Multi-million-dollar marine research vessel TeKaihōpara (The Explorer) is joining the campaign to revive a troubled and fast-changing Hauraki Gulf.

The 15.9-metre catamaran expands the research capabilities of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland and will support environmental repair work.

“Our marine environment is in need of restoration, especially in the Gulf,” says Professor Simon Thrush, the director of the University’s Institute of Marine Science.  “TeKaihōpara will enhance our teaching and research, and support the wider push to find solutions to our environmental challenges.”

Local iwi Ngāti Manuhiri, a partner in mussel reef restoration, gifted the name Te Kaihōpara. Funded by the University and a philanthropist, the all-aluminium vessel, capable of carrying 25 people including crew, will be launched at a function at Auckland’s Maritime Museum on 19 January. The boat replaces the smaller and aged Hawere.

Revive Our Gulf, a collaboration between the University of Auckland, The Nature Conservancy, and the Mussel Reef Restoration Trust is working with Ngāti Manuhiri to re-establish mussel beds wiped out by overfishing last century.

The Gulf has become less hospitable for sea creatures because of overfishing and pollution. Warming water is leading species to shift locations, disrupting long-established food webs, and attracting destructive newcomers such as long-spined sea urchins.

The University’s marine research spans climate change, conservation and restoration, whales and dolphins, microplastics, noise pollution, sea birds, seafloor ecology, aquaculture, kelp and kina.
“We now have more capacity to sample the seafloor and deploy increasingly sophisticated equipment and analytical instruments,” says Thrush. “We can also carry many more students and passengers to help training and to experience our marine environment.”

Two big TV screens on the boat aid teaching and research, relaying underwater images captured by video cameras or remotely operated underwater vehicles.

While Te Kaihōpara is capable of travelling the coast of Aotearoa from Manawatāwhi (Three Kings Islands) in the north to as far south as Kaikoura and Greymouth, she will largely be working in the Gulf.

Te Kaihōpara will spend much of her life working in Ngāti Manuhiri’s rohe moana and we look forward to working with all iwi to enhance the mauri of the Gulf and all marine environments,” says Thrush.
The addition of the boat has prompted the Institute to look back on nearly 60 years since the Leigh Marine Laboratory became operational in 1964, with Emeritus Professor John Montgomery pulling together photos of the research vessels and highlighting important research.

In the earliest days, the boats were aluminium dinghies and anything bigger needed to be hired. In 1965, a photo in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly showed the lab’s first and longest-serving director Dr Bill Ballantine and colleague J.B. Gilpin-Brown in a dinghy collecting plankton.

Scientists from the Department of Physics hauled a dinghy, piled high with cables, across the sand in another early shot. The cables would connect underwater microphones to laboratory buildings on the shore for experiments in underwater acoustics led by Professor Alec Kibblewhite.

In a later shot, Kibblewhite stands on the back of a ute, apparently delivering some words in connection with the boat RV Proteus, of one Te Kaihōpara’s predecessors. Colleague Dr Bob Creece standing nearby, wearing some excellent flares.

The establishment in 1975 of New Zealand’s first marine reserve, a 6-kilometre no-take strip next to the marine lab at Te Hāwere-a-Maki (Goat Island) was a triumph for Bill Ballantine. Intended for scientific research, the reserve became a hit with the public and a model for marine reserves in New Zealand and around the world.

Today, the Gulf’s woes highlight the need for more reserves, such as one planned off Waiheke Island.
Compared to the early years of the marine laboratory, more studies are now connected with environmental degradation, from the millions of plastic particles swallowed by whales each day to the devastating effects of unchecked expansions by kina populations.

Underwater acoustics, from the striking dawn and dusk choruses of kina to the toll that shipping and boating noise take on whales and fish, have been a continuing thread of University marine research down the decades.

Te Kaihōpara  was built in New Zealand by Q-West Boat Builders Ltd.