For the second time in a row, I am first describing my presence in a new country after a month of residency. But hello from New Zealand!
At about 37°S, Auckland is the furthest south I have ever been, and although I’ve made the transition between Northern and Southern Hemisphere seasons before, the abrupt addition of 4.5 hours of sunlight in the evening was startling. I have since grown accustomed to the longer days and 18-hour time difference, and maybe surprisingly for some, think fondly of the fantastic snowfalls New Jersey is seeing this winter.
I’m here working on my first marine project since my undergraduate thesis, and my first field-based marine project ever. Most of my time is spent at Massey University in the Natural Sciences post-graduate building, a home away from home for the several PhD students working under Dr. Karen Stockin. I am employed by one of these PhD students, Krista, who is writing her thesis on the population of Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in the Hauraki Gulf using a photo-ID method. It is these dolphins I and the other researchers go out to photograph on the Dolphin Explorer, a tourist dolphin- and whale-watching catamaran that departs daily from downtown Auckland. I’ll go into more detail about how we take the pictures and what we do with them in a future post, but the general principle behind photo-ID is self-explanatory: we photograph as many dolphins as we can and use their uniquely pigmented and scarred dorsal fins to identify individuals.
This research experience is completely different from my prior positions, beginning with the basic fundamentals of living: compared to most of my previous destinations, living here in NZ is…well, easy. People speak English. I live in a house without risk of losing electricity as I’m sitting here writing. I go to the indoor supermarket to buy food. I take the bus to MasseyUniversity at 8:20 every morning, and return at 5:15 every evening. If I decided I wanted to leave the country, I could drive to the airport in 45 minutes. All of these features aside, it does seem like something is missing from a field research experience when I’m not concerned about charging elephants, hordes of safari ants, or getting bitten by anything remotely poisonous. In short, I have grown to identify “traveling” as synonymous with “traveling somewhere isolated from modern convenience where meat is not refrigerated and English is not common.” Even though this is the furthest away from New Jersey I have ever been, the comfortable western lifestyle makes it seem like I’m not far away from home at all.
Then I recall the 17 hours of flying between Philadelphia and Auckland, and my long founded image of NZ as the epitome of exotic adventure travel. NZ is a country I’ve had at the very top of my “Places to Visit” list for about as long as I can remember. Of course, many people will now forever associate the captivating imagery from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth with New Zealand, and indeed I may end up climbing Mount Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) before I leave. Unfortunately, I will not have ample time to visit the South Island while I am here, so the spectacular sights of Milford Sound and the Southern Alps will have to wait for a future dedicated trip. But my travels around the North Island started my second week in the country with a few days in the Bay of Islands.
I was first drawn to this region of the North Island by a sequence featured in BBC’s Blue Planet series: a brief focus on New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands showed a shot of hundreds of stingrays congregated under an arch during the mating season—January to March—to avoid their most prominent predators, killer whales.
Unfortunately, I cannot boast such an encounter after my two dives around the Poor Knights, but it is a spectacular place; in these summer months, warm water from the shifting East Australian Current brings down Nemo, Crush, and lots more of our tropical Pixar friends to the NZ coast, occupying the Poor Knights with a unique diversity of tropical and temperate species. I tracked further north to a beach town called Paihia, remaining there for 3 days while completing my Advanced Open Water diving certification. A noteworthy highlight was diving inside the HMNZS Canterbuty, my first wreck penetration experience. It’s eerily majestic to float in the shadow of such a large (113m) frigate, swimming along gangplanks and within compartments that were trodden upon just 6 years ago before the frigate was scuttled. Certainly something I want to do more of!
I’ve also tried out a couple new water sports over the weekends: surfing and stand-up paddleboarding. A nearby west coast beach called Muriwai is renowned for its consistent surf and was a great place to learn, likewise the placid waters of the east coast Orewa inlet were idea for SUP boarding. Orewa is a short 20 minute drive north of Torbay, the suburb where I am living. In addition to being conveniently close to the University, the Torbay coast is about a half-hour meandering walk away. I’ve spent several Saturday afternoons walking north along the base of the coastal cliffs at low tide, going from Torbay up through Long Bay Regional Park. These cliffs are lined with precipitously overhanging Pōhutukawa trees, or the New Zealand Christmas Tree. I just missed their December blooming period, but was still treated to a couple remaining flowers on a small Pōhutukawa in my backyard. Another iconic endemic plant found in a small Torbay park—and many other places around the country—is the NZ tree fern (whekī). The koru, or curled up frond of these tree ferns, is a renowned Maōri symbol and stylized as the logo for Air New Zealand.
I have not yet been hiking in NZ, which is certainly on the top of my to-do list, so next time I hope to describe some of the regional mountain scenery in detail. I’ll also be posting a first round of pictures in the near future.