3 March 1999
On the road between Wellington and Kaikoura, New Zealand

After twelve days in Wellington, with things on the Kaharoa looking just about ready to get underway, it was finally time for us to head down to Kaikoura. Although our time in Wellington was quite productive, we were all anxious to begin the submersible part of the expedition.

There are a number of ways we could make the trip to Kaikoura, but since there was a great deal of expedition-related equipment to carry down, Clyde, Ingrid, Mike Sweeney and I piled ourselves and all of the gear into the white NIWA van at 7:30 this morning and headed off for the ferry. Because the trip across Cook Strait is so popular at this time of the year, summer in New Zealand, the only way that we were able to get across was to place the van on one ferry and ourselves on another.

Maneuvering through the early morning rush hour of downtown Wellington, Clyde easily arrived at the ferry with time to spare, and we entrusted all of our possessions to the man at the ferry dock. We had to leave to catch our ferry before we actually got to see them load our van onto the ship, but nobody seemed to be at all concerned . . . except perhaps, me. Having been stranded more times than I care to remember, I decided to keep the two most important things by my side rather than leave them on the van. So with digital camera and laptop computer in hand, we headed off to begin the next phase of the expedition.

We took a taxi over to the Interislander ferry terminal which looked more like an airport or railway station than the ferry terminals that I am used to in the States. Having arrived earlier than most, we managed to find ourselves some seats and grabbed a bite to eat in the small cafe. The ferry Arahura (a Maori word meaning "Pathway to Dawn"), arrived a few minutes later. Little by little, the terminal began to fill with people until there was barely enough room to stand. At 9:00, the loudspeaker announced that general boarding was about to begin. The doors opened and people rushed across the gangway and into the ship in hopes of finding the best seats for the three hour crossing of Cook Strait. Since Clyde had made this trip before, we followed him up to Deck 7 and into the Queen Charlotte Lounge, where we happily collapsed into four wonderfully comfortable easy chairs overlooking the bow. Well, they would have overlooked the bow if we had been able to see out the windows, but the salt spray from the last crossing had all but obliterated any hope that we had of getting a clear view.

At 9:30 exactly, the ship's horn sounded, the dock lines cast off and we were underway. The Arahura is a very large ferry and can carry nearly 1000 passengers, 60 railway cars and over 100 automobiles. In addition to the wonderful scenery that is available, there were plenty of places to eat, a small movie theater showing children's films, video arcades and even a small room filled with mechanical poker machines . . . for those who wanted to test their luck. Our group opted to enjoy the spectacular views of the headlands of the North Island and just as we made our way out into Cook Strait, we overtook the slower steaming Suilvan which hopefully had our van on board.


Cook Strait can often be a very rough stretch of water with winds and waves combining to make the crossing potentially miserable. Thankfully, Neptune was smiling favorably on us today and with nothing more than a long, gentle swell to let us know that we were actually at sea rather than sitting in a fine hotel, we made the crossing without incident.

Thinking that the journey was nearly over, I was quite surprised to see that we still had a long way to go before we reached Picton, our destination. Winding our way through narrow inlets with steep hillsides along either bank, we passed small communities nestled along the shore until we finally saw the little town of Picton. Having sailed through the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, I couldn't help but think that I had passed this way before. Even the smell of the cold ocean spray mixed with the scent of pine was the same. It was only the wonderful New Zealand accents that I heard behind me that made me realize that I was indeed half a world away. The Arahura docked and we walked over to the other wharf to await the arrival of the Suilvan. While we waited, Clyde struck up a conversation with one of the local fishermen about yes, you guessed it . . . squid. Was it fate or just coincidence that this fisherman was using squid as his bait of choice? If I believed in omens I would certainly have felt that this was a good one.

Within thirty minutes of our arrival, we saw the Suilvan come steaming around the headland and was soon docked alongside the wharf. Much to my relief, the third vehicle to be offloaded was our van. Mike and Clyde got into the front while Ingrid and I made ourselves comfortable in the back, feeling a little like we were being carted off to prison for some horrific offense. We couldn't decide, however, whether the wire screen separating the front from the rear was for Mike and Clyde's protection, or for ours.

I don't know the exact numbers but I think that New Zealand has a population of something approaching 4 million people. I do believe, however, that the number of sheep probably far exceeds the number of people. Sheep were everywhere . . . in the fields, on the hillsides, in people's backyards and riding along the roads and in the ferries on large, multi-tiered transport trucks.

As we made our way down the coast through the towns of Blenheim and Seddon, we came over a hill, and there, off in the distance we saw what looked like a giant pink lake. As we got closer we could see stretching out before us a patchwork quilt of different colored ponds; some white, some green and the most unusual of all, pink. Realizing that this was a natural solar salt works (using the sun to evaporate sea water that is trapped in shallow ponds leaving behind the salt), we decided that this would be something worth stopping to investigate. We stopped by the office of the Dominion Salt Ltd. where we were given a lesson in salt production. It turns out that Lake Grassmere was the ideal location to build a salt making facility (it was started back in 1943) because:

  1. It had a large area of flat land with impervious soils located on the coast
  2. The land was unsuitable for most other uses
  3. The region has the lowest rainfall in all of New Zealand
  4. Strong winds and constant sunshine give rise to very high evaporation rates.
The operation was enormous with the main lake being over 1,700 acres in size. Huge mounds of glistening white salt were constantly being added to by the seemingly never-ending supply of salt pouring off the conveyor belts. Warehouses were filled from floor to ceiling with giant bags filled with salt to be used in everything from domestic table salt, to the tanning of hides and skins and to make up all those salt-lick blocks that so many farm animals need.

Getting back to the the original reason we stopped, we learned that the pink coloration in some of the ponds was due to the abundance in very large numbers of a microscopic unicellular algae. Normally algae are green (I will be talking more about this in a later journal), but when they grow in the highly concentrated saline brine of the salt ponds, a red pigment known as haematochrome is formed coloring the waters pink. According to the folks at the salt works, this is the reason why the Red Sea got its name.

After a short stop for lunch, we finally reached our destination. Kaikoura sits along a narrow corridor of land between the foothills of the extensive mountain range that runs along the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand and the Pacific Ocean. The unique oceanographic conditions of this region help make the waters off Kaikoura home to a wide variety of marine life including dolphins, fur seals, countless seabirds, fish, and the two most formidable inhabitants--the sperm whale and the giant squid.

Driving along the Esplanade, the road that hugs the beach for the length of the town, we found the motel that was going to be the base of operations for the next few weeks of the expedition. Alan and Linda Rees, the proprietors of the Sierra Beach Front Motel made us feel instantly at home and presented each of us with a glass bottle of milk to take to our rooms. I was not sure if this was a custom unique to this motel, to the town of Kaikoura or to the country in general but it was a nice gesture nevertheless. Bernard Brennan, the member of our expedition who is conducting bio-acoustical research on the sperm whales of Kaikoura had been here for almost two weeks and had turned his room into a makeshift electronics laboratory. Once we unpacked the van and began to settle into our rooms, we each did something that made the place feel more like home.

For Clyde and Ingrid it was the act of hoisting the Smithsonian flag outside their door and hanging a large purple kite that was in the shape of a squid on their window. For Mike it was to sacrifice his table so that Clyde and Ingrid could have a place to work in their room. And for me, it was sitting down on the porch, taking out my laptop and starting to record these thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind.

 

 


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