BLAKE Ambassadors get up close with deep sea creatures on NIWA expedition
February 26, 2020

The research vessel Tangaroa has returned from a month-long voyage to the sub-Antarctic, with two BLAKE NIWA Ambassadors on board. They helped collect fish and squid samples and physical oceanographic data, seeking to understand how our changing climate might impact fisheries. There were queasy bellies, freaky deep-sea fish, and plenty of squeamish tasks on an adventure at the far southern reaches of New Zealand waters.

When the MV Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef in 2011, Melanie Hayden was a 13-year-old keen water polo player who spent every spare minute on Papamoa Beach. She had never imagined an environmental catastrophe like the oil and cargo spill that followed the grounding.

“We were on the beach the day the oil started touching down. It was really weird to not be able to use the beach, seeing the dead seabirds and not being able to help.

“After that, I sort of thought to myself I’d like to be one of the people who could help with this sort of thing.”

Melanie (Ngāti Huia) studied ecology, specialising in Marine Science, at the University of Auckland, and is now working on a Master of Science looking at stress hormones in yellow-eyed penguins.

She was last year selected as a BLAKE NIWA Ambassador, alongside Hiromi Beran of Victoria University. Hiromi’s unique course of study pulls together marine biology, Spanish, creative writing and statistics; her goal is to be a marine scientist and author, exploring the natural world and sharing it with others through storytelling. NIWA is New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute focused on climate, freshwater and ocean science. Its flagship research vessel is the RV Tangaroa; an ice-strengthened, deep-water research vessel equipped for Southern Ocean exploration.

NIWA has been a long-time supporter of BLAKE’s ambassador programme, inviting annual crops of young scientists to join voyages to various parts of New Zealand. Melanie and Hiromi were offered internships on the Tangaroa’s month-long voyage to the Sub-Antarctic in November last year. The interns, and BLAKE Programme Manager Bhakti Patel, brought the numbers on board to 30, ranging from cooks to engineers to NIWA fisheries assessment and monitoring programme leader Dr Richard O’Driscoll.

Richard says the partnership with BLAKE is great for nurturing interest in research.

“It’s about getting people out on the research vessels, seeing what it’s like to work at sea. They get the experience you can’t get in a lecture theatre: hands-on, feet-wet…”

He says on the pre-Christmas voyage, Melanie and Hiromi became “extremely useful, extremely quickly”.

The electronic system to measure fish involves digitizer boards, stylus pens and a myriad of codes; it can take weeks to master. But by the end of the first day on board, both women had moved from assisting on the machines to working them. They were also full of gusto for some of the more squeamish tasks on board, such as carving in to fish heads to retrieve the tiny ear bones used for ageing.

“They were right in to it, right from the start,” Richard says. “I’ve personally been on three voyages with BLAKE Ambassadors and they’ve all been good. Mel and Hiromi were intelligent and motivated and enthusiastic. They picked up what we were doing very quickly.”

“We’re trying to monitor things that are going on in the environment to avoid a situation where we catch too many fish and there aren’t any left for the future,” he says.Richard goes to sea for about 12 weeks each year. Usually, he leads voyages which set out to estimate fish abundance at sea – information which is important for setting commercial fishing quota.

However, this particular voyage was designed to look beyond counting fish – surveying changes in the abundance of prey species, such as krill, as well as water chemistry and oceanography.

“This is not a routine voyage,” Richard says. “We’ve had indicators things are changing in the waters south of New Zealand, in the Sub-Antarctic, which has implications for sealions and albatross, as well as for commercial fisheries… We want to better understand the environment that contributes to abundance. It’s unlikely small changes in water temperature will affect a hoki directly but it might affect its food, which then has an impact.” Richard, who has now been a fisheries scientist with NIWA for 20 years, was himself a young PhD student on Tangaroa in 1995. “It was a glimpse into the life I wanted to have – and do have!”

Melanie, 22, says the voyage offered invaluable hands-on experience and opened her eyes to the wide variety of jobs available in marine research. She’s keen to finish her Masters this year, get started in the workforce and find her marine science niche.

“It was really good just to get some practical experience out in the field, and if I’m going to be working on yellow-eyed penguins, well, I’ve now been able to go to the sub-Antarctic, one of their biggest habitats.

“I’d never considered fisheries science as an option; it’s broadened my horizons in terms of career opportunities. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed seeing the species come through.”

Melanie and Hiromi encountered some of the more bizarre-looking residents of the Southern Ocean, including the squished-snout blobfish, widely considered the ugliest fish in the world.

“It popped up and we were like, Oh Wow! I’ve heard of these but I never really expected to see one,” Melanie says.

Life on board was unexpectedly comfortable. There was a casual environment, similar to flatting, and the food was consistently excellent the entire voyage.

“It was real cool. I never thought I’d be able to do something like that, like so adventurous, until I was properly working. It’s given me a huge confidence boost.”

Melanie works as the coordinator of Tuākana, a University of Auckland mentoring programme for biology students. She says she actively tries to encourage more Māori and Pasifika to pursue the environmental sciences.

“We have a strong connection to the environment; this is a great way to protect it. We like to have input on how things are managed so we need more people to come through with both the science and cultural aspects”.