Music video or science documentary? This is both!
We took a GoPro-rigged buoy out into New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, where multitudes of hungry seabirds were tracking swarms of fish and krill just below the surface of the sea. Featuring Darlingside‘s “The Ancestor” from the album Birds Say. Underwater footage courtesy of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust.
Here are some of the things you’re seeing:
- Clouds of wriggling krill among massive schools of blue mackerel
- Fluttering shearwaters casually flying around underwater in pursuit of the krill
- Thousands of fairy prions, Buller’s shearwaters (which breed on a single clump of islands in New Zealand, and nowhere else in the world), and other tubenose seabirds in flight
- Cameo of a northern giant petrel coming in for a close look at our GoPro buoy
Getting ready to deploy the GoPro buoy, among Buller’s shearwaters (photo by Tony Whitehead)
Now that we’ve established the “music vidocumentary” as a genre, let’s go behind the scenes. What are these GoPro-wielding scientists up to?
Chris Gaskin of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust wants to understand how commercial fishing affects seabirds. Not just how it snags them on hooks, already a hot-button topic, but how it changes their food supply.
Lots of seabirds feed on krill. Fish eat those tasty little crustaceans too, and their feeding frenzies (called work-ups) seem to bring krill up toward the surface within reach of the birds. “We want to document that, but also record out what else is going on within these work-ups,” Gaskin said.
So Gaskin and skipper James Ross have been voyaging regularly into the Gulf to get a better look below the waves—which is where the GoPro-bedecked buoy comes in. Kiwi ingenuity at its finest.
The trick is finding the filming location, because work-ups are always on the move. Heading out into the Gulf on Ross’s boat, we scanned the horizon until we found a promising cloud of birds in the distance. As we got closer, we started to see a rough patch in the water, evidence of the maelstrom of marine animals hunting and fleeing from each other just below the surface. We started to hear and smell it too: it sounded like rapids in a river, and smelled (to put it generously) something like strong seafood.
Three of us hopped from the boat into a small dinghy and headed straight into the middle of the action. Or tried to. Those birds and fish were all over the place—one minute just out of reach, and the next minute half a kilometer away. At last we caught up with them, I dropped the buoy, and the cameras rolled. When the work-up moved on, we retrieved the buoy and motored the dinghy back to Ross’s boat.
The footage we captured adds another piece to a complicated food-web puzzle. Gaskin and colleagues will work with the Department of Conservation and the University of Auckland to put that puzzle together. Their project, in turn, is just one piece in a network of essential seabird conservation efforts going on throughout the Gulf and around New Zealand.
Fluttering shearwater, the star of the underwater show
I’m still reeling after being surrounded by more seabirds than I had previously seen in my life, many of them unique to this small corner of the world. But at current rates of seabird decline, this astonishing abundance and diversity of birds won’t last—even here in the seabird mecca that is the Hauraki Gulf.
We need to protect seabirds for all sorts of practical reasons. We should save them for their critical role within the marine food web. We should save them for their unique ability to convert fish from the sea into nutrients for the land, and for their value as indicators of ecosystem change.
But I also think we should save seabirds because…well, just look at them!
Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.”