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Raoul Island: never on sunday

  • Written by  Lydia Syson
  • Published in Explorers
Raoul Island today is hoping to become a part of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area Raoul Island today is hoping to become a part of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area
10 Sep
When author Lydia Syson set a historical novel on a Pacific island in the remote Kermadecs, the last thing she imagined was that she’d one day see it for herself

I feel like a fish out of water standing on the quay at Devonport Naval Base, Auckland, looking up the vast bulk of HMNZS Canterbury, a 9,000-tonne strategic sealift ship. A RHIB (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat) hangs alarmingly high above my head, and in a few days’ time I’ll be in it, speeding across a serious swell. My usual territory is imaginative geography – where place and time, storytelling and memory all come together. I’m more used to exploring libraries and archives than pristine subtropical ecosystems hundreds of miles from any land mass.

I’m joining an energetic team of scientists, educators and student voyagers on the Young Blake Kermadecs 2018 expedition, organised by the Sir Peter Blake Trust, and we’re setting off for a part of the globe so rarely visited that new species are identified on every trip. My ‘passport’, a proof copy of Mr Peacock’s Possessions, is stowed in my waterproof gear bag, crate after crate of equipment piling up beside it: mysteriously named BRUVs and SMURFs, lightboxes, specimen tanks, microscopes, plankton splitters and counting trays, along with wetsuits, snorkelling masks and fins.

In my head I’ve already spent three years at our destination: Raoul (29º16’S, 177º52’W), formerly known as Sunday Island. I’ve reimagined it as Monday Island in a novel inspired by the true story of my partner’s ancestors, the Bell family, who settled there with six small children in 1878 when it was unclaimed and uninhabited. An exceptionally remote volcanic island chain on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, about half way between mainland New Zealand and Tonga, the Kermadecs may soon become one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas. In June, 112 of New Zealand’s 120 MPs pledged their support for a vast Rangitāhua/Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. Rangitāhua – its Maori name – marks Raoul’s significance as the legendary ‘stopping off place’ on the great Polynesian sea voyages to Aotearoa (New Zealand); it’s within the rohe (boundaries) of the Ngāti Kuri iwi, who, with Pew Charitable Trusts, Forest & Bird, and the NZ World Wildlife Fund, have been at the forefront of the Sanctuary campaign.

Considerably more whales than people make it to the Kermadecs each year – it’s an ocean crossroads, on the migration or foraging path of 35 species of cetaceans, three species of turtle, all endangered, and millions of seabirds. Climate zones and tectonic plates meet to produce a remarkable marine environment, a biodiverse mingling of tropical, subtropical and temperate marine, plant and bird species. Biosecurity is necessarily tight, and human visitors can be counted in handfuls. The majority are government employees – from DOC (Department of Conservation), the Met Office, NIWA, GNS or one of New Zealand’s universities or museums. On this voyage, all are represented: the Young Blake Expedition is taking advantage of the New Zealand Defence Force’s multi-agency Operation Havre – a resupply, repair and changeover mission for Raoul’s only semi-permanent residents, the DOC team who spend their days weeding invasive species introduced by settlers. Experts are coming to assess the damage to Pohutukawa trees by newly arrived myrtle rust, sample volcanic gases, and check meteorological equipment.

We sign a ‘Deed of Indemnity for Indulgence Passage in HMNZ ships’, and a speedy initiation into Navy life and lingo begins. Briefing follows briefing. Some are practical – we learn key terms such as ‘Hurry up and wait’, ABC (‘All Been Changed’), the rules for entering the bridge, cleaning the heads, mopping the drags, and generally keeping everything... well, shipshape. Others are scientific: SMURFs turn out to be Standardised Monitoring Units for the Recruitment of Fishes, BRUVs are Baited Remote Underwater Videocameras, and FADs Fish Aggregation Devices.

raoul islandRaoul Island has no landing areas considered safe and so access is extremely limited

‘Wakey, wakey, wakey!’ A strangely solemn command follows the boatswain’s whistle each morning. Centuries-old naval traditions such as this make me feel part of an exclusive club. Ship’s captain and hydrographer Commander Matt Wray shows me the dashed lines on the map where the contours of the ocean floor are still unknown. ‘Every time I come here, I try to fill more in: the ship has something like an aeroplane’s black box,’ he tells me over coffee one day. We are travelling in uncharted waters.

We are all happily infected by the curiosity of the marine biologists and botanists, immediately switched on to the beauty of algae and the world’s most southerly forms of coral, the lure of as yet unnamed seaweeds, forming underwater meadows, and the fascination of matching up adult and larval forms of fish and invertebrates. Professor Mary Sewell explains the significance of meroplankton – temporary, intermediate, early lifeforms – like a black box themselves, their movements offering a key to understanding complex ecological processes in the big ocean.

The intense ultramarine of the waves reflects the depth of the trench beneath – nearly 10km in places. We’re sailing over a series of vast volcanoes and the Kermadecs are the only tips that break the surface. In 2012, Mary tells me, the biggest submarine volcanic eruption for a century took place here, from a unexplored seamount called Havre. Nobody noticed, until three weeks later an airline passenger flying overhead reported a raft of pumice the size of Texas.

