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A new respect for our oceans

Fiordland College teacher Vaughn Filmer may be far from the sea, but an encounter with a humpback whale has helped to give him a new understanding and respect for our oceans, in his role as the Sir Peter Blake Trust environmental educator. Suzanne McFadden reports.

To see humpback whales in action, watch Kina Scollay's footage in the video player above

Vaughn Filmer is a mountain man whose big green backyard is Fiordland. But somewhere off the remote Walpole Island, a slither of limestone deep in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, Filmer found himself at one with the sea - and its inhabitants.

“It was 7am, and I was sitting at breakfast with my cornflakes, when a humpback whale swam past the porthole. It was a cow, with her calf, and I could look her right in the eye,” Filmer says. A few days later, he was snorkelling with sharks, in a variety of species and sizes.

Those astounding experiences are far removed from his day job as a teacher at Fiordland College. What he observed in his two weeks at sea will ultimately help school students throughout New Zealand become more aware of what’s happening in our oceans.

It was in his other role, as the environmental educator for the Sir Peter Blake Trust, that Filmer found himself on board the research vessel RV Braveheart - sailing from New Caledonia to Fiji as part of a six-week expedition to explore the coastal marine biodiversity of the Southwest Pacific.

As part of his year-long tenure with the Trust, Filmer’s mission is to help create a framework of marine resources, from which teachers around the country can develop lessons for their classrooms. The idea is to create packages that can be used in every school in New Zealand, with a focus on our oceans, creative thinking, innovation and leadership.

“We harp on about it, but it’s true that if people don’t understand or appreciate something, they won’t want to protect it. You have to learn to love something before you want to save it,” he says.

Filmer is taking this term off school to develop the resources. His focus is on marine ecosystems - taking what he learned in the Southwest Pacific and applying it to waters closer to home.

His crewmates on the RV Braveheart included scientists and researchers from Auckland Museum, Te Papa, Australian Museum and Massey University. Will McKay, a PhD student at Auckland University researching aquaculture, was also on board as a Sir Peter Blake Trust ambassador.

In their quest to “fill knowledge gaps on fish diversity”, the team collected specimens of 339 different groups of fish, and 350 groups of invertebrates during that fortnight. They even discovered an unknown 2cm-long scorpion-like fish species.

“One of the main things I took away from the expedition was how scientists collect information and data – it’s the same wherever they are in the world,” Filmer says.

“What the scientists figure out gives a good baseline to research that’s happening in New Zealand, around the issues of climate change, over-fishing, species loss and plastics pollution in the oceans. One of my focuses will be seeing how teachers can integrate those marine issues into the school curriculum.”

Filmer will also be able to use 360-degree videos, shot by award-winning underwater photographer Richard Robinson for New Zealand Geographic and the Trust, using the latest in underwater 360 camera technology.

“There will be phenomenal virtual reality images of the reefs and underwater environment. 

"Because 99 percent of New Zealanders aren’t going to get to these cool places and see them first-hand, having virtual reality images where kids can see and experience it, is really powerful,” Filmer says.

Fiordland College teacher Vaughn Filmer wants to help Kiwi school students become more aware of what’s happening in our oceans. Photo: Supplied

“You can also do species identification and fish counts using video footage. So in theory, kids could be using this footage and feeding information back to the scientists.”

The expedition was a huge learning experience for Filmer, who was astonished to discover that even in remote areas of the ocean considered pristine and unspoiled, there were signs that pollution still exists.

“We caught a yellowfin tuna, and although it’s not confirmed, it was reasonably obvious the fish had plastic in its gut. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, fishing in what should be a pristine reef environment. But really, there’s no place left untouched,” he says.

“The guys were pulling up all different fish off the reefs and my first impression was ‘This is an intact ecosystem – this is awesome’. But each day they would see thousands of little fish, but no big fish on the reef. The big fish are gone.

“We saw one boat in the distance on the first day, and never saw another boat in two weeks. So the scientists have to ask ‘Why aren’t they out here fishing? Perhaps because there are no big fish left’.

“So you start thinking in that context. If you take out a whole trophic level of fish – like all the big fish in the middle – you suddenly change the whole dynamic of the ecosystem. So that lends itself to the idea of more marine areas and marine protection.”

Filmer admits that he was not a great seafarer before this expedition. “My degree is in geography, and my research at university was in glaciers. I was far removed from the ocean in terms of my research interests,” he says.

“We are landlocked in Te Anau, a couple of hours from the ocean, so it hasn’t been a big focus for me and my students. But I just wrote a unit for my senior environmental studies class based on marine reserves and protection.  Fiordland has the longest coastline in New Zealand, with marine protected areas. So it started to make sense. 

“I’m more invigorated now, and after learning more, I’m keen to make it relevant for my students too. If you make it relevant for kids who don’t live by the sea, then it makes more of an impact.”

It was his students who inspired him to take on the Sir Peter Blake Trust environmental educator role.

For five years, he’s encouraged Fiordland College students to attend the Young Enviro Leaders’ Forum (YELF).  One former student, Nic Humphries, went on to do a Blake Expedition to the Kermadec Islands, then became the Blake Ambassador to Antarctica.

“We may be a small school in the middle of nowhere, but we teach our kids that if you put your hand up and take opportunities, amazing things can come from it,” Filmer says.

“Seeing that I thought, maybe it’s my turn to put my hand up and take an opportunity too.” 

He has no regrets that he raised his hand and dived into the big blue backyard.

*The Sir Peter Blake Trust inspires and mobilises the next generation of Kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists, by delivering programmes and experiences that continue Sir Peter’s legacy of leadership and environmental action.

Find out more about the Trust here.

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