Saturday, October 24, 2009

Down deep at the Chanters

We are off on Monday morning.

Yesterday the RV Braveheart boys agreed to take Bas and I for a dive. We have had no scuba gear for the duration of our stay here, and despite me greasing up to various visiting yachts, no opportunity to get underwater has arisen to date.

We were taken to the Chanter islands and it was a truly spectacular dive. The descent was down some vertical walls to about 120 feet; we saw lovely soft corals and some weird and wonderful fish that aren't quite so accessible when you're snorkelling. Boar fish spring to mind - they're like huge Angel Fish with pouty bee-sting lips. Strangely, the terrain reminded me of paragliding at Treble Cone in Wanaka, such was the sense of vertigo you get with sheer drops above and below you. The visibility was excellent and can apparently be something of a hazard there - the water is so clear, you don't realise you're going too deep.

I finally got to swim with some of the Galapagos sharks, who shadowed us for the latter part of the dive and swam in close underneath me at one stage. They are beautiful, graceful creatures - very sleek and streamlined.

As Bas said with his inimitable turn of phrase, "This was the cream on the cake for the last six months."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A visitor to Met

Gareth found this little fellow in the Meteorological buildings and fed him one of Gaye's biscuits.

We're outta here (soon)

The last week has seen us all trotting around giving our island a good spring clean. Before it becomes someone else's island.

This has involved a major cleanup of the hostel and grounds, a mammoth session cutting virtually every blade of grass with mowers or scrub-bar (or a knife on the concrete edgings, as Bas discovered). The tracks are all spruced up and the roads ready to go. Raoul looks extremely presentable.

The RV Braveheart has sailed from Tauranga and is plugging through northerly seas towards us. The quality of their voyage should improve dramatically as they near the island, as the sea here is  completely transparent and looks like a mirror. Even the whales are enjoying it.

Gaye and I have moved out of our room and we are now living in the tent, close to the sea, but well above the high water mark in case of further tsunamis. Tomorrow the population of the island will almost triple as the newbies settle in, the ship's crew comes ashore and various DOC and changeover experts arrive to facilitate the handover process (we won't be back on the mainland for another week, but already I'm writing in bureaucratic-speak).

 The tent is tucked in at the end of the hostel lawn

We have had a wonderful time but we are looking forward to getting home.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

But nothing ventured....

All photos: Gareth Rapley

There are also days when everything works out just fine!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sometimes you have to learn the hard way

Every now and then I look down at our beach from the flagpole at the top of the cliff and think "that surf is just too good to miss." This is despite the fact that the tide is wrong, the beach is steep and littered with boulders and even though I know I can get into the waves OK in my little red kayak, getting out of the water again will be a whole new problem.

Gareth was on hand to record this very ungraceful exit from the sea. You can see I have already abandoned the boat - it's disappearing up the beach out of the frame, and all that remains is getting out without too many bruises.

Photos: Gareth Rapley

The annual whale survey

This was yesterday's little task. It involved seven of us dispersing to various viewing points around the island, then sitting down with pen and paper to count those whales. The results are still to be collated (my job) as a number of observers opted to stay out for the weekend, but it was a pretty busy sea!

 Hutchie's Bluff - a good place to view the whales
My spot was Hutchie's Bluff, on the western tip of the island. I had 34 sightings in the course of the four-hour survey, eight of which were two whales moving together. Some of the others saw pods of eight whales.

One of the memorable moments for me was seeing a cloud layer peel away after about three hours, and then noticing the water erupt with breaching whales as the sun struck it behind the receding cloud shadow. It was as though they were celebrating the arrival of sunshine, and it was truly joyous. Tail thwacking and leaping out to see who could make the biggest splash were the order of the day.

Postscript: 21 October (please do not read this if you are Russian or Japanese)

The report has been compiled and sent off. Our total was 117 whales for seven observers over four hours, but we are almost certain to have recorded some of the same whales at different sites. Nevertheless, it's an impressive total, especially as on our circumnavigation a few days earlier we only saw 11.

