Student leaders voyage to subantarctic islands

Department of Conservation —  03/03/2016

By Amelia Willis, Community Ranger in Taupo

Following in the footsteps of Sir Peter Blake, the ten-day Young Blake Expedition took 14 students on an adventure aboard the HMNZS Otago to the Auckland Islands, 465 kilometres south of Stewart Island.

The whole crew on the flight deck before our final day. Photo by Brendon O’Hagan.

The Young Blake Expedition crew

The student voyagers were there to carry out important research alongside a team of experts and, in doing so, hopefully gain inspiration for their future careers.

Shay van der Hurk and I represented DOC on the expedition, joining the students, four scientists, an environmental educator, two media personnel, a doctor, an environmental engineer, an aquarist, two Blake leaders and of course the Royal New Zealand Navy crew of the HMNZS Otago.

Shay with student voyager Guy McDonald. Photo by Brendon O’Hagan.

Shay with student voyager Guy McDonald

The most rewarding part of the experience was watching the young voyagers get excited about everything from the tiniest plankton, to charismatic megafauna, to the bigger picture of global climate change.

The first few days of the trip were spent on orientation –  getting our sea legs and introducing the science modules we would be undertaking on the islands. This gave Shay, who has been with DOC for nine years, and myself, a relative newcomer, the opportunity to get to know the students, talk with them about the ‘Subs’ and what we might see and experience when we arrived. Just like everyone on board the HMNZS Otago we brought different experiences and strengths, offering a wide variety for the students to engage with and learn from.

Students on the boardwalk on Enderby – a chance to get up close to young Southern royal albatross. Photo by Brendon O’Hagan.

Students walk the boardwalk on Enderby Island

The student voyagers came from all over New Zealand, with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. Shay and I were impressed with the motivation and maturity of the students. They asked smart questions, and we had some really interesting discussions about the differing values associated with the subantarctic, i.e. how do you get the average kiwi to care about flora they’ve never heard of, found on islands hundreds of kilometres away from their daily lives?

After crossing through the roaring forties and into the furious fifties (where swells reached up to eight metres) everyone was pleased to step ashore on the first day and get straight into work with the scientists. Four days of sampling what we couldn’t really see – microorganisms, plankton, algae and sediment – were complemented by two final days spent at the DOC visitor sites with sea lion, albatross, historic huts and yellow eyed penguins.

A special encounter with a sea lion and her pup – step back! Photo by Amelia Willis.

A special encounter with a sea lion and her pup – step back!

As blown away by the impressive wildlife as we all were, it was also wonderful to see the human history of the islands so well preserved. The Southern Islands team have done a fantastic restoration of the WWII-era Ranui coastwatchers’ hut and lookout. It was pretty cool to add our names to a visitors’ book dating from 1963 which had Governor General Sir Jerry Mataparae’s entry on the previous page. As a great supporter and patron of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, he visited the islands with them last year, and even farewelled us when we departed Auckland.

Visitors' book at Ranui Cove. Photo by Oxana Repina.

Visitors’ book at Ranui Cove

To see such a range of unique species and the harsh nature of existence in such a remote and windswept place really put life into perspective for many of the students. At our final debrief, 17-year-old Tama Poutaka shared his thoughts with a whakatauki: “Ahakoa he iti, he mapihi pounamu – even though it’s small, it has great meaning.” Appreciating the significance of little things within the ecosystem encourages the young leaders to make a difference, no matter how small or big their contribution.

Putting it in perspective: Tama, Nina and Isla taking a closer look at plankton with marine expert Sally Carson. Photo by Brendon O’Hagan.

Taking a closer look at plankton with marine expert Sally Carson

Although it was tough for everyone to step off the ship the final day, the students disembarked knowing the journey wasn’t over. Sharing the experience and passing on all they learned is just as important as the expedition itself.

HMNZS Otago in Port Ross as we explore Enderby Island.

HMNZS Otago in Port Ross while exploring Enderby Island

About the Young Blake Expeditions

This was the Sir Peter Blake Trust’s second expedition to the Auckland Islands. Educational initiatives such as the Young Blake Expeditions and Blake Ambassador Programme are part of the Trust’s commitment to supporting Sir Peter Blake’s legacy.

DOC supports the work of the Trust as part of our commitment to growing strong and effective environmental leaders for tomorrow, and our work towards encouraging more New Zealanders connect and contribute to conservation.