Ornithologist and photographer Edin Whitehead swings her long-lensed camera into action before anyone else has spotted life among the white wave caps. Another black-winged petrel. Patient, almost meditative watching is rewarded. Vast parties of flying fish leap from the bow waters, taking to the air with fin-wings outstretched, dipping and rising again over impossible distances like so many skimmed stones. Flying squid amaze us even more. A pilot whale passes.

denham bayLanding stores in Denham Bay 1908

On the third day, land, but not landfall. A snag on the horizon slowly turns into whale-shaped Macaulay Island – home only to seabirds, who rise above it in like clouds of midges. The air fills with the helicopter’s throb. A team from GNS (Geological and Nuclear Science) sets off to install a tsunami early warning system on the shore platform.

And finally, hours later, with a tightening in my chest that reminds me of the physical experience of falling in love, I see ‘my’ island at last, a ‘unit of land’ which, as James Hamilton-Paterson puts it ‘fits within the retina of the approaching eye’. I check my longing. Although Young Blake Expeditions first applied for landing permits eight months earlier, we are still waiting to learn if these will be granted.

At first the island is blue, flat – a 2D cut-out. Gradually it grows into something darker, greener, more solid. I begin to make out ravines, high cliffs, and finally vegetation and surf breaking on rocks. Only when we sail round to the other side does Raoul reveals itself for precisely what it is – the tip of a volcano, the contours of its central caldera now glowing in the golden light of the dying afternoon. Even right before your eyes, Raoul never quite seems real or believable. We feel ourselves to be in a story. Yet we have come, opportunistically, in search of tangible knowledge: insights into the shifting biodiversity of a place to help us understand exactly how and when different species are colonising the Kermadecs, and how the unusual interaction between corals and macroalgae might play out.

‘At the Kermadec Islands we actually get to see a fully-functioning marine ecosystem with the top predators in place – a marvel worth protecting,’ said Dr Tom Trnski, marine curator of Auckland Museum. Untouched, unspoiled. The thing to remember, he reminded us, is that this actually represents ‘normal’. It’s only become extraordinarily special because our ‘Anthropocene’ age has done so much to destroy the rest of the world’s oceans.

Seabirds once bred on Raoul in their millions but by the early 20th century had been virtually annihilated. Now the predators introduced by settlers – goats, cats and rats – have been eradicated. Slowly but surely most bird species seem to be returning. ‘We are putting things right,’ says ornithologist Chris Gaskin.

Anchored tantalisingly close, the Canterbury offers constantly changing views of the island. Day after day goes by with no news of landing permits.

We zoom off in RHIBs in search of dolphins, towing for plankton, filming underwater, gathering specimens. I snorkel over the giant endemic limpets which sustained the Bells when they first arrived here, and avoid making eye-contact with curious Galápagos sharks. From the ship, I see a green turtle rise. Tropic birds, terns and boobies pass. This expedition is like an ‘I spy’ of my novel. An exhilarating birds-eye view of the island from the Navy helicopter reveals crater lakes, tree ferns, Nikau palms, ridges, cliffs and hidden gullies, all laid out beneath us.

Evenings are spent in the ship’s rec room, writing blogposts, huddling over microscopes, or sorting out samples. Professor Wendy Nelson and her young helpers disentangle a handful of filamentous seaweed plucked for her by a snorkeller – green, brown and reddish – ready to be preserved and then analysed back in the lab. In the ship’s hospital, a makeshift lab, Dr Libby Liggins introduces me to the most recently identified endemic species: the Lammington urchin (Tripneustes kermadecensis) sits in a bubbling tank looking like a tiny coconut-sprinkled chocolate cake. It’s actually the oldest of its genus, probably older than the geologically youthful islands.

frederica bellFrederica Bell, an early resident of Denham Bay, Raoul Island

Over and over again, I discover how much we simply don’t know yet about the unique natural history of this place. The Kermadecs Marine Reserve currently extends in circles stretching only 20km from each island or rock. The deepest seas, barely investigated, are a final frontier in terms of human exploration. Libby and her colleagues all look forward to the creation of an Ocean Sanctuary. It won’t only protect a vastly greater area of the marine environment: it’s also likely to bring investment in the kind of sustained research vital for Kermadecs to fulfil their potential as a barometer of change.

One afternoon, we all leap off the ramp of the cargo deck in a ‘hands to bathe’ operation. A markswoman with a shark rifle keeps watch while we swim. But an unlucky injury and bad weather ahead mean an early departure, and a scramble to get workers off the island. The urchin has to share the hospital with a Navy patient. Too late now to land. From the top deck, I watch obsessively as Raoul shrinks and disappears. Not, I hope, for the last time.

Lydia Syson is the author of Mr Peacock’s Possessions which she set on Raoul Island, out now in hardback and eBook formats by Bonnier Zaffre, £12.99

This was published in the September 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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