We continue to be amazed at some of the antics the whales display. Two evenings ago, we had two large whales perform a series of perfectly synchronised jumps in front of the hostel, like ballet dancers on steroids. I even managed to get some of it on video.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An evening out, with a whole lot of slappers

Comma placement is important, as any English teacher will tell you.
We sat out under the full moon last evening, enjoying the warm still air and the BBQ at the same time. The whales made the most of it too, with jump-offs happening all around and so much noise from water impact that some of the crew couldn't sleep. Bas got up at 2am and walked to the flagpole, to be confronted with a sea pockmarked with the whitewater explosions of jumping humpbacks. John kept hearing the foghorn sound that was almost certainly the whalesong that I wrote about last post -males humming!
It was a fun night's entertainment on Raoul Island.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

11 whales a'leaping

Were you aware that humpback whales have the largest appendages in the animal kingdom? I didn't think so. Their 4m long pectoral fins are indeed an impressive sight and they have been using them to good effect around here lately, slapping the water with gunshot cracks that echo across to our homestead on the clifftops.

Also impressive in the noise-making category is their song. Apparently the males can reach 180db and the sound has been known to travel up to 100km underwater. It's curious that they manage to sing without exhaling at all, although I suppose that is an advantage if you are an air breather living in the sea.

 Dolphins on the bow
We circumnavigated our island by boat last Monday and counted no fewer than 11 humpbacks and an excitable pod of bottlenose dolphins that were just desperate to play. Dave would kill the motor whenever they came near, so they would promptly leave again. It wasn't until we moved off - the faster, the better - that they flocked back in to the bow to race. They were having a great time.

We are shortly to complete our annual whale survey. The Kermadecs are on a migratory path for the humpbacks and their numbers are still relatively low, post whaling. These whales always remain separate from all the other whale groups moving south at this time of year to feed on the antarctic krill, so they have nothing to do with New Caledonian humpbacks, or the Aussies (understandable - too fond of beer), or the ones that move down the African or South American coastlines.

With the exception of the infants, they don't feed on the way. Young whales have the benefit of a mother's milk that has ten times the fat content of a cow and contains twice the protein. They can put on a kilogram an hour when they suckle.

I suppose it's only a matter of time before Fonterra gets onto them.

A series of five shots of whales leaping recently, taken from our front lawn

Friday, October 2, 2009

No big waves here

We were about 12 hours behind the release of the news of Samoa's big quake and subsequent tsunami.
It's just as well the resulting wave was only about 1m high when it hit Raoul Island, as we were camped not far above the high water mark at Denham Bay. It was a peaceful, relaxing time as this photo of Bas shows. With radios off until the scheduled call at 7pm though, we had no idea what was going on and passed this part of our "Vollies' Week Off" with exploration and another survey of our local shipwreck.

Gaye and Bas in the Scaevola, heavily in flower

Sooty Terns

 Sooty Terns - chick and  juvenile  (photos: Gareth Rapley)
During a break in the weather last week, Gina and I rock hopped westwards along the coastline to peg out the quadrats for this years Sooty Tern study.  Along with the compulsory first aid kit, radio, and GPS, we had stashed in our packs, stakes, hammers and tape measures. We marked out five areas for monitoring this year.  The areas chosen were guided by GPS points made during last year's study and at those sites where birds have nested in the past. As we banged in the stakes it was sad to see a number of tern skeletons: the birds that didn’t make it last year. They nest under huge cliffs so falling rocks, erosion and even high tides all take their toll.
These birds were heavily predated by the rats and cats, so now following eradication of these pests it is hoped that their numbers will be on the rise. The study is completed annually to monitor the density and numbers of nesting birds along this stretch of the coastline.   

One of the monitored nesting plots.

 Adult Terns (photo: Gareth Rapley)
Unfortunately we will miss the interesting part, as the birds don’t start nesting until November and most of the chicks leave by around the end of March.