Many people know the Three Kings islands as the site of the Elingamite wreck, and for over a hundred years treasure hunters have flocked here in search of gold and silver. But for the scientists of the Three Kings Islands Marine Expedition these islands hold treasures of another kind – a rich diversity of marine life which they have come to observe and record. The fish life is moderately well documented, but there are many kinds of invertebrates and seaweeds found only here, many of which are unnamed and unrecorded, and the goal of the expedition is to add a few vital pieces to our understanding of the complex jigsaw puzzle of life here at New Zealand’s northern-most frontier.
The expedition arrived at the Three Kings Islands, about 55 kilometres northwest of Cape Reinga, at dawn on Wednesday, and by 7.30 am the first dive teams were already in the water. The big high sitting over New Zealand made for perfect sea conditions – calm with little wind – and expedition leader Tom Trnski from Auckland Museum said everyone was keen to make the most of the good conditions and begin collecting. There was an air of excitement on the back deck of the expedition vessel Braveheart before the dive as scientists and photographers donned wetsuits, sorted their dive gear and collecting equipment, and then headed out in the inflatable tenders to the first dive site. An hour or so later there was euphoric chatter as everyone struggled out of wet dive gear, swapping first impressions about the clarity of the water, the abundance of fish life, the richness of the seaweed cover and the overwhelming abundance of bright sponges and small jewel-like organisms covering the rock underneath.
The two-week expedition is led by Auckland Museum and brings together 11 marine biologists from NIWA, Te Papa Tongarewa and the University of Queensland. Also along to document the trip are two photographers and Radio New Zealand producer Alison Ballance. The expertise on board includes fish biologists, invertebrate scientists and seaweed experts, and the specimens they collect will help build a comprehensive picture of the coastal marine life on these remote volcanic islands. The biota has many similarities to northern New Zealand, but there are many interesting omissions (no spotties or mussels which are common on the mainland), and as well there is a range of interesting endemics, such as Johnson’s sargassum which is a dominant feature.
By early Wednesday afternoon the team had completed two dives and assembled on the back deck to begin meticulously documenting all the samples. Weather permitting, the same procedure will repeat for the next nine days, and who knows what precious treasures will be found and what secrets revealed.
You can follow the Three Kings Islands Marine Expedition blog here.