Paddy Ryan: Author of Fiordland Underwater

Interviewed by Dave Moran

Where did you grow up, and how did you come to return to New Zealand to do this new book?

I was born in Nottingham, England. When I was young we moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands because my dad got a job as a meteorologist there, and I lived there until I was seven. After that, his work took him to New Zealand. We lived in Paraparaumu for about nine months, and then he got transferred to Fiji. I learned to swim in New Zealand, but I got much better at it in Fiji. Mum and Dad went snorkelling and took me along. These were the days when we had those snorkels with a ping pong ball inside a cage, and the whole facemask went over your mouth as well. That was pretty cool – I remember one day filling the mask up with cola so I could drink it while I was snorkelling. It tasted of rubber though! I’d been keen on nature since I was very small, and my parents encouraged me to get into biology.

When we left Fiji in 1961, I went back to England for about nine months then came back to New Zealand in December 1962 where I spent five years at Rangitikei College in Marton. Then I was ed for Volunteer Service Abroad at the very tender age of seventeen and two months. I went to Sarawak in Borneo for a year, where I did all the things one would probably do in the first year as a student … got drunk, tried a few illicit substances, got to know ladies on a more intimate basis, and all those good things. So when I did come back to New Zealand, I was probably a bit better equipped to go to university than I would have been otherwise. I did a biology degree at the University of Canterbury, and was accepted into honours in my second year. I finished an honours degree and then went onto a PhD in zoology also at the University of Canterbury.

I had very fond memories of Fiji and really wanted to get back there, so I applied for a job in Fiji three times before they finally accepted me. I started as a junior lecturer in biology at the University of the South Pacific. I stayed there for ten and a half years, and that’s where I learned to dive. I did British Sub Aqua Club third class qualifications, which sounds really embarrassing these days. If you talk about a qualification as being third class, it doesn’t go down well in America. Actually, I think BSAC third class qualifications are considerably better than PADI Open Water. Of course, Americans don’t know that, so I had to get a PADI qualification as well.

I started taking underwater photographs in Fiji when I was working on a book called Fiji’s Natural Heritage. It was published in 1988. After that I thought a book on the coral reef would be a good idea, and decided it would be better aimed at snorkellers than scuba divers. Snorkellers were a bigger market, and they were more likely to want to know what the stuff was – most divers have a fair idea of what they’re looking at, whereas many snorkellers don’t. I came back to New Zealand in 1988, and started work with West Coast Regional Council. I was made redundant in 1994, so I became a freelance environmental consultant, writer and photographer. I did a book on the West Coast of New Zealand called Wild at Heart, and while I was working on it I got an invitation from an old friend of mine, Chris Paulin, to join a Museum of New Zealand collecting trip down to Fiordland. I had never dived in New Zealand before. I was very reluctant, but I had a wetsuit made for me, which was a total joy because when I first put it on and went into the water, it didn’t leak for two or three minutes. For a while I thought it was a drysuit until the water did start coming in. That first dive was cruddy. I didn’t like it at all. The second dive was probably even worse, because my weight belt came off and I was being buffeted by surf, so my first two dives in New Zealand were pretty grotty.

The third dive was absolutely brilliant, and after that I totally fell in love with Fiordland. At the end of the trip, Chris and I were sitting on the deck of the Renown on a beautiful sunny day, and we looked at each other and thought, ‘Well, there’s some wonderful stuff here and a lot of us don’t know what it is. How about we do a book on Fiordland underwater to help identify these things?’ That was in 1994, so it’s taken four years to get it out. We got some money from the Lotteries Board quite early on, but unfortunately we weren’t in a position to produce the book at that stage so we had to ask for an extension. Then we went beyond the extension date as well so that required some rather embarrassing letters to the Lotteries Board, but we finally got the thing out and hopefully they’re happy with it.

Chris is a marine biologist – he’s a fish taxonomist with the Museum of New Zealand. He learned to dive to go on the Fiordland trips, and he took to it immediately – he was very much at home in the water and really enjoyed himself. His great-grandfather Robert Paulin wrote a book on the West Coast back in the 1880s, so it was kind of neat for us to go back to see some of those places. Also, it was great to dive and see some of the fish species that were collected by Captain Cook, like the butterfly fish and the Jock Stewarts which were first collected in Fiordland and first described from Cook’s expedition. So there is a very strong historic link as well.

Did you take most of the photographs in the book?

Yes, there are probably about ten that aren’t mine. There are eight or so by Chris and a few by other people. The text was a joint effort, because we got help from some of the New Zealand experts on particular groups of organisms. For instance, Chris Battershill helped us with sponges, ascidians and bryozoans, and we had help from experts on other groups. The section on fish was probably the only one we did entirely on our own. So this book was very much a New Zealand Marine Sciences Society joint effort, but Chris and I were the ones who rewrote what the experts gave us. Chris was very important in terms of the grant application. He is much better than I am at submiting applications and he has the contacts within the Museum for the identifications. He also kept my enthusiasm levels up. For a while the book didn’t seem to be happening, and I basically lost interest. If I hadn’t had a co-author, I doubt whether it would have come out, but Chris kept me honest and sent me rude emails and stuff

Did you have a list of particular things that you wanted to photograph, or did you just dive and take pictures of what you saw?

We dived and photographed anything that took our fancy, basically. There are some shots that should have been in the book, but we never got the photographs: for instance, the low salinity layer salt-water interface. We wanted to get a photograph of a diver halfway between the two, but for some reason or another we never got it. And there is only one photograph in the book which really shows the greenness of the fiord water with the white coral trees; I would have liked to have taken more photographs of that kind, but we ran out of time. A project like this can be open-ended, and we just had to choose a point to say ‘OK, enough is enough.’

What sort of reader is the book aimed at?

We tried to produce a book that would keep the specialists happy, using scientific names so that scientists, teachers and students could use it for identification. But we have also aimed it at the general New Zealand public, or at least that part of the public which is interested in nature. Recently, the environment court ruled that Fiordland underwater was globally unique, in their rejection of an application to export fresh water from Doubtful Sound. This was probably quite a landmark decision. It means that some of the developments that have been proposed will probably not take place now that this precedent has been set. This book should help provide background information for other informed decision-making.

So this would be a very good identification book for a diver who is going to Fiordland?

As far as I know, this is the first book specifically on Fiordland’s underwater world. I hope it will make a good identification book, because a lot of the stuff that we’ve illustrated isn’t mainstream New Zealand fauna; for instance, the photographs of the brachiopods. Fiordland is the only place in New Zealand I’ve dived where you can access brachiopods at shallow levels, and so the photographs and identifications are going to be quite useful. The same goes for some of the starfish there. There are some starfish which are deep-water emergents. These are animals that are normally found in deep water, but which get into shallow water in Fiordland, and will be unknown to people, particularly divers from the North Island.

Obviously you’ve got quite a soft spot for Fiordland. What can the government and people in general do to protect the ecosystem for future generations?

That’s a question that we spent quite a lot of time thinking over.We originally thought that a network of marine reserves would be the answer, but the marine reserve legislation is too restrictive. The experience down there so far has suggested that the two existing reserves are getting increased diving pressure and are probably being damaged as a result. So I don’t think the marine reserve concept is going to work. Chris and I would both like to see Fiordland’s global uniqueness acknowledged by applying for World Heritage status. It already has this status above water, and it seems crazy for the topside stuff to be acknowledged, but not the underwater environment. I think there is some idea in the deep south that World Heritage status takes away your sovereignty over a particular area, but of course that isn’t true at all. The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site. It doesn’t in any way stop people’s activities – they are still allowed to fish and have tourist activities.

What’s your next project?

I’m doing a book called Images of the Coral Reef with Peter Atkinson, who will be known to regular Dive New Zealand readers. Peter is a very talented underwater photographer. He sails his own yacht around the South Pacific making a living from taking underwater photographs. In some ways I’m rather jealous of him because he’s able to do some neat experiments – he can afford to take the time, whereas when I go on a dive trip I have to maximise the number of photographs I can take. He’s done some really interesting stuff, like developing an underwater tripod to take photos in slow shutter speeds underwater. He also spent several days trying to put together a remote-controlled release circuit so that he could photograph garden eels. This involved a long length of plastic tubing, a hypodermic syringe and a few other things. It didn’t work, but the point is that Pete’s always willing to experiment.

My other big project at the moment is a second edition of my 1988 book Fiji’s Natural Heritage. There have been a number of changes in Fiji since the book was written; there are two or three ecotourism projects underway, and at least one more lizard species has been discovered since the original book. Also, I now have better underwater photographs, because I was just starting out then. We also have some sponsorship from an organisation called the Seacology Foundation, located in Utah in the US who are going to give us a sizeable sum towards translating the book into Fijian. It’s their aim to put a copy into every Fijian school, because they believe that saving the environment needs to start at grass-roots level. They believe that if they can show schoolchildren what Fiji has to offer, then maybe they will be more keen on hanging on to their natural heritage in the future. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is also quite interested in putting a copy into all the schools. If we do get this level of sponsorship, we’ll be able to do a hard cover edition with around an extra hundred photographs, which will take it up to around 400 colour shots. That will be exciting.

Chris and I have started a book on New Zealand’s marine reserves, but this is quite a long term project and I don’t expect to see a finished product for at least three years … but you never know! The pigs are primed and ready to fly. I guess I’ve learned that there is something fascinating for the interested diver/photographer wherever you are, and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to pursue these interests for many years to come. I also hope to own my own regulator and BCD one day … my friends are getting tired of me scrounging off them all the time.

You can order a copy of Fiordland Underwater through our mail order pages.

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