grounded on the clearly marked Astrolabe Reef had just made its way to shore.

Resting on the reef, the mystery of how she grounded and what would happen next would haunt the maritime world.

"It was almost ordained that we were instantly linked together," Battershill muses, recalling that fateful day where tensely-gathered iwi representatives, customary fishing officials and regional council staff scrambled to piece together what to do next.

Initially, it looked like the Rena was intact and you could simply "back it off".

The grounded MV Rena container ship. Photo / NZDF
The grounded MV Rena container ship. Photo / NZDF

However, early iwi predictions that oil would leak proved right. A report later put the total cost of the tricky salvage operation at $700 million - the second most expensive wreck removal in the world, after the Costa Concordia in Italy.

Eight years on, some of Rena's physical remains have been salvaged and the rest swallowed by the sea, but Battershill doesn't think the psychological impact will ever be forgotten.

The disaster wrought little long-term damage, partly because of the huge public involvement in the clean-up.

With a background in marine ecology, environmental science and biodiscovery for medicine and agriculture, Battershill became the obvious choice to front the environmental issues of the disaster, while others led the charge elsewhere.

He was widely acknowledged for the urgent ecological stocktake he took in the days before the oil spill - something which proved critical when later assessing impacts.

In total, about 350 tonnes of oil leaked from the ship and 950 tonnes of oily waste was subsequently collected from Bay beaches. Eighty-seven containers were washed overboard, birdlife suffered, and more damage was done when the Rena broke in half in January 2012.

He says fronting the heartbroken public was "grim", as everyone was out for "blood". With many in Tauranga, he battled sleep in the early days not knowing how the ship would be standing up to the weather overnight.

Salvors stand on fallen containers onboard the Rena. Photo / Alan Gibson
Salvors stand on fallen containers onboard the Rena. Photo / Alan Gibson

For 30 months, he and Canterbury University marine scientist Professor David Schiel gave more than 100 public talks and dozens of media interviews, reporting on the clean-up effectiveness and the longer-term consequences.

"The thing that got everyone through was just presenting the facts without any embellishment whatsoever," he says.

"The community here, even those most angry, even those who lived behind the dunes in Papamoa and Omanu, listened."

Updates were presented without any "sugar coating", and he learned fast that if you make science understandable but don't dumb it down, there's a reciprocal appreciation of facts.

He and wife Kim Pritchard, a research analyst, had only been in Tauranga nine months when the Rena grounded and at the time, he was sharing an office with Priority One while working for the University of Waikato.

Former chief executive of Priority One - and now director of 2+ Limited - Andrew Coker says Battershill lived up to his reputation "and more".

"He brought a considered approach to everything he spoke about, and he really built his credibility at that time. Being so new, you realised how valuable Chris was in that situation and how valuable he'd be in the future."

A member of the salvage crew pictured on one of the decks of Rena's accommodation block in 2014. Photo / Alan Gibson
A member of the salvage crew pictured on one of the decks of Rena's accommodation block in 2014. Photo / Alan Gibson

As well as being a "hell of a nice guy", he describes Battershill as being cool under pressure and generous with his time.

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For their stellar efforts in communicating the effects of the oil spill, Battershill and Schiel were jointly awarded Science Communicator of the Year by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS).

It was, Battershill says, a "fortunate consequence", that he'd been studying and preparing for a large-scale oil spill decades before the Rena ran aground.  

Battershill was brought up in a Pacifica-infused neighbourhood in Mangere, south Auckland, with his parents and two brothers.

He went on trips "up North" with Māori and Niuean neighbours in an old Vanguard to collect toheroa, and played around Manukau's creeks grimed in pollution from a nearby freezing works and sewerage ponds. He used to skip school to build dams and watch eels crawl up and over them.

Although his passion for nature was self-ignited he wouldn't have reached the scientific heights he's since reached without the influence of his parents, particularly his late mother Elvie.

She worked for the Auckland Power Board as a secretary and typist, and helped her sons get into the best schools, as well as forcing her boys to do their homework which Battershill "hated".

She typed most of his university papers - including his Masters thesis - on carbon paper, typically after he'd left things to the last minute.

"If you made a mistake, which she never did, it was twink or whiteout. She was literally typing and editing as she'd go and we did the whole thing in a week," he says nonchalantly.

Chris Battershill's passion for nature began as a child. Photo / Alan Gibson
Chris Battershill's passion for nature began as a child. Photo / Alan Gibson

It's his south Auckland upbringing that's made him passionate about inspiring Bay of Plenty and Waikato students.

"I saw a lot of kids at school who were smarter than me by a long-shot," he says modestly. "But they didn't have anywhere near the chance to make even a start."

He started off wanting to be a medical doctor and spent time at Otago University before the call of the wild proved too strong.

