Report from Raoul Island

Department of Conservation —  07/04/2016

Science writer Sarah Wilcox recently stopped at Raoul Island while on a Heritage Expeditions trip to the Kermadec Islands. She writes about the day she spent with the DOC team on Raoul.

Nikau palms cross paths with pohutukawa on their way to the sun. At almost every step, tui and kakariki fly out from ferns and bracken below. The kawakawa, ngaio and taupata trees are familiar but different. This is New Zealand nature with a subtropical twist.

I’m anchored off Raoul Island on a Heritage Expeditions trip to the Kermadec Islands. Yesterday I had the great pleasure of spending the day with the DOC team on the island. I met Emerson, Lan, Di, Ben, Wolfie, Charlie and Eleanor. Emerson and Lan have been here since September and are staying on to complete their year, but the others are handing over to new staff who are coming up with the Navy today.

The Heritage Expeditions passengers with the DOC team on Raoul.

The Heritage Expeditions passengers with the DOC team on Raoul

It’s quite a place! Raoul is the only habitable island in an arc of volcanoes that stretch from Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe through White Island northwards. The sheer cliffs that surround most of the island have prevented it being settled permanently but it’s been home to many keen pioneer types through the years.

Most remarkable were the Bell family who lived here from 1878 to 1914.* They brought many plants to the island and some thrived. We enjoyed delicious freshly squeezed orange juice from the Bell’s trees yesterday, but the black passionfruit they introduced has caused huge problems. Weeding it out using grid search methods is time consuming and challenging work for the team here. The aroid lily, which has a leaf like taro, is being left for now as it doesn’t smother the canopy.

I had a chat to team leader Emerson about what he believes are the big issues for the island.

“On an island, pest eradication is pretty much a one-off – once they’re gone, they’re gone – but getting rid of weeds is a long-term proposition. You have to be in for the long haul because as soon as you let up, they’re back. We have to ensure the right amount of resource is committed for the time the work needs”, he says.

“I also think helping people experience the island in ways that doesn’t threaten the environment is really important. A day like today is a real highlight – I get to spend time with people who are here because they’re excited about this special place. They get to see the fruit of all the work that’s been done!”

The creation of a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, giving full marine protection to 200 nautical miles around the islands, was announced in September 2015.

“When we heard the announcement, the mood here was really upbeat. We get to snorkel at the Meyer Islands just offshore and the things you see under the water are just stunning, nowhere else in New Zealand has this subtropical ocean environment. When you’re marooned up here it seems like such a no-brainer to protect it – so in my opinion it can’t happen soon enough, it’s super-exciting!”

Sunrise over Meyer Islands. Photo: Sarah Wilcox

Sunrise over Meyer Islands. Photo: Sarah Wilcox

Our ship is anchored off Raoul for a few days more. Fortunately the sea is still calm and a group of us are going snorkelling today. There are beautiful corals and plenty of Galapagos sharks, and legend tells of a black-spotted grouper that’s bigger than me! I’m looking forward to seeing it all for myself.


Sarah Wilcox is a Wellington-based science writer who works with DOC from time to time.