Marine Studies Field Trips

Tuhua Field Trip

Marine student diving

A group of the year two Marine Studies students spent nine days surveying the marine life at Tuhua (Mayor Island), an isolated island off the Bay of Plenty coast.

This continues a twenty year tradition of gathering data for the Department of Conservation on how the marine reserve at the northern end of the island, where no fishing is allowed, is progressing

Tuhua is a beautiful pest-free island sitting on the edge of the continental shelf which was bathed in warm, clear water for the trip. The students stay on the island during the survey and have to be self-sufficient. It’s a treat to wake to the sound of the sea and the prolific bird life rather than the normal hum of traffic and we even heard kiwi one night.

By this stage in their studies students are all dive masters and have advanced identification and underwater recording skills. The days are spent diving and collecting data from sites all around the island which is entered into laptops. This information is used to monitor how the marine reserve compares to areas where fishing is allowed as well as to practise data analysis techniques and to generate individual reports when they get back to the mainland.

The student surveyors also get lots of hands on skills including advanced diving and surveying, operating small boats, diver supervision and using dive compressors.

Students love being immersed in the environment, being free of the hassles associated with town living, working as a team and being able to make a positive contribution to conservation - not forgetting the clear water and unique animals they see underwater.

Underwater highlights in the past have included dolphins, turtles, lots of copper moki, small hammerhead sharks and big snapper in the reserve.

Lissenung Island Field Trip - Papua New Guinea (alternatively Taveuni-Fiji or Solomon Islands)

Each year the majority of Level 6 students travel to Lissenung Island in Papua New Guinea as part of the optional Coral Reef Ecology and Monitoring course where the surveying and diving conditions blow away their minds.

Students are divided into groups, given a research question and have a day to coordinate fellow students to complete their research. Different techniques are assessed for surveying fish and corals

Students are up for breakfast at 7am and in the water by 8:30am with generally four dives completed throughout the day (including night dives). Data is entered between dives and species identification and report writing means they are often crawling into bed just before midnight.

The identification of coral reef species is a huge task. In New Zealand you may need to be able to identify up to 100 fish species on a dive compared with well over 2,000 fish species in Papua New Guinea. Corals are something we are not familiar with in New Zealand but the handy Coral Finder facilitates coral identification underwater using a waterproof book and magnifying glass.   

Five days are also spent boat diving on the deeper drop offs and reef passes with massive schools, big fish, tiny pygmy seahorses and beautiful drifts past huge gorgonian fans.

Dives like Albatross Passage, Nusa Blowholes, the Matrix and Helmut’s Reef are unforgettable and our students come back saying that it is the best diving that they had ever had.

Most evenings a volleyball game is organised against the locals.

Students have to fund this trip themselves and each year they can’t wait to go, especially after the stories and photos from the previous trips.

The Coral Reef Ecology paper is very popular with both students and staff. With the course fee separate from the overseas field trip cost, students work hard over the summer holidays to save for what they say is the trip of a lifetime. 

Senior Academic Daniel Sharp, has written up an account of the group's unique experience. It starts with a dawn dive, and finishes with the team sitting on the back of the National Geographic vessel surrounded by some of the world's best in marine science and innovation.

Whitianga Field Trip

Being woken up by banging saucepans at 4 am with the resounding cry of “Dawn dive!!” ringing in your ears is not the most relaxing way to wake up but it does say something about the enthusiasm and commitment of first year Marine Studies students on a marine monitoring field trip at the Mercury islands off the Coromandel coast.

During September, students on the Marine Studies programme hone their diving skills and learn a multitude of underwater surveying techniques in a five day field trip based around the Mercury Islands. The time is spent on the MV Whai, an infamous steel catamaran based at Whitianga and skippered by John Elwood whose vast experience and unsurpassed knowledge of the area provides a safe yet exciting and challenging learning environment for the students.

The diving is superb around the Mercury islands with abundant fish and invertebrate life. Over the five days the students are trained in subtidal monitoring. This includes underwater visual fish counts, bottom profiling and crayfish, paua, scallop and kina distribution and abundance surveys. The students average about four work dives a day with an optional night dive just before dinner.

They also have to complete a workbook that involves recording and analysing the data they have collected during their dives. They have to live in close quarters on the boat which has 14 berths. This means that they have to get along and pull their weight. Cooking, cleaning, and tank filling duties are shared so although great fun the trip is no holiday. Working as a group like this creates a good bond between both students and staff and the experiential learning on this trip is incredible. The students normally leave at the end of the trip exhausted but elated. This field trip is a highlight of the year for students and staff alike.

The night before the early morning in question the students had expressed an interest in a dawn dive to see if fish activity changed during the light transition from darkness to sunrise. Somewhat reluctantly the tutors agreed. 'The Bookcase’, a rocky pinnacle aptly named for its shape that rises 20m above the surface with sheer walls down to a depth of 22m was selected as our site.

At around 5am, bleary eyed but armed with torches the group of 14 divers entered the inky black water. Any reservations would soon disappear as the torchlight revealed a vast array of fascinating creatures. Walls covered in thousands of blue ascidians (an encrusting organism that looks like a translucent blue bell) stretch up to the surface with sleeping butterfly perch and foxfish wedged in crevices amongst them. My student dive buddy pointed out a dwarf scorpionfish. The torch beam attracts some krill which school in a tight circle around the light. The student directs the light toward the scorpion fish and quick as a flash its jaws gape and engulf the ‘krill ball’ in a single gulp, Awesome!!

We make our ascent and break the surface just as the sun is rising on the horizon. We are greeted by John the skipper with a hot cup of coffee for both of us in hand. “Breakfast in 10 minutes boys, scrambled or fried?" he growled. What a fantastic way to start another day!