He went to Auckland University to study marine science, despite warnings from his careers advisor who tut-tutted: "There's not many jobs looking after dolphins".

Little did he know of the larger opportunities awaiting.


In the late-1970s while studying for his Masters, Battershill became part of an environmental programme funded by Shell BP Todd Oil Services, around Taranaki's Maui oil platform.

Permits were given to do a mock oil spill, and a new series of dispersants were trialled, paving the way for policy and contingency plans.

Later, he looked at the effects of the oil and gas industry on the Australian coast for the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

After a year in Taranaki, he returned to Auckland to do his PhD, and then his postdoctoral at Canterbury University, which was followed in coming years by various jobs in both Australia and at home.

During this time he was among the first Kiwi divers to explore the reef slopes off Scott Base, Antarctica, in the 1980s, to check health of the sponge gardens there, with a possible return later this year.

While in Christchurch, he was part of a team studying sea sponges off the South Island coast - it would lead to a revolutionary new drug to treat late-stage breast cancer.

Chris Battershill was part of a team studying sea sponges that led to a revolutionary new drug to treat late-stage breast cancer. Photo / Alan Gibson
Chris Battershill was part of a team studying sea sponges that led to a revolutionary new drug to treat late-stage breast cancer. Photo / Alan Gibson

In the late 1980s, Dr Rob Lake identified Halichondrin B, an active compound that demonstrated a capability to block the division of cells in a way never seen before, and was swiftly patented as a potential anti-tumour agent.

Battershill was instrumental in the development of Halichondrin B by supplying a tonne of sponge, partly through aquaculture, so that enough Halichondrin B could be harvested for late phase preclinical trial to prove up the lead.

Twenty-five years later, a synthetic form of the compound would enter the United States market under the trade name Halaven.

Halaven gained approval by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2011 and was touted to command a US$1 billion-a-year market.

In 2014, the NZ Herald reported the drug was an example of what is called "blue biotech'" - and just one of many in a wide-open field that holds potential in everything from health research to aquaculture.

Chris Battershill's career history and role with Rena gave him a platform to establish exciting things in Tauranga. Photo / John Borren
Chris Battershill's career history and role with Rena gave him a platform to establish exciting things in Tauranga. Photo / John Borren

The news report further said that for New Zealand - home to a unique diversity of endemic marine organisms and the fourth-largest exclusive economic zone in the world - the promise is obvious.

It is this work, as well as his role with the Rena, that gave Battershill the platform to establish and oversee Waikato University's Coastal Marine Field Station at Sulphur Point, a venue that is now being outgrown.

Battershill oversees 20 staff, 11 of whom are researchers, lecturers and supporting technicians hired before Christmas to meet the need for new research contracts, and to run a new marine-based BSc degree in Tauranga, which was launched this month.

He is also Bay of Plenty Regional Council Chairman of Coastal Science and is the New Zealand chief for the INTERCOAST programme between Waikato and Germany's Bremen University.

Presently, with the Vice-Chancellors office of Waikato University, he is developing a proposal to set up a dedicated marine research centre in Tauranga to become a hub of environmental marine science, biotechnology and innovation.

The centre, touted as a "five-year project", still needs to find a location and to go through a resource consent process but if successful would benefit all of New Zealand.

Part of its mission will be to clean up our local waterways with seaweed or freshwater plants, which will then pave the way for high-value bioproducts for drug leads and supplements for athletes.

Battershill is developing a proposal to set up a dedicated marine research centre in Tauranga. Photo / George Novak
Battershill is developing a proposal to set up a dedicated marine research centre in Tauranga. Photo / George Novak

To this end, he's also involved in a $13 million research project funded by the Tertiary Education Commission and the University of Waikato to explore ways of using "nuisance" sea lettuce to develop food and medicine and help reduce New Zealand's methane emissions.

The concept was developed jointly by Battershill and colleague Professor Rocky de Nys, from Rotorua.

Somehow, he manages to squeeze in a life outside of work, albeit just.

He dives for kaimoana and explores potential research possies, he fishes in his "runabout" boat, is a serial house renovator (he's done it seven times), and is dad to two adult children.

Tauranga is "extremely lucky" to have Battershill says Rob Donald, science manager at Bay of Plenty Regional Council, adding that he is well-respected by iwi in the Bay of Plenty.

"Having Chris in Tauranga has given the university a presence that it needed and in the right area too. Now, there's a need for a more permanent facility, and I don't think that would have happened if Chris wasn't there. There just wouldn't have been someone there to champion that idea and try to get it off the ground," he says.

At 62, Battershill still has more to give and more to discover.  

"I think a lot of people feel research is not a huge amount of use to them," he says.

"Particularly in the environmental areas, because they see such a slow progression to solutions.

"But we're fortunate to have strong international linkages where we know we can get very fast turnaround. It's being smart about creating and applying the science."