As a young boy, Anzac Gallate’s head was filled with tropical fish. He poured over “tons of books” with fish swimming across their pages; he had his own home aquarium. “I wanted to be a marine biologist so badly,” he says.
Now, at 17, Gallate has discovered fish he never knew existed, by diving into one of the most unique, biodiverse natural aquariums on earth; an area declared one of the last pristine sites in our oceans, that could soon become one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.
Gallate, the head boy at Cashmere High School in Christchurch, was one of 20 Young Blake Expeditioners who voyaged to the Kermadec Islands. The 11-day odyssey, on board HMNZS Canterbury, opened Gallate’s already sage eyes to a whole new world of science – and a new career path.
During his time in the Kermadecs – or Rangitahua – Gallate helped scientists on board the ship to gather samples, photos and data, to better understand the rich marine ecosystem that exists above and below the Kermadec waterline.
Their research revealed tropical fish never seen around the Kermadecs before – black trevally, rainbow runners, and sergeant major damsel fish. Although it is tempting to attribute these new records of tropical species to increasing sea temperatures as a result of climate change, and the warm La Niña summer, scientists acknowledge new discoveries at these rarely-visited islands are not uncommon.
Collecting scientific data is nothing new to Gallate, who leads the Sustainability Council at his high school – a group he enthusiastically joined in his first week at college – and won an international sustainable energy prize which took him to Abu Dhabi last year.
After accepting the global Zayed Future Energy Prize, Gallate addressed students and teachers from across the UAE and Europe on how his group of six students managed to significantly reduce the school’s power bill.
“The project was really simple and encouraged people to change their behaviour slightly; they only had to contribute in a small way. But when everyone did, it made a big difference – reducing the school’s power usage by 30 percent. That was big for a school with a $200,000 energy bill,” he says.
The prize of $US100,000 went toward the school’s installation of 100 solar panels, a wind turbine and piezoelectric tiles, which generate electricity from student’s footprints.
The teacher who heads Cashmere High School’s Sustainability Council, Leith Cooper (pictured above), joined Gallate on board the HMNZS Canterbury as the “educator at sea” for the Sir Peter Blake Trust.
Although there were days on the ship when rough seas made it hard going, the students managed to avidly take part in scientific research in New Zealand’s only subtropical marine ecosystem.
Among Gallate’s jobs was to clear the “light traps” – designed to attract small fish and invertebrates into water drums using the light from glowsticks to lure them in. The drums were suspended by buoys and anchored by hunks of train rail.
He also studied plankton, and was “fascinated” by the BRUVS – the baited remote underwater video system which allows a deep-water survey of fish sizes, abundance and diversity. “It was amazing how they could measure the size of a fish using two cameras and trigonometry,” Gallate says.
“It was so cool to see how science operates in the field. What got me into sustainability and environment at a really young age was reading hundreds of books about animals. It’s great to see the science that goes behind some of the information that goes on to those pages.”
He now wants to take some of the science he witnessed, to make a difference in his local waterways. He was interested by scientists using “smurfs” – plastic construction fencing rolled into tubes, and placed in the ocean to allow organisms to colonise it.
“Our sustainability council has a few projects in the local streams around our school, and I talked to the scientists about whether we could use smurfs in a fresh waterway,” Gallate says. “It would be so interesting to see what’s living in there – we could get the biology classes to study them under microscopes.”
Perhaps the greatest thrill for Gallate during his Kermadec adventure was snorkelling among the fish that first ignited his passion for the environment.
“Everywhere you looked there were masses of fish. There were schools of hundreds of blue maomao that just swam around you. The health of the marine life there and the biomass of the reefs and rocks surrounding the islands is incredible,” he says.
“It was great to learn what the health of an untouched marine environment is, and hear from the scientists that it’s how New Zealand’s marine environment was once upon a time, and how it could be again.”
Plans for the New Zealand government to create the Kermadec Rangitahua Ocean Sanctuary over 620,000 sq km – one of the world’s largest and most significant fully protected areas – are still under negotiation.
Gallate cannot sum up in words how much he has enjoyed his experiences with the Sir Peter Blake Trust – first as a YELF delegate, then as a Young Blake Expeditioner. “I really appreciate the Trust’s values,” he says. He has his sights set on becoming a Blake Ambassador to the Antarctic.
Although he’s in his final year of high school, Gallate confesses he’s not exactly sure where he wants to head in his career. But his “life-changing” expedition to the Kermadec may have helped to make the path a little clearer.
“I’ve always been interested in the sciences. But talking to people on this trip I realised how great it is that all of this science is being done, but at the end of the day, it’s about increasing our understanding of issues and the progression of interest. There’s a gap between the knowledge and the change-making, or action, that comes from it. So I’ve been looking at law as a foundational degree, and how that could be used as a tool for change.
“But I know for sure that I’m passionate about what I’m doing now. And my career will always be around sustainability.”