Marine Reserves experience winning hearts & minds for the sea

Samara Nicholas


We should think of our marine reserves as ‘wet libraries’, says Samara Nicholas (left), founder of the Experiencing Marine Reserves programme. They should be accessible to all, she says. “Places like the Kermadecs are like giant wet museums – who wouldn’t want the chance to experience them?”

Samara was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to marine conservation and education in June this year. She was a recipient of a Sir Peter Blake Trust Leadership Award in 2005 and has been involved in several Young Blake expeditions since including two expeditions to the Kermadecs.

“We aim to create awesome real life marine experiences, not just for kids but adults too,” Samara says.

“Increasingly our focus is on encouraging people to observe what’s around us underwater, such as looking out for new marine pests or changes in species, to help contribute to citizen science wherever we can.” (see https://inaturalist.nz/ ) “We work with hearts and minds,” she said. “These are the building blocks for people to create emotional connections with their environment and make a change.”

“We get unexpected outcomes from our programmes all the time. We don’t know what we’re going to get. A woman snorkeling with her son at Goat Island came up to me, and they were buzzed out – adults get as excited as the kids – and she had a whole pile of cigarette butts in her hand she was getting rid of in the bin, instead of chucking them on the ground. This change of attitude for her was the natural outcome of her snorkel experience.”

Art by Stevie

“A kid recently told me that he wanted to become a marine biologist” Earlier in life Samara said she thought she might become a midwife but altered course at Kamo High School when she became involved with an application to establish a marine reserve in Whangarei Harbour.

In 2002 she co-founded the Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust based in Whangarei which is the national body for EMR along with freshwater programmes. Early mentors were the current chair of the trust, Vince Kerr, and marine biologist Dr Roger Grace. The late Dr Bill Ballantine was hugely supportive.

Science project by Kade

Initial funding came from DOC, then later the Tindall Foundation and the Department of Conservations Community Fund which Samara says was instrumental in their expansion nationally. EMR – Te Kura Moana – is now located in eight different regions throughout New Zealand with a team of up to 30 co-ordinators and EMR has been adopted in South Australia in a kind of non-profit franchise arrangement.

“For our core programme we start in the classroom, teach them to snorkel with all the gear from Wettie, starting in their own local area and then we take them to a marine reserve or other marine protected area,” Samara says.

Letter from Max

Delivered by a co-ordinator the programme is designed to set the kids abuzz before progressing to developing their snorkeling skills in a pool then heading to a marine environment, somewhere like Goat Island or Maitai Bay for the Northland schools. “People mainly hear about us these days by word of mouth and we don’t always have funding to do all the programmes asked of us,” Samara says. “We can offer a user pays snorkel experience though, and other funding comes from donations and by partnerships with such as ferry operators to keep costs down.”

Every year EMR runs a competition for the chance to snorkel at the Poor Knights Island Marine Reserve. Winners are selected based on the merits of an action or artistic project where they demonstrate kaitiakitanga (guardianship) in projects that address marine issues in their community.

This year 32 students from 29 schools in eight regions got to go on the trip to Blue Mao Mao Arch along with 31 parents and 11 supporters. All thanks to funding from the Bobby Stafford-Bush Foundation and the support of Dive Tutukaka. EMR also runs guided snorkel days in marine reserves for anyone to participate, and kayaking days through the mangroves at Okura in the Long Bay Reserve or Pollen Island in Auckland, or to one of many other locations throughout the country.

EMR snorkellers with supervisors (in red tops) ready to plunge in clear waters off the vessel Perfect Day

Such is the success of the EMR programme and its reputation, their database has been expanding rapidly – when a new event in Auckland is launched it often fills to capacity overnight.

EMR snorkellers on the surface with a boogie board for flotation, watching a sandager male wrasse at the Poor Knights Islands

“We’re getting a massive database of people signing up as volunteers,” Samara said. “We need them too, to work as community guides, especially as experienced snorkeling guides who we train further especially for health & safety objectives. We are an accredited Adventure Activity Operator.”


Since 2002 over 14,338 people have been involved with Community Guided Snorkel/ Kayak events plus 53,866 guided through a Marine Reserve and 63,605 people in all snorkelling with EMR so far.

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EMR Team jumping off Perfect Day at the end of a fabulous day out at the Poor Knights Marine Reserve.

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