The first update on our three year project to research and educate on the global problem of plastic pollution in our oceans.
Early in January 2017, after many weeks of preparation and getting Sula ready for the next 3 years, we were ready to leave Nelson. We were set to head south for the summer, into the southern ocean, down to Fiordland and Stewart Island. The next few months would be a dream long in the making.
At midnight, the night was warm and calm, as we crept out of Golden Bay at the top of New Zealand’s South Island and headed out into the Tasman Sea. We were trying to beat the wind gods at their own game - before they awoke and brought four metre swells and 35 to 40 knots of wind to our part of the ocean. We left early to avoid getting hammered by the gale force winds and rough seas that are a feature of this part of the world. The roaring 40s are no place to take lightly and every trick in the book is worth pursuing.
Milford Sound, four days sail away, at the northern end of Fiordland was to be our next stop. Sailing down the West Coast of the South Island is like being a fish in a barrel; if the weather turns ugly there is no escape. The words of the legendary boxer Joe Louis are very apt, “You can run, but you can’t hide”. There is no stopping for four days. The two ports that are on the West Coast, Greymouth and Westport, are notorious for their sand bar crossings which create huge waves and which have taken many fishing boats and claimed many lives. We had no intention of going near them.
We were sailing south into the darkness when I thought I heard a splash over the side of the cockpit. Shining a torch into the inky blackness I could make out the familiar shape of dolphins – black and white Hector’s Dolphins. Rare and beautiful, the endangered small Hector’s Dolphins are endemic to New Zealand and are always a welcome sight. They stayed for a short time, maybe half an hour, and then departed into the cold of the night leaving nothing behind but a sense of loneliness.
During our last night of the 450 mile passage, the weather turned for the worst – rain and strong wind drove us south at speed, which for Sula means about 8 knots. We had reduced sail and were running downwind with a following sea. The night was dark and forbidding and we were hurtling south with zero visibility. Sailing fast into a wild and dark night is always a bit unnerving.
My wife Chris and I take it in shifts to stand watch throughout the night. Four hours at a time, which allows at least some sense of sleep. Getting into a warm bed knowing someone else is looking after things for the next four hours is a wonderful feeling.
The entrance to Milford Sound is dramatic, when entering from the sea. In the narrow entrance, towering mountains rise 3000 ft straight out of the ocean and there is an air of apprehension in the dim light of an overcast morning.
Milford would be the starting point for our programme of trawling for plastic pollution. We had kindly been supplied with a specialized trawling net from NIWA, New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research. We would be spending the next 2 months visiting most of the 13 Fiords that make up this remote part of the New Zealand coastline, before heading further south to Stewart Island.
After a few days relaxing in majestic Milford, we headed further south and down the Fiordland coast, trawling for plastic pollution as we went.
We launch the net over the side every now and again, making a note of the latitude and longitude, time of day and our boat speed. The net stays over the side for 15 minutes, before being hauled back on board and the contents dried and bagged, ready to send off to the Ocean Modelling scientists in NIWA. It’s not a difficult job if conditions are favourable, and already we were beginning to feel like we were achieving something worthwhile.
Fiordland is a truly amazing place to visit, wild and remote with dramatic scenery. The highlights for us were Dusky Sound, where Captain Cook spent over a month taking astronomical sights, and Preservation Inlet where the amount of history in this very remote corner of New Zealand is bewildering. Sawmills, small coal mines, gold mines and even a small town and hotel where almost 400 people lived. Today there is nothing but dense bush covered mountains, towering waterfalls and crystal clear waters where Blue Cod and Crayfish abound. On one day we visited the stunning Sealers Bay where we ended up doing a beach clean up, collecting a significant amount of plastic.
We waited patiently in Preservation Inlet, at the very tip of the southwest corner of the south island, for a favourable wind to take us across the notorious Foveaux Straight to Stewart Island. Sula made a fast passage of 14 hours in 25 knots of wind and 4 metres of swell. Huge plumes of southern ocean bouncing off Sula’s bow, creating fantastic rainbows, so close you could reach out and touch them. Once again the Albatrosses were everywhere. We had seen hundreds since leaving Nelson and we loved watching them, watching us! Graceful, elegant and beautiful birds that kept us company on every offshore passage. When the swells build and the waves steepen, the Albatross appear – this is their world, and we are but brief visitors to the wilderness of the mighty southern ocean.
The beauty of Stewart Island is hard to describe. The Maori name for this island is Rakiura, meaning, “land of the glowing sky”. It certainly lived up to its name. The sunrises and sunsets were inspiring and our 3 weeks stay could easily have turned into months.
Again our research continued for several weeks trawling along the coastline and inlets before we turned Sula north for the first time in 3 months and headed for Dunedin to catch up with our daughters who are there studying at university. We surprised them by turning up unannounced, as they had done to us in Milford Sound 2 months earlier.
We will now make our way further north up the east coast of the south island of New Zealand before preparing for our next big offshore passage in early June, 25 days north west to the islands of French Polynesia, where we will do some more research and educational work about the problems of plastic pollution in the Pacific.
The first 3 months of our odyssey has been humbling. We have made new friends, weathered a few storms and enjoyed many beautiful days sailing in a remote and breathtaking part of New Zealand. We are looking forward to receiving the feedback from NIWA on our research findings. Hoping, with great earnest, that all our hard work and effort has turned up nothing of particular interest!
We will be following Impact’s New Zealand Ross Greenwood’s journey on In Good Company.