We’ve been at anchor in Port Ross at the northern end of Auckland Island for two days now. For most of that time our documentary team has been off the ship walking the islands or puttering around the coast in a small inflatable boat. They’ve been to Enderby Island, Rose Island and the main Auckland Island.
The rest of us have been mostly ship-bound but we did get the opportunity to go to the old Hardwicke Settlement briefly yesterday, and today walked the track from Sandy Bay up to the lookout and back. It was A M A Z I N G – a word that is suffering some serious over-use here at the moment. This is among the wildest places on Earth. Some of the islands are close to pristine as you can get and being here feels a little like we’ve stepped into Jurassic Park.
It’s the middle of summer - but it’s cold. We’re in the sub-Antarctic latitude – beyond the ‘roaring forties in the ‘furious fifties’ where it’s also known as the albatross latitudes. You can see from the desolate landscape and the weird stunted shape of the vegetation just how harsh existence is here, but miraculously life hangs on and even thrives. Resilience is taken for granted.
It would be easy to go on at lenght enthusing about our close encounters with albatross and sea lions, the mysterious twisted rata forest, improbable ‘mega herbs’ and the icy cold streams cutting through the deep peat. And I could wax lyrical about the raw wildness and unique isolation, the lingering air of human failure and the harsh beauty of the landscape. But I won’t because, while I’ve got your attention, I want to talk about with the real reason we’re here: the threat posed by the deep sea oil drilling which now looms large on the horizon.
These islands are hopefully not directly in the potential spill zones – yet. But sea birds range widely and the oil industry is ever hungry. Like many of the bird species here the native sea lions also seem plentiful but in fact their survival, even here, is already under threat thanks to industrial fishing, declining food sources and a mysterious outbreak of disease. If we allow Shell, Anadarko and the other International Oil companies a foothold in the Great South Basin or anywhere else in our deep waters, it will be the thin end of the wedge. And when the spills happen, as they are bound to, there will be no going back. This place is too precious to risk.
New Zealand’s wild places are one of the things that make us special in the world. Most of us who grew up here have childhood memories of summers at the beach, swimming, surfing, boating and fishing. And many of us who have more recently arrived came in part for the promise of the same. We’re proud of our place and protecting it is part of who we are.
But if we allow Shell and Anadarko to begin drilling in the deep seas off the East Coast of the South Island as they plan to very soon, we could see this special place come under threat. And we could see areas much closer to home affected. Whale watching off Kaikoura won’t be so good through an oil slick and the penguin and albatross colonies in Oamaru and Dunedin probably wouldn’t survive a big oil spill.
We saw recently with the Rena spill the devastating effects of oil in the sea and how impossible it is to remedy. And that was only a tiny spill compared to the BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico which is a good example to use here because the Deepwater Horizon was an exploratory deep sea well which are the riskiest of all. And that’s exactly what Anadarko and Shell would be doing here in waters up to twice the depth that made Deepwater Horizon so impossible to contain.
It’s a mad idea anywhere but especially here in New Zealand where the seas are wild and our ability to cope with a spill is virtually non-existent. And New Zealand just doesn’t need to go there. We have the natural resources and the smart, innovative people we need to go beyond oil and be world leaders in clean smart efficient technology that the world needs so badly. Instead of burning bridges with deep sea oil, we need to look forward and do things differently - as we have done so well before.