It was only a few days ago, as I was on my stand up paddleboard, paddling around Rabbit Island just off Mount Maunganui, that I marvelled at the increasing numbers of seals that have started to re-populate the area. They were sunbathing on the rocks and playing in the water. Shags and penguins were bobbing around close by and the odd stingray shot off as I glided over them. The water was clear and calm and I could see the forests off seaweed on the reef below me gently dancing in the currents.
The reef is home to a vast array of sealife and is the cornerstone of the marine environment. That’s why people come here, to see and enjoy nature’s playground, to surf and dive, go fishing and kayaking or just relax on the beach with their families and enjoy the gifts of Tangaroa.
Skip forward two days, to Monday, October 10, and I’m walking along the beach trying to side step plate size globules of thick black oil that washed up that morning. I’m standing in front of Rabbit Is and, as far as I can see down the beach, oil has washed ashore. There’s also a thick layer of a mysterious translucent jelly-like substance that has washed up with the oil and along the high tide mark it is drying into a thick skin and mixing with the sand on the beach. I’m preying this is not the dreaded Corexit 9500. There’s media everywhere and members of the public, but absolutely no sign of any authorities. None. We do an interview with Radio NZ and express our sadness and frustration and the lack of inaction from our leadership. I was born here, grew up here, learned to swim and surf here and now I stand and watch the destruction which Stephen Joyce described as “just the beginning”, the “old oil”. The day draws on and there is still no sign of the response teams. Locals grow more and more frustrated until they decide to take matters into their own hands. If they won’t clean it up, we will. How can they really expect us to stand around and do nothing while we watch our home being trashed?
The next morning I go for a walk along the beach all the way from Omanu to my home opposite Rabbit Is, probably around 3kms. There is a thick stench of oil in the air and the entire way along the beach the oil has invaded the shoreline - ranging from small spots to patches the size of a coffee table. There’s still no sign of any officials, there’s no sign of any response teams, just one lone bird recovery team of four people for the entire stretch. I walk past children in bare feet walking around on the beach and people walking their dogs. They have no idea how toxic it is. No one has told them. It’s up to members of the public to warn each other. Random groups of people gather to talk to each other and share news. The first reports start coming in that there has been another spill overnight. The initial spill was 20 tonnes, this next one is between 150-300 tonnes. Finally it’s too much and I start crying. Fast forward to the end of the day and we are again down on the beach with dishwashing gloves and black trash bags. The local community continues to take matters into their own hands and rallies together to start the unofficial clean up. It’s the one thing that makes me proud. They do a magnificent job at removing most of the oil from the beach. We walk along picking up what’s left over and when our bags are getting heavy we turn around to come back. Just moments after we finish cleaning an area more oil is washed up. This will be a long battle.
Today is much the same, except we see news coverage of the containers that fell off the ship, some containing hazardous chemicals adding to the toxic soup that has replaced the ocean we once played in. I don’t know when I will be able to surf here again. I have no idea when the seafood will be safe to eat again. It could be years. We can only take it one day at a time, as we know the worst is yet to come. It just goes to show that you can have all the risk management plans and safety legislation in the world, but one human mistake or one mechanical malfunction and it all means nothing. We were simply not prepared for this. We never will be.
Photo (C) GREENPEACE / Simon Grant