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New Zealand Science Teacher

Learning in Science

Clarifying a future direction

Nayland College student MITCHELL CHANDLER tells Melissa Wastney about his voyage to the sub-Antarctic Islands.

Above: Mitchell Chandler at the Auckland Islands on the Polarius II, University of Otago research vessel.

Last year, New Zealand Science Teacher spoke to Mitchell Chandler before he left on his adventure as one of 12 ‘student voyagers’ on the Sir Peter Blake Trust expedition.

Welcome home, Mitchell, can you tell us about your journey to the sub-Antarctic?

Our expedition truly began on February 9, when the 12 ‘student voyagers’ (along with the rest of the Young Blake Expedition Crew) met in Auckland to board the HMNZS Wellington. The ship would be our home for the next two weeks.

We departed the next day and were farewelled by family and friends. TV One’s Breakfast program was also there and Sam did his weather report on the HMNZS Wellington as well as interviews with some of the crew and SPBT staff.

We spent the next four days travelling down the coast of New Zealand, where we attempted to make the most of the North Island sunshine before we reached what we believed would be the cold, wet, and windy sub-Antarctic. During this time, we took part in some onboard activities and also had group talks with some of the SPBT crew who were travelling with us. While travelling down we saw see some amazing wildlife including dolphins and seals and seabirds like mollymawks, petrels, and albatross.

On February 14, we arrived in Bluff and then travelled on to Invercargill where the DOC centre was, so that our gear could go through quarantine. We were all extremely nervous about this experience, as no-one wanted to be told they couldn’t go because their gear wasn’t up to standard, or have to hold everyone else up while they went and re-cleaned certain items of clothing. Fortunately, I passed without a hitch, and while there was some re-cleaning and seed picking that had to be done by some people, we were all given the go-ahead to travel onwards to the Auckland Islands.

We departed Bluff the next afternoon and travelled through the Southern Ocean, rather uneventfully, that night. We were all very pleased with this smooth passage, as horror stories about this stretch of ocean abound!

We arrived at the Auckland Islands on February 16 and spent the next five days there participating in scientific research (see below for more details on this).

On our way back to Bluff, we stopped for a day on Stewart Island, specifically, Ulva Island. We got to explore our way around this pest-free island and see some of the birdlife there. We also participated in an impromptu swim from the Ulva Island jetty while waiting for the Navy RHIBs to come and collect us to take us back to the ship.

Our expedition ended in Dunedin where we arrived on February 22. Professor Gary Wilson, who was the person leading the expedition to build a research station, gave us a debrief talk and explained the significance of the proposed (now confirmed) research station and the importance of the Auckland Islands and sub-Antarctic for monitoring changes to our planet’s climate.

What were the conditions like on the boat and did you feel sea sick?

Our bunk rooms (‘pits’ as the navy call them) were very ‘cosy’ with six students to a room. We each had a locker for our gear as well as smaller lockers underneath the bottom bed for easier access to specific items (mine was used for cameras, books, pens and medication, though toiletries was also another popular item to put in there).

There were two sets of bunks, three-high, with very little head space (no room to sit up in) and in the evenings it was not uncommon to hear body parts (heads and arms most often) being whacked on the bunk above. I was fortunate enough to get a bottom bunk- much easier to get in and out of! Trying to get gear sorted in the mornings was interesting with five other roommates all trying to do the same thing in such a small space. I developed the habit of organising my next day’s gear the night before, which saved a hassle.

Our meals were eaten in the ‘Junior Rates Mess’ along with the junior ranking navy personnel, and meals were served outside the mess. You had to collect a plate and move along where the food was served, getting what you wanted (we could only take 1 of the 2 meat choices though) and there was also dessert every night. Each day one of the student voyagers had to do ‘slushie’ duty with one of the junior navy personnel.

This involved arriving half an hour before meal times (including being there at 6:30am in the mornings) to set up both the Junior and Senior Rates Mess and eating early. During the meal, the slushie had to clean everyone’s dishes and rotate the clean dishes and cutlery back through, ensuring there was enough for everyone. After the meal, the slushie would clean out both the eating areas and refill all the condiments. If the bins were full, the slushie had to ‘ditch the gash’ (empty the bins in the appropriate place).

Our favourite place to hang out as a group, particularly during the first few sunny days (when most of the voyagers were suffering from sea sickness), was out on the flight deck near the back of the ship. Once we got further south, we relocated about 15m to the hangar, which was indoors and offered shelter from the elements. We didn’t have a specified area where we could just hang out as a group, and so the hangar/flight deck was where we hoped to be of as little annoyance to the Navy crew as possible. The front deck was also really fun to go out on and have the wind in your face and, when lucky, spot dolphins swimming alongside. But in rough weather, the front deck became off limits due to the risk of being swept overboard. Our antics on the decks  – i.e. dancing, jump rope and other crazy activities – became a daily source of amusement for the Navy.

We were also allowed to visit the bridge of the ship almost anytime; we just had to ask for permission before we entered. It was quite interesting being up on the bridge and seeing the ship being operated and commanded, especially during big swells. We were really lucky with the weather as we had relatively calm seas for the whole trip, although we did lose the ships stabilisers a couple of times which caused the ship to start rolling.

As far as sea sickness goes, I was one of the lucky two student voyagers to avoid it. Whether or not it had anything to do with the sea-legs tablet I took every morning until we arrived in Bluff, I don’t know, as after we left Bluff, I didn’t take another tablet and still felt fine. Most of the students who did get sick suffered from it on the second day of our voyage as we left the Hauraki Gulf and entered the open ocean (although an unfortunate few suffered for a bit longer, and then again when we left Bluff and started going through the Southern Ocean). I think many of those who got sick didn’t take sea sickness medication, wanting to see how they would go. But by the third day, a large number of the students wore sea sickness patches behind their ears and were coincidentally fine.

What did you do once you arrived at your destination?

Once we arrived at the Auckland Islands we were involved in a number of amazing activities.

On our first day we went for a walk around Enderby Island. This walk is limited to 300 people per year so the fact that our group of about 30 was allowed to do it was pretty special. On this walk (and I say walk but it took us the whole day really) we saw so many amazing things including nesting albatross, megaherbs such as Anisotome (they look like giant broccoli and are related to celery and carrots), twisted rata forests in flower, Yellow-Eyed penguins, waterfalls being blown back onto land due to the strength of the wind, and best of all, heaps of New Zealand sea lions lying about. The sub-adult male sea lions would charge at us as a means of practicing their dominant behaviour and we were advised to stand our ground (harder to do than it sounds) but put something (i.e. a drink bottle, camera case, or pack, or another person) between us and the sea lion in case it got overly curious and wanted to nibble on something. Around 90% of the NZ sea lion breeding population is found in the Sub-Antarctic and 73 per cent of it is in the Auckland Islands. Sandy Bay, on Enderby Island, is their main breeding site.

The next day, four of us spent the day on the Polaris II (the Otago University Research Vessel). We carried out various studies, with the main three being sediment coring, collecting water samples with a rosette (that also measured conductivity, depth, and temperature), and mapping the ocean floor with a boomer, chirper, and side scanner (see more about this below).

Day three in the Auckland Islands was spent in Smith Harbour, fixing the weather station, participating in stream gauging, and carrying out topographic surveying. In the morning, we worked with Pete, a scientist from NIWA. He showed us the weather station they set up the previous day and we ran some tests trying to get it to work correctly (eventually it did). We then ‘walked’ (bush-bashed) beside Smith Stream and carried out some gauging of the stream’s water discharge to determine the feasibility of putting a mini hydro power station there to help provide power to the research station. In the afternoon, we did some topographic surveying with Greg to help map the area. That evening we also went swimming in the Southern Ocean which was pretty amazing and (as expected) cold experience.

Our next day was again spent in Smith Harbour, although in the morning we helicoptered to Lake Speight to carry out sediment coring in the lake. That night we were also fortunate enough to see the Aurora Australias (Southern Lights- above), which was amazing and unexpected. I wrote a blog post.

On our last day in the Auckland Islands, we anchored in Carnley Harbour and went ashore at Tagua Bay to see one of the old WWII coast watch sites. We found a Sundew plant, which is native and carnivorous. We also saw sea lions in the rata forest, which is quite common on Auckland Island due proximity to the ocean. In the afternoon, we went on a RHIB boat tour seeing where some of the famous shipwrecks, such as the Grafton, occurred. As part of this trip, we went around Figure of Eight Island, another of the three New Zealand sea lion breeding sites in the Auckland Islands.

You were involved in some important scientific research. Can you tell us about that?

Ultimately, the purpose of the research we carried out there was to survey the area and look at the feasibility of building a research station on Auckland Island, in Smith Harbour. This research station has since been confirmed by the government and will be named Blake Station, after Sir Peter Blake.

Such a station on Auckland Island will enable scientists to monitor changes in climate year round, which will give us more accurate data so that we can see the whole picture, rather than piece together information taken from single data sets. The research station will also allow multiple studies to be undertaken at the same time so that correlations can be drawn. It is more cost-effective having a semi-permanent research station (that can be removed with little or no trace when/if research is finished) than sailing down for short periods of time to carry out research.

The sub-Antarctic and Auckland Islands were chosen for this research station as they are one of the world’s best vantage points for picking up the early indicators of climate change. This is because they sit between the cold water of the Antarctic circumpolar current to the south and the warm water flowing from the north. They are also on the edge of the boundary between the polar easterly winds and the westerly winds. By being on these boundaries the changes in climate are easier to pick up and record.

