Charter boat Pembroke on the water in Fiordland.

Fragile fiords

Scientists dive deep to uncover the mysteries of our glacier-carved fiords.

Breathtaking. Extraordinary. Stunning. By any stretch, Fiordland is something of a jewel in our environmental crown. But it remains one of the world’s least-studied ecosytems.

A team of researchers and citizen scientists are trying to change that. Dr Alice Rogers and Professor James Bell are leading the Southern Fiordland Initiative, a project to find out what’s happening down in the fiords.

Their task has been given added urgency with emerging evidence that climate change is already taking a toll on this fragile environment.

“Invaluable local knowledge tells us the fiords are changing.”
Dr Alice Rogers

Earlier this year, researchers from the University discovered numerous ‘bleached’ sponges in Fiordland. This kind of bleaching is something that’s been reported on coral reefs, but it’s never been seen before in New Zealand.

The bleaching was linked to an intense marine heatwave around southern Aotearoa over summer.

“These extreme heatwaves are a major concern as temperatures may exceed levels at which many species can survive. We need to do more research to understand the effects of warming waters on important sea-floor species such as sponges,” says James, a marine biologist at Te Kura Mātauranga Koiora—the School of Biological Sciences.

Fiordland residents are also noticing changes in the environment.

“Invaluable local knowledge tells us the fiords are changing,” says Alice, who lectures in fisheries biology and is director of the University’s Te Toka Tū Moana—Wellington University Coastal Ecology Laboratory.

“We’ll hear the water has been particularly warm this year, or there’s been more plankton or whales. But the data to quantify changes, and determine their impacts, are really limited. What we want to do now is put numbers behind these observations,” she says.

Research team with gear packed, waiting in helicopter hangar with helicopter in background.
Researchers (left to right) Callum Long, James Bell, Valerio Micaroni, Francesca Strano, and Alice Rogers. Photo by Katherine Mitchell.

Deep dive

The Southern Fiordland Initiative spearheaded by James and Alice aims to answer two key questions: What are the climatic and ecosystem conditions of the fiords now, and how are they changing?

It’s no easy task.

Measuring environmental change is difficult enough at the best of times, but in somewhere as remote as Fiordland it’s an even bigger challenge, says James.

To help with the job, the research team will be installing weather stations on land and water temperature loggers at depths from five to 100 metres at Tamatea—Dusky Sound and Te Puaitaha—Breaksea Sound.

The University’s underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will be playing a star role. The ROV will be used for the first long-term, deep-water monitoring programme at the two fiords.

Researchers will also be tracking two ‘indicator’ species—the sevengill shark Notorynchus cepedianus and the black coral Antipathella fiordensis—to help shed light on environmental changes.

Local citizen scientists are contributing to the project as well.

The University is lending them equipment to measure water temperature, salinity, and other environmental parameters, says James.

“This means they’ll be able to monitor conditions as they travel around the fiords, and get information on what the water is like all the way to the bottom, to figure out what’s going on through the water column.”

“These extreme heatwaves are a major concern as temperatures may exceed levels at which many species can survive.”
Professor James Bell

Giving back

The habitat-monitoring programme is being led by charter boat operators Paul and Katherine Mitchell.

James credits the Mitchells with playing a key role in kicking off the project.

“Paul and Katherine came to us, and other scientists, specifically wanting to understