Dr Tom Trnski is head of natural science at Auckland Museum and has a keen interest in fish. This month, he heads to the Kermadec Islands on a research expedition.

1.You moved to New Zealand from Sydney in 2007. Is the culture here very different?

Yes and no. Two things: one is that the brand of "natural New Zealand" is a fallacy, so that really shocked me. I've explored the entire North Island and a little bit of the South - there's very little natural landscape left. It's either turned into forests with introduced trees, with their own consequences, or there's heavy intensification of farming. Australia is a dry continent with huge erosion problems. New Zealand has young fertile soil, high in nutrients, but I've actually seen erosion here worse than anything I've seen in Australia, and it's quite horrifying. Second thing: the marine environment is colder than I'm used to, but I found the transition relativity easy because although New Zealand has a high rate of endemic marine species, which is really cool, those species have the same families as those you find in Australia. So it made it easy to learn the fish. I'd recognise the family.

2.What about the people, though? Australians tend to class New Zealanders as a bit geeky - have you found that to be accurate?

No, I'm not really big on stereotypes. Coming here I really felt for the first time that I was living in a bicultural society. In Melbourne when I was growing up, there were zero Aboriginal people, or they weren't visible. The other thing I like about Auckland is the diversity and how it all fits together and no one feels out of place. Although, interestingly, when we first moved here my daughters started at a school and everyone was saying "yes, that's a very good school". Almost all the kids there had blonde hair and my wife's Indian so our kids are Eurasian I suppose, and they really felt out of place at that school, they were quite marginalised and even bullied. It wasn't until we moved them to a school where there was a much more diverse community that they felt comfortable.


3.What kind of name is Trnski?

It's Croatian. My parents left Yugoslavia, as it was then, during the Cold War. There was free movement for women and children but dad had to escape. The first time he got captured and taken back and the second time he managed to get across the border to Germany where I was born. At that time Australia, Canada and America were really trying to recruit immigrants and Australia paid for their ship across. I had my first birthday in Tahiti. And we literally arrived in Australia with one suitcase, for a family of three.

4.What were your parents like?

Croatian culture's quite patriarchal, so dad was a very strong personality. I used to get my ear pulled a lot and I used to get smacked quite a lot. That's all he knew. Mum was empathetic and much more supportive. Dad was a builder and I used to spend my summer holidays working for him in the extreme 40C heat of Melbourne. We had a ... not a great relationship. He was dogmatic, everything was black and white.

5.Do you speak Croatian?

Yes, I still speak Croatian with mum. If I travel there people know I'm not a local, but I can have more than just a basic conversation, though not a philosophical one because I don't have the language skills for abstract concepts.

6.Could you talk about fish in detail in Croatian?

Yeah, oh yeah.


7.When did you get interested in science?

Probably not 'til my mid-teens. Being immigrants into a country that had so many poisonous spiders and things, my parents didn't really feel comfortable in that environment. And so it wasn't until I went on walks in the bush with older kids that I overcame the fear that sort of came through my parents and a new world opened up for me. I started to do a lot more walking, camping, snorkelling, fossicking in rock pools. I never really had a lot of opportunity to surf; that's one of my big regrets in life.

8.Has being an only child affected you?

I don't need to have someone to keep me company. I've gone camping on my own for three or four days at a time. That's another reason I like going out to sea; being in a remote space and feeling like you're distant from everything else, I don't find that petrifying. Also, I don't like conflict and I think it's from not having the opportunity to fight with siblings. My teenaged daughters fight a lot, but that's where you learn how far you can push the boundaries.

9.How did you meet your wife?

I was single and a friend was trying to stitch me up with a friend of hers who was working with me at the [Australian] Museum. We went out a few times but it didn't really ... my wife was her housemate, and we hit it off. It was actually a conversation about Nick Cave that started it. She was not an outdoorsy person, she's not particularly comfortable in the water. Our personalities are a bit yin and yang - it just sort of seems to work.

10.Was Nick Cave a hero in Melbourne?

Oh, I've been following Nick Cave for a long time. I remember seeing The Birthday Party at some of their early gigs, I would have only been 18. They were some of the most energising events, people spitting at him and throwing bottles at him, and him spitting back and throwing them back. At that time, at school, kids were listening to The Eagles. I just started getting into buying records and more independent music.

11.On ocean research trips have you ever seen three-eyed fish or anything, as a result of pollution?

The effects that pollution has are a lot less obvious. It's things like the gills not forming properly, so they can't get enough oxygen, so they are always metabolically stressed. They die younger. And fish have evolved, they've adapted to fishing pressure. We are fishing out the bigger fish so, over generations of fish, they have adapted to mature at a younger age so they can reproduce before they get caught. I've been very fortunate to go places like the Kermadec Islands where human impact is almost zero. And what you see is a lot of very big predatory sharks, or big gropers. Almost everywhere else you don't see [fish of that size] because they've all been fished out. Seeing that, you realise how far we've gone.

12.Are you pessimistic about the ocean?

No, I don't dare be, because if we're pessimistic we give in. Marine systems are actually really good at recovering if they're left alone. If you run a trawl over the same piece of ground again and again, obviously it's just going to become a flat piece of sand. If you stop doing that it can recover - although in deeper water environments that could take 1000 years.