What are your lasting impressions from the trip, and how might it inspire you this year?

This trip was an awesome experience (I’m deliberately not calling it a once-in-a-lifetime experience as I am hopeful that my potential career in science will allow me to travel back down there to conduct research one day) and one that I hope I will never forget. It has allowed me to make new friends and learn from some amazing scientists, and build important networks throughout New Zealand.

I have already done a presentation to my school (Nayland College) and have been asked to give presentations to other local schools and community groups which I will definitely do to spread the message of the SPBT and to tell people about these special places that need protection.

I have approached a scientist my family knows about opportunities working with or for her, either paid or voluntarily, as I realised how much I enjoyed doing real life science while we were conducting our research down in Smith Harbour and want to continue with this.

The other student voyagers and I want to work to get the whole of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone recognised on maps, because it’s disappointing that most people don’t know that the sub-Antarctic Islands and the Kermadecs are part of our territory. Although this is not unexpected, as I didn’t know, either, until I was told.

The trip has also helped me with future decisions about study, and made clear my passion for the natural sciences. I think this is something I would like to pursue, maybe in the form of geophysics although I need to think about it more.

It has inspired me to follow through with things I enjoy, and make the most of opportunities that relate to these passions. It’s also provided me with opportunities to learn about different leadership styles and how best to implement what I have learnt in my community so that I am able to become a better leader and in doing so, help others to become better leaders as well.

The Sir Peter Blake Trust expeditions

Sir Peter Blake Trust aims to inspire and celebrate environmental awareness, adventure and leadership in action through programmes that honour Sir Peter’s legacy. The programmes aim to by inspire his visionary leadership qualities in all New Zealanders, and keep his spirit and values alive for future generations.

Young Blake expeditions was created to provide life changing experiences that challenge, grow self-confidence and help to clarify strengths and future direction for New Zealand’s next generation of leaders.

The Sir Peter Blake Trust expedition is open each year to all Year 11–13 students.

From the hundreds of applications, only fifty students are selected to attend a forum. Students’ performance at this event, leadership skills, team work and personal initiative are taken into account in the selection process. Twelve students are selected for expedition to Sub Antarctic. 

These twelve lived on the HMNZS Wellington for two weeks in February 2014. They travelled from Auckland to Bluff, then onto the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand. Their trip took them to Enderby Island, Auckland Island, and Adams Island.

In the first part of the trip, Sir Peter Blake’s daughter, Sarah-Jane, accompanied the students to share her father’s legacy. Daily sessions aboard the ship included workshops on leadership, marine ecology, and navy life.

It was on Auckland Island that the innovative research was undertaken. For the first time in the region, a multitude of surveys were performed, based around planning for the building of a research climate change station. Taking part in relevant, important and world first data gathering was in itself a highlight for the students involved. 

The team of New Zealand scientists and the students carried out the following projects:

Hydrographic surveying

Together with University of Otago surveying school lecturer, Emily Tidey, the students measured tides with hydrographic surveying equipment in order to record the depths in Smith Harbour and its tidal cycles. Information gathered will assist to identify where proposed climate research station buildings and a wharf are likely to be constructed.

Engineering surveying

Assisted by engineering surveyor Greg Leonard, the students surveyed the proposed site, which involved taking height and land measurements for planning purposes.

Terrestrial ecology

Together with Dr Janice Lord, students studied and recorded plant, insect, and animal life at the proposed site, to ensure that the building of the station has minimal impact on the flora and fauna in that location. This surveying work will also serve as the reference point for the land before the station is built.

Weather station set up and stream gauging

Led by NIWA’s Pete Pattinson, students helped to set up a weather station that will record the key environmental information required for building the station, such as wind, rain, and temperature data. Solar panels have also been installed to transmit data back to New Zealand year-round. Students also measured the flow of water downstream, around the proposed location site, to see whether hydroelectric power could be a source of energy to power the station. This will be available for public viewing on the NIWA site soon.

Sediment coring

This term refers to core samples of mud being taken from the sea floor to test the age of the layers of sediment, and what has lived in it over many thousands of years. This work is part of a University of Otago research project which will eventually, it is hoped, be undertaken by scientists all year round, rather than just a week or two each year. Such research will allow for detailed climate data to be collected and a much clearer picture of climate changes in the region.

Further reading

The following website has a media gallery and about half a dozen short videos. These videos give a great overview of the students’ expedition.


There are also blogs. The following post is a dispatch from Auckland Island.


Post your comment


  • Yes- great photo, thanks Mitchell.

    Posted by Melissa- NZST, 12/05/2014 12:05pm (6 years ago)

  • Love the Aurora

    Posted by Bernard potter, 09/05/2014 2:49pm (6 years ago)

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