Saturday, December 4

Astrolabe: 10 years after the Rena disaster


By Leah Tebbutt, Reporter

Thirty meters underwater, off the coast of Mount Maunganui Beach, is Ōtāiti, Astrolabe Reef, an oasis of coral, seaweed and the marine life that feeds on them.

MV Rena was trapped on Astrolabe Reef as it was hit by the high seas off the coast of Tauranga (image posted on April 4, 2012).

MV Rena was trapped on Astrolabe Reef as it was hit by the high seas off the coast of Tauranga (image posted on April 4, 2012).
Photo: Maritime New Zealand via AFP

It’s a stark contrast to the carnage of meter-high piles of metal grinding rock structures with the dust and chemical cocktails of oil, paint and dairy that bubbled to the surface 10 years ago today.

It was the early hours of October 5 when the Rena, a Greek-owned container ship, crashed into the reef.

What began as a “short cut” orchestrated by the ship’s captain Mauro Balomaga and the navigational officer Leonil Relon as the couple rushed to meet the tidal deadline in the port of Tauranga led to the devastation of the inhabitants of the coast, iwi and marine and wildlife.

However, if it were to submerge those 30 meters below the surface today, it would be difficult to imagine the carnage that was once exposed.

Marine ecologist Phil Ross is approaching 300 dives, but remembers the first time he sank.

“If you imagine a container ship full of everything you can imagine and then you take the ship, break it in half and turn it upside down, then you shake it and then you jump up and down on everything that comes out, that was basically the scene that greeted us underwater, “Ross said.

“You had piles of junk and auto parts, cables, and people’s belongings.

“When we were diving, we could hear the creaks and groans of the boat moving back and forth. But the surprising thing was that if you walked 30 meters away from this great physical disturbance, the reef looked a lot like a normal reef of every day, Except you could hear the boat grinding on the reef. “

Three hundred and fifty tons of oil came out of the wreck as the months passed. Many of the 1,368 containers fell overboard.

Marine ecologist Phil Ross.

Marine ecologist Phil Ross.
Photo: RNZ / Leah Tebbutt

About 300 of these are still underwater.

In January, Rena separated into two pieces and finally began to sink.

It was listed as New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster and the rescue operation was the second most expensive in the world at $ 700 million, paid for by the Rena owners’ insurers.

Ross credited the salvage operation with the sight that awaited him underwater today.

“Large chunks of debris were removed in the first days of the salvage and the second part consisted of removing all the small chunks. Then we got to the point where there was almost a clean slate where the reef now had a chance to recover naturally as different species they came and recruited on the reef where we now have a typical kelp forest. “

There are still three pieces of the ship scattered across the reef, although Ross said it would be difficult to recognize the pieces as metal due to the thriving ecosystem that had made it a home.

“In terms of ecology, there was really very little to be gained from the additional salvage work.”

However, that sentiment was not shared by everyone.

Reon Tuanau of Ngāi Te Rangi fought for the Maori to have a say in the ship’s fate. Ultimately, he wanted the entire ship removed, he said.

Reon Tuanau from Ngāi Te Rangi.

Reon Tuanau from Ngāi Te Rangi.
Photo: RNZ / Leah Tebbutt

“We are happy to hear some of the reports that he is healing well and that he is coming back. But still we would have preferred he was gone. It’s a constant pain when we especially think about that part of the moana.”

“We know it’s still there, we can’t see it, but we know it’s still there.”

Tuanau described the time as an uphill battle.

“It’s a bit mommy for us, a bit sore, because there was an accident that happened there and we think that if things like that happen, people should clean it up completely.”

There will be no commemoration for the disaster that affected both culture and relations between the iwi, he said.

“It’s still very real, very raw for us. It has not disappeared from our minds.

“We won’t forget it, but we definitely won’t have any kind of event to remember it. That’s something we want to leave behind to be honest and move on.”

Rena under the water.

Rena under the water.
Photo: Phil Ross

The event still made Julia Graham cry.

He founded the Western Bay of Plenty Wildlife Trust for the 420 little blue penguins affected by the oil spill.

“Some of them were covered in 100 percent oil. It’s a blue penguin but it was completely black,” Graham said.

“And the smell. That’s something that will always stick with me: picking up these birds as they come out of the water and the stronger smell of the oil. They just didn’t stand a chance.”

But they did, thanks to the efforts of Graham and many others.

The oil spill affected the penguins by seeping down to their skin, erasing their waterproof ability and eventually causing hypothermia.

It also happened in the breeding season of penguins. Graham feared that with every penguin brought in to clean it, there would be a burrow waiting to be fed.

“But in the next three years we found it paid off because they had the same reproductive success, the same survival success, as the birds that didn’t get oil.”

Graham said the birds were still being rescued six months after the event. She had no good memories as she reflected on the weather.

However, he did remember the time “when everyone wanted to help.”

“They were all there for a reason and it was that they couldn’t bear to see one of our most beautiful beaches in the country looking like that. It was a real collaboration between thousands of people from all walks of life, across the country.

“It just shows what people can achieve. For me, it’s a moment that I see as hope. We can redeem ourselves and correct our mistakes and there is hope for our native species as long as people are willing.”

Rena under the water.

Rena under the water.
Photo: Phil Ross

It was the memory of the unit that Professor Chris Battershill held close.

The chair of coastal sciences at the University of Waikato said the biggest influence on the rapid recovery was the 8,000 who trained for clean-up duties and went to the beaches from Maketū to Mauao as black waves of oil rolled in.

“He recovered incredibly fast, we didn’t expect that. It has a lot to do with the power of nature, insects in particular – they eat oil when you wash it,” Battershill said.

“But more than 1000 tons were collected. When it made landfall, it was immediately taken out of the system. We have the community to thank. They were unprecedented.”

While oil was the first concern, the shipwreck was still on the horizon unloading the contents of the containers that contained a large amount of dangerous goods, he said.

“More than 3,500 tons of dairy products were lost. If you think about it, that’s fertilizer for marine organisms. There were a lot of blooms on the seabed, there were metals, traces of oil, all kinds of things.

“The first six months, there was a real chemical cocktail that swelled around the rod and cascaded down to the bottom of the reef and we monitored all of that both near and far from the boat during that period.

Battershill compared the time to a Covid-19 crash. A salvage exclusion zone was erected, allowing for an increase in marine life, including snappers and crayfish.

Just six months later, the oil was no longer making landfall and the data suggested things were returning to normal, he said.

“When you look back from that moment, I think ‘wow, that happened really fast’ and, as I say, the reason for that was the effectiveness of the rescuers plus the people on the beaches. Both are equally important.”


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