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PONDER Blog

Relics of the South Island

Chelsea Behymer

Sharks belong to a group of fishes that have survived relatively unchanged for millennia, while most others have undergone many form and functional diversifications over the same period of time. Just as hair and fashion change by the decade, many trends coming and going with a handful of classic looks, sharks are seemingly timeless components of the marine system. Over the course of dramatic changes in the history of life on earth, their definitive body plan and behaviors have yet to go out of style.

 Beautiful blues of the South Island. Port Otago coast, New Zealand. 

Beautiful blues of the South Island. Port Otago coast, New Zealand. 

But no living thing or its legacy is completely immune to being lost, forgotten, or eroded away with enough time or forces that act over the course of it. Threatening the existence of sharks of the world presently is one of exploitation by people; being preyed upon has never before been a part of their evolutionary history. As top predators, their populations serve as indicators of the overall health of marine system in which they live. Watching the beautiful and sleek forms of five blue sharks feed on baitfish that were attracted to surfacing congregations of krill as the sun set over the coastline of Port Otago last week, I felt grateful that these sharks were present to fulfill their role, both in the marine food web and in my assessment of the health of the system.

 Moody mountains of the Fiordland coastline. South Island, New Zealand. 

Moody mountains of the Fiordland coastline. South Island, New Zealand. 

In the West, Fiordland National Park boasts features of landscape that have withstood the test of time. Although they are being continually shaped by ever changing conditions that are so characteristic of the area, they are (on a human time scale) here to stay. While the sedimentary rocks that take their origins from the remains of living things are easily moved and manipulated by water and weathering, the inorganic materials that the heated and pressurized rocks are made up of are more resistant to change. It takes the greater seismic or volcanic forces to change them measurably on a short time scale. Thus, the fiords of South Island's Fiordland National Park would probably be recognized today, just as they were by the first people to set eyes on them around 800 years ago.

 Rain and the rainforest. Milford Sound, New Zealand. 

Rain and the rainforest. Milford Sound, New Zealand. 

After my first sailing through three of the 14 fjords, I wanted to write immediately about their grandeur and Jurassic qualities. Because I knew that the way that I was experiencing them in those moments would never be repeated, and I needed to take advantage of my opportunity for repeated visits over the next few sailings to have a more complete grasp of their true nature. Fiordland is well known for its changeable conditions, but it takes sailing for twenty minutes through the calm, quiet waters of Thompson Sound, only to turn around the southwestern edge of Secretary Island moments later to find an entirely different scene of howling wind and swirling clouds of rain over Doubtful Sound to fully appreciate how drastically the conditions can change here, both in time and space. Rain over the course of a few days produces raging temporary waterfalls; so temporary in fact, that on our second voyage through Doubtful Sound, the pilot pointed one out that he'd never seen in his many years of navigating among them! I announced this over the loudspeaker and invited everyone onboard then to name the falls, as we were the first to see it, and explorers for the day in a sense.

 

 Appropriately somber scene. Dusky Sound, New Zealand. 

Appropriately somber scene. Dusky Sound, New Zealand. 

Even the living features of the fiords feel ancient. The beech forest canopy drapes every inch of the space that is possible to form topsoil, to within just inches of the high tide line. Although much of the native bird life is gone from them, the forests themselves are so pristine, that it takes very little imagination to 'hear' the chatter of the many birds that used to thrive here. If I looked long enough at some of the precipitous peaks, I could swear there was a Haast's eagle swooping down over the tree tops. Marine mammals, however, were not a figment of my imagination. The resident Bottlenose Dolphins were usually present in one of the fiords, as well young male fur seals keeping company with one another on rocky outcrops far from breeding sites, where there's no competition among them.

Many words have to be used to describe the fiords, as no single word can perfectly convey it all. But one word that has most recently been added to my list is 'overwhelming.' The past two trips into Milford Sound have been at dawn and dusk, respectively. Amazingly, you would know this not by looking at the clock, but because the sunlight characteristic of these times was actually lighting up the granite peaks and steep cliffs in all their glory, a rare occurrence apparently by Fiordland standards. Rather than dominating the scene, clouds simply framed it. In these conditions, even within the narrow confines of the fjord, it's difficult to know what to look at or to photograph, for that matter. And the photos I did manage seem so dull in comparison.

 Stirling Falls dwarfed beneath the cliffs of The Lion and The Elephant. Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Stirling Falls dwarfed beneath the cliffs of The Lion and The Elephant. Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Rainbows in the fiords are generally a product of rain and fleeting patches of sun. But on both occasions they were lasting features of the spray from waterfalls that were in full sun over the course of the entire journeys in and out! Sailing away from Milford to the point where it faded into the rest of the rugged peaks of the South Island coast was bittersweet. I was sad to see the sun setting on what has been an amazing two months of exploring a wide range of the New Zealand land and sea scape, but as we begin a circumnavigation of the comparably unique island of Australia, I can deal with leaving NZ behind for awhile. I know Fiordland will still be here when I come back, and I'm hopeful some sharks will be too.