Thursday, October 27th, 2011: Tauranga, New Zealand
Though it was tough missing the port of Napier, due to a delay caused by a mechanical problem in the ship’s engine, it provided us with a welcome day at sea before our arrival into the Bay of Plenty and our port stop of Tauranga.
Tauranga is an interesting port for us as we had originally tried to get onto a shore excursion to neighboring White Island, home of an active volcano that can be visited and hiked on. Unfortunately, the ship’s arrival into Tauranga would be too late for us to make the transportation out to White Island. Then, we contacted a local provider to go out on the water and locate and swim with some wild dolphins. About a week prior to our arrival, we received confirmation that our tour had been cancelled because the waters are currently off-limits to most water-based activities.
And that brings us to Rena. Rena is the name of the container ship that ran aground on a well known and mapped reef located about 15kms off the coast of Tauranga. Beyond the number of containers that fell off of the ship in the collison and the fact that the ship is actually stuck on the reef, sitting at an awkward angle, it spilled a significant amount of oil into the water, which has washed up on the coastline in one of the worst ecological disasters in New Zealand’s history.
As we disembarked the ship in the port town of Mt. Maunganui (Tauranga is actually a 10 minute bud ride to the southwest), everything was as touristy perfect as possible, with a number of helpful ambassadors welcoming people with maps and answering questions, the local tour buses and shuttles were out waiting for visitors, and unless you were looking very closely, there was no mention of any water activities, boating, kayaking, swimming with the dolphins, or other beach like activities that this area is well known for. Those will have to wait for the cleanup to finish and likely until next season before these options can return.
We elected to take a nice walk around the base of Mt. Maunganui or Mauao. As we walked about a kilometer to the base of the mountain and to the wide and well maintained walking path, the mountain towered straight up to the sky and at its summit, was shrouded inside a thick gray mist. Though just less than 1000 feet in elevation, it is quite steep and presents a formidable challenge to any walker, jogger, or runner that wants to reach the top.
The sights and scenery as we made our way around the base of the mountain were quite beautiful with views of jagged rocks along the mountain’s coastline and white sand beachs off in the distance along the channel’s opposite bank. Sea birds and fur seals were even found along the path, but once you rounded the corner of the Mount and were outside of the view of the harbor, the cruise ship, and its tourists, the realities of Rena became clear.
To provide some perspective on our experience, think about the following example. From a distance, even a massive garbage dump can look like a rolling hillside with some birds flying and circling around as they soar in the skies above. Much the same can be said for our walk around the mount. From a distance, the jagged rocks and the white sand beaches were beautiful, somewhat begging the question as to how a place so inviting was so devoid of people?
We came across the first team of cleanup volunteers on the rocky coastline about 30 feet below the walking path we were on. They were dressed in white jumpsuits, black rain boots, and bright blue rubber gloves. Everything they wore, just as everything we could see on the beach was covered in black, gooey, smeared on spots and splotches of oily sludge. In that moment, once you knew what you were looking for, your eyes adjust, the oil is EVERYWHERE.
One team of volunteers was on the beach portion of this area. Though hugely appreciated, it was clear this was the “I’m here to help for a few hours” group, wearing the bright and colorful sun hats of a local sponsor as one of the thank you gifts provided to the many people who sacrificed countless hours to better their tiny section of cleanup area. As with most of the volunteers, only the wires of their mp3 players were visible outside of the head to toe white jumpsuits. Once you saw what they had to do to clean the coastline of that sticky, oily mess, you hoped that those music players had ample batteries to provides hours of distraction from the task ahead.
The particular group we first encountered were working the beach. This process requires sifting through the sand, pebbles, small rocks, and seashells with your blue gloved hands and essentially anything that sticks to your gloves or has oil on it must be discarded into nearby clear plastic bags. Think about that for a second. They were literally working their way though every grain of sand on the beach! Worse yet, they not only had to check the layer of sand and seashells on the surface, but also had to dig several inches into the sand as the incoming and outgoing tide stirs the sediment and the water seeps further and further into the landscape of the beach over time.
After pausing to take that all in, we slowly continued our walk to the next group of the cleanup team. This team was clearly in the “we’re on the payroll and are here for the longterm” camp and was made up of miltary team members (army in this instance) and contractors. Again, head to toe jumpsuits, but this group was working in the large rocks and boulders on the more rugged parts of the coastline. Most were on their hands, knees, and bellies face down. With cleaning implements not much larger than a shoe shine brush or a spackle knife, they were tackling the oil in the best way they could, yet it felt like they were up against a mind-numbing and thankless task for a long time to come.
Looking out on miles of picturesque coastline, your heart broke just a little knowing what this region was up against. We’ve all heard about the Exxon Valdez and other oil spills in the United States, but until you can see the impact with your own eyes, the problem seems so distant. As we continued to walk along the shoreline, the scene changed from its calm and tranquil original impression. Now the oil splotches were visible nearly everywhere you looked — on the beach, the rocks, and sadly, the animals as well.
Several signs were present in the area identifying the recent sighting and confirmation of fur seals along the coastline. The signs provided the number of seals sighted, the date, and their “oil status” — free from oil, cleaned, or requiring assistance. Thankfully, all of the signs we saw for seals on this day showed that they were free from oil. The birds though, were not so lucky.
As we came around the backside of Mt. Maunganui and exited the Mauao Regional Park, bright yellow signs were everywhere advising of a “recent contamination event” (very politically correct) and that access to the water and to fishing was strictly prohibited. The ban from walking along the beach had been lifted only two days prior to our arrival. Hopefully, it is a positive sign that cleanup efforts were advancing, and not a feeble attempt to pacify cruise ship passengers arriving from abroad. Unfortunately, standing just below the sign was one of many gulls, it brillant red orange beak and feet stained by oil. Locals told us that keeping up with th ebird cleanup has been difficult. Almost as soon as the birds are cleaned up by volunteers, they are back into the ocean for their next meal and the cycle starts all over again.
Hundreds of birds, penguins, and other sensitive species have been lost to the oil, and what started as a mad dash little more than 3 weeks ago, has settled into a long and drawn out marathon — New Zealand vs. the oil. There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done before the oil finally begins to naturally disperse, and the Bay of Plenty region has done a remarkable job in their efforts. As much as we would have liked to roll up our sleeves and jump in to help, for all the obvious reasons, safety requires training and pre-registration for all cleanup volunteers.
We hope that the cruise ship provided a welcome financial shot in the arm for the area, as it looks like the upcoming summer will be a tough one for the region. Many local and international tourists flock to the area for its warm and sunny climate and to partake in a number of active water sports and activities. These, for the moment, are on hold.
We made the most of the situation and continued our walk (which really was quite enjoyable, despite the unfortunate circumstances) and continued down the beachfront to a small land bridge and crossed over to a small island that afforded us a commanding view of the mountain and more islands nearby. Many of these are uninhabited and surrounded by white sand beaches. They will all need to be cleaned before the small boats and swimmers can return. We took in the view and saw some rabbits on the island hopping by. We finished up our walk by coming back to the coast and inland to a local park, where everyone’s “age” dropped to the single digits and kids and adults like (us included) took to the playground and had a blast on all of the play equipment.
From here, we walked through the main street of Mt. Maunagnui and looked into the shops. We found a gluten free bakery with exceptional (and inexpensive) brownies and purchased a few to take along with us for the remaining days of the cruise.
Walking back to the ship, we were appreciative to see the Bay of Plenty and to see Mt. Maunganui. There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, but the people are up to the task and committed to returning their home to its clean and pristine state as soon as possible.