An interview with Michael Poliza
by Dave Moran
Starship left Seattle, Washington on a 1000-day circumnavigation of our world. It is exploring our beautiful planet and sharing its daily adventures with millions of people from around the world via the websites www.ms-starship.com and www.starship.stern.de (in German) and various other media (print, TV, CD-ROM etc). Starship came to New Zealand for the Millennium and will explore New Zealand until February/March 2000, before leaving for Australia.
Michael, what was your background originally?
My background is mostly technology oriented. I have owned a few companies in the computer/marketing/advertising area, but have always had a love of nature. I’ve done a lot of photography and I have recently started taking videos. I was able to break free for two or three months out of the year and follow up these desires to take photos, go on expeditions, and have had my photos and films published in Germany and the United States.
On the technology side, you have a whole editing suite here – there are computers everywhere?
I must say we are pretty wired. We have 20 kilometres of cables installed. Sony and Microsoft, as well as our other sponsors, have been really helpful in making the ship a technology showcase. We have a full digital editing suite and are capable of producing broadcast ready tapes in PAL or NTSC either in DV, DVCam or Betacam SP format.
Besides having articles in the German magazine STERN, do you think you may eventually make a documentary?
Sure, we are filming every day. We are producing a book which will probably be on the shelves in October 2000, in six or seven languages. We are working on CD Roms and video. Many US and European magazines have been covering our adventures and we have had various film crews on board.
Does the trip finish in the Year 2001?
We will be home in Germany in June/July 2001. We will probably spend two or three months there and then might head back to Seattle on the north west coast of America, then onto Canada and Alaska for a while.
Before you arrived, did you have any pre-conceived ideas about New Zealand?
I have been to New Zealand before and New Zealand is very popular with Germans. Air New Zealand flies to Frankfurt a couple of times a week and those flights, especially at this time of the year, are always packed. Germans are quite knowledgeable about New Zealand and regard it as a good holiday adventure destination.
Michael, Starship is a purpose built boat. How did this project come about?
The original idea my girlfriend, Doerte DJ Rehren (DJ), and I had was for a boat of about 57 feet (17m). We planned to go down the west coast of North America into the Bay of Cortez, then maybe into Costa Rica taking our time and seeing what would happen. If we really liked it we would continue on around the world. That was the original intention. We started thinking about doing some photography and video coverage of our journey that would be suitable for TV and magazines. I have done quite a bit of video and still photography both topside and underwater, so we started talking with STERN magazine. We also talked to other companies about a multi-media concept and STERN really liked that idea. They decided that we should have a writer and a photographer on board so the boat grew from 57 feet (17m) to 75 feet (23m) feet in length. With it also grew the boat’s requirements. The whole project grew very fast.
We then incorporated some sponsors and we were very lucky to find our technology partners, Microsoft, Sony, Olympus, Deutsche Telekom, as well as the World Wildlife Fund and Brockhaus, which is the German version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the German space agency. We are very happy that the US marine industry helped us as well. Our Zodiac, the Honda engines, the Village Marine Watermaker, and the MAN engines were donated.
Companies and organisations have been supportive because the project is combining adventure with education for schools and other institutions. We try to educate people through our adventures about the beauty of this planet. We do not do fundamental scientific research. We now have a crew of between six and eight, a lot more responsibility and a definite schedule to follow. Somehow the original idea of just getting away got lost, but what is coming true is our original dream of a great trip with wonderful destinations, meeting great people and seeing a lot of our world.
When did you depart your home port and where have you travelled before reaching New Zealand?
Starship was built in the United States. We left Seattle on September 17, 1998. Before that we did a short trip up to British Columbia and did a story on Killer Whales, but the official start was on September 17. We headed down the west coast of North America to Mexico, the Baha. We went to beautiful places like Guadaloupe Island and Socorro and San Benedicto. There is a little spot called The Boiler. During November and December it is packed with giant pacific Manta Rays of about 6 to 6.5 metre wingspan. They are very friendly and not at all disturbed by divers unless you hassle them. You can swim right up to them and they dance for you. It is absolutely incredible.
We continued further inside the Sea of Cortez to get some Sea Lion shots and Whale Shark activity. Then we went further down into Panama and Costa Rica. We visited Isla de Cocos for great Hammerhead shark action. Then from Panama into the Caribbean. We had great diving in the Bahamas with wild dolphins. Fantastic! Then on to the Eastern Caribbean, a place called Dominica, which had some incredible night diving. Then further into Venezuela, French Guiana and Brazil. We then turned around and came back through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal. We briefly touched the Malpelo, which is another remote little island off the coast of Columbia with nice diving.
Afterwards the Galapagos, which was incredible of course with lots of Hammerhead action. Not good visibility but very intimate Hammerhead activity – we saw between 150 and 200 at a time. At any time you could step outside the cabin and see at least one if not two or three turtles getting a breath of air within 200 metres of the boat. I’ve never before seen such a density of turtles.
Do you think the Hammerheads feed on the turtles?
I would not think so. I think sharks in general are too skittish to go for a turtle. They are no easy prey. But there were other fish, big schools of fish, plenty of food I am sure for them. It is a magical place with wildlife in abundance. I understand the diving is well organised in the Galapagos Islands? Quite a few of the islands have dive operations. The boats usually dive more of the inner islands but some (Aggressor Fleet) make their way up to Wolf and Darwin, which are about 120 miles further north. Those are the islands with the best Hammerhead and whale shark activity. When we were diving, the visibility was not so good – only 20 to 25 feet (8m). The waters are packed with sharks and they come very close!
The other nice thing about the Galapagos is the marine iguanas. They warm up on land in the morning, and at about 11.30 am they start to feed on the green and brown algae underwater, usually where the swell and surge is. It is quite a sight to see them underwater. They are not really intimidated by you unless you get really close and start poking them. It is hard to stay still in any one place to do photography or videoing because of the surge. But it is a lot of fun!!
From the Galapagos where did you go?
Further west, about 3,100 miles (1,926 km), about 17 days travel, there’s no land until you reach the Marquesas. From there we travelled to the Tuamotus which are between Tahiti and the Marquesas. All of these islands belong to French Polynesia and are shark heaven. Lots of black tips, grey sharks, some silver tips and they are all very, very curious. They are not that big but they are very intimidating. We needed to keep pushing them away. We filmed some Humpback, Manta and Eagle Ray encounters in Moorea and Huahine. We then went on to Niue, Tonga, Fiji and finally New Zealand.
Where are you planning to dive in New Zealand?
We are looking forward to diving the Poor Knights, having heard so much about them. We had a quick jump on the Rainbow Warrior as we came down the coast. It will take a little adjusting diving temperate waters after the warmer tropical waters. We plan to dive the Poor Knights sometime in late February or early March. I understand it is much warmer at that time with better visibility and we probably spend about four or five days there. Other than that we are flexible. We know there are some good dive sites in the Marlborough Sounds, some wreck diving. We will then travel south to Fiordland and Stewart Island to work with local people to find out where the local secrets are.
I understand that this whole adventure can be viewed on the Internet?
Yes you can. We are updating the website every day, in English and in German. The English website is www.ms-starship.com Not only do we do normal digital photography topside, but we are sharing our underwater adventures as well. People can take a virtual trip around the world with us and they never have to leave their home. It is a different experience to read something that happened three years ago to experiencing something as it happens. Ours is as close to real time as it gets. If we are having a great dive today, people will know about it that evening and they can communicate with us and ask questions. If we are in a storm, they know we are in a storm, and it is not clear how the story ends. The story evolves as we go and that is what makes it a little more exciting than something you read three years later, when you know everything ended well.
How is the crew set up?
The crew is based on four people, our Australian Captain, Trevor and his wife, Monica, DJ and myself. Additionally we have three or four volunteer crew, depending on the situation They cover aspects from journal writing, deck hand, photography or just basic boat duties. Quite a few of them actually did apply through the Internet (through an online Internet application form). In fact we have received quite a few from New Zealand.
At various times you have scientists on board?
Yes. We are looking forward to working with the Department of Conservation people when they come on board. They have so much information which we can communicate to our audience. Hopefully we will also meet up with some local scientists who can give us more detail on what they are doing.
I believe the expedition is planned for 1000 days. What are your plans once that expedition is over?
That’s hard to say. I feel very good about living on Starship and I could personally imagine spending more time on her once the original trip is completed. I would probably need a break from having eight people on board at all times, which is like having visitors in your home all the time and them not going home. That is sometimes a little bit exhausting, but I can see us taking Starship with a smaller crew and friends to check out some other places that we did not get to on this trip. But that will be discussed with DJ once we get a little closer to home.
Thanks Michael for your time. We wish you, your crew and your worldwide audience some real life adventures and experiences while you explore our country and the inhabitants beneath its coastal waters.