Sir Peter Blake 1948 – 2001

Sir Peter Blake

1948 – 2001

the most inspirational man I have ever had the pleasure to know.

Text by Mike Bhana, Photo by Lee Czerniak

Many years ago, I decided that the future of the Oceans and educating the world about them was to become the focus of my life. Nearly two and a half thousand dives, tens of thousands of sea miles on top of years, months, days and hours spent just sitting and watching the ocean has instilled in me the need to ‘make a difference.’ With each passing hour, each minute that I spend on and in the world’s ocean’s I have seen more and more signs that the future doesn’t look good. My life has revolved around the sea. What I have seen I want my children and their children to see. It was a path that I had embarked on long before I found an ally in someone I had never imagined would be on a similar path.

Craig Thorburn and I had just completed our Natural History film Mako – Swift Smart and Deadly. We were invited to premier the film at A Night to Remember in 1997. It was there that I met Sir Peter. At the end of the film he approached Craig and I and gave us the biggest accolade of my life. He was inspired and his enthusiasm and endorsement served to set in concrete my path forward. He saw in our film a kiwi style of adventure, science and subtle environmental messages that combined in a similar fashion to the old Jacques Cousteau programmes of yesteryear. He commented to me that it was one of the best films he’d seen and that he was going to ‘make a difference’ too. I had no idea what he meant – was he going to win the America’s Cup again? Go faster around the world than anyone else had done before? It didn’t dawn on me that he meant that he was planning an environmental quest until his appointment to the Cousteau Society in 1998. Then I understood.

From then, with each new project I embarked on, I kept in touch with Sir Peter. Each time we talked I came away revitalised. He had a way of energising everyone he worked with. While my film contribution to the preservation of the seas was kept in check by the international broadcasters, I still managed to subtly chip away at issues. In 2000 Sir Peter picked up a jack hammer with the formation of Blakexpeditions. As the true leader that Sir Peter was he attacked his new quest with all the gusto and tenacity that had lead him to victory in everything that he had attempted before.

We talked, we discussed the future. Our paths would soon meet up. A common goal lay ahead and as Blakexpeditions gathered momentum the distance between our parallel courses rapidly drew closer. Then one of the most devastating phone calls that I have ever had. While 11 September shocked me, 6 December shattered me. The world had lost more than it will ever know. While Sir Peter had skippered his way to worldwide notoriety, it was the quest that he had just begun that he was even more focussed on. After all, his victories in yachting were just sporting events. Blake Expeditions was different. This was to be where Sir Peter would leave his mark.

His new race, his ‘raison d’être’ had just begun when he was killed. His quest ‘to make a difference’ to save the world’s oceans had not yet gathered momentum. Now who will carry it on?

You cannot replace the man. We are, without doubt, much further from making a difference than we would be with Sir Peter at the helm, but his quest remains no less important. Those of us who dive rely on the ocean environment for our enjoyment, sometimes for business and for our quality of life. We owe it to our children and our children’s children to continue to look after it so they can see and enjoy what we often take for granted. My travels long ago opened my eyes to the peril that our fragile oceans are in.

In 1998 I sat atop an island off the coast of the Chathams. Around me hundreds of Royal Albatross nested. I was lifted by the experience. So many Albatross and yet there were telltales everywhere hinting that all was not well. As I sat amongst them I noticed a lot of rubbish around. Cigarette lighters, plastic milk bottle tops etc.. I was in the middle of nowhere high above the ocean’s waves where few people had ever gone and yet there was rubbish everywhere. It wasn’t until a trip to Midway Atoll north of Hawaii that this rubbish made sense. Midway is the home for one of the largest populations of albatross in the Northern Hemisphere and the ground around their nests was literally solid plastic. Yet the island could not be further away from civilisation. Again, lighters, bottle tops, fishing floats, nylon, etc.. The plastic was being retrieved from the ocean by the foraging albatross and then fed to their hungry chicks. The plastic on the ground was either regurgitated by the lucky chicks or lay amongst the bones of the dead. An island almost made of plastic and a rapidly declining albatross population.

In 2000 I dived in the Philippines where much of the reef had been blasted to powder by hungry fishermen using dynamite to kill and catch the last remnants of life. In just decades the coral reefs that supplied life to the sea have become vast underwater wastelands. Apex predators queued up at the last cleaning stations left standing on the edge of a sand battlefield that was once pristine coral gardens – their health failing and the inevitability of the end in their eyes.

And then at Christmas, I was sitting on the rocks at Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula as my kids played amongst the tide pools. Hundreds of people had walked by stopping to survey the pools, pointing out things to their children. Amongst it all was the remains of a net tangled around the boulders where it had been for some time. As I carried it up the beach I wondered about those who had passed before me, seen it and carried on. It took me 30 seconds to retrieve it and a few seconds more to place it in the rubbish bin in the car park as we left. I felt good about the day, I had made a little difference with no effort.

Sir Peter Blake. A man who gave his life for the life of the oceans he loved before he could complete his greatest challenge of all. All of us who knew Sir Peter and all those who believe in his mission need to continue his work – find strength in his passing, more resolve in our focus. It is what he would have done. If we all do a little, together we can achieve much more than you would think possible. I hope that all of us take a little of the weight from Blakexpeditions’ shoulders to help realise Sir Peter’s dream. The littlest of things all contribute. Clean beaches, a few old cans and bottles in the catch bag with the crays. Just a little goes a long way.

As I sit writing this in Dunedin the Humpbacks play out my window in the bay. I wonder about their future and my own. I feel privileged to live in a country where I can see such sights and yet I know that this ocean realm that surrounds us is more vulnerable today than it has ever been. I owe it to my children to help preserve it and with Sir Peter’s memory to support me ‘I will make a difference.’

To quote Chief Seattle

‘Treat the Earth well.  It was not given you by your parents.  It was loaned you by your children.’

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