Undaria diving gives opportunity at lifelong dream
The opportunity to submerge himself into a new career came at just the right time for Te Anau resident John Carter. John is working as a diver in the Environment Southland-led Ata Whenua Fiordland Undaria Control Programme.
The programme was funded by $2 million from the Department of Conservation (DOC) Jobs for Nature – Mahi mō te Taiao in April 2021. The Jobs for Nature programme helps revitalise communities through nature-based employment to stimulate the economy post-Covid-19. Before entering the Undaria programme, John was already working three jobs and taking care of his son Jasper (14) as a single parent. But keeping up with three jobs was a struggle, so after quitting his full-time role as an early childhood teacher John happened upon an advertisement for divers to remove Undaria in Fiordland. “The whole notion of becoming a scientific diver was a dream 20 years ago but never really possible,” he says.
John has always had an affinity for nature and pest control, with a long-term involvement in stoat and rat trapping in Fiordland, and water through the local open water swimming club. “I want to be doing something with my hands to improve the environment.” Following his dreams of being involved in marine science was put on hold due to circumstance – being based in Te Anau, being in a new relationship – he wasn’t prepared to move somewhere else and go to university to study, he says.
However, he never let go of his passion for biosecurity so when he saw the advertisement again last year he was finally in a position, and had the support, to follow his dream. “For me, I’m a single parent, it just wouldn’t be possible without people being willing to support me. So it’s really quite humbling as a middle-aged white guy to have people around who actually want you to try and live your dreams.”
Due to the changes in Covid-19 alert levels throughout the year, dive training was staggered and done locally in Milford Sound and Invercargill. The first stage included getting an open water diver certificate through training with Descend NZ, a Te Anau-based dive company. While John had previous dive experience, the training for the certificate gave him a well-rounded update, since there has been many developments in diving since he first learnt to dive, he says. “The thing I loved about the training was just seeing the different people come together. There’s firemen, panel beaters, aluminium window makers, early childhood teachers. Each person is bringing life experience in a way I guess we didn’t when we were at school.”
Fiordland has been impacted by the drop in tourism numbers due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The DOC Jobs for Nature programmes run in the area have allowed some residents to retain employment despite the drop in international visitors. “There’s still plenty of work around here but it’s different work. The people who have stayed on and have managed to get on, I guess, were either here before tourism was a big thing or have found other skills to get in on.”
Following completion of their training, the Environment Southland dive team began operations in Te Puaitaha Breaksea Sound in December 2021. With the support of a team of contracted scientific divers, the team spent the first two weeks completing some initial surveys to estimate the extent and density of the pest plant Undaria and to trial various methods for removing the Undaria biomass. Undaria has the potential to have substantial impacts on the environmental, economic, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values of Fiordland. While John knew Undaria was an invasive species in Fiordland’s marine area, he didn’t know much before he actually hit the water and saw the problem for himself.
He calls this type of learning “understanding it from the roots up rather than the top down”. “It’s actually taken me a really long time to understand Undaria. I couldn’t see why it was a problem. I knew it wasn’t natural there, but after pulling it out and looking at what’s native around it I can see it’s a really bad problem. When it dies off in the winter that whole habitat is gone for fish.” A usual diving day for John includes three to four 50-minute dives removing biomass and filling collection bags. The divers typically spend six days a week diving, leaving for the boat on a Monday and returning the following Monday. The divers collect about a tonne of Undaria a day, which is removed and disposed of in the Fiordland National Park. “When you see the weights and the volume you realise you could never do this job free-diving.”
Of course, the divers do not just have themselves for company underwater. All manner of curious sea life surrounds them. Shellfish and starfish are living alongside the Undaria, but swimming amongst it are stingrays, sharks and tiny angry fish annoyed at the divers for stealing their precious weed, John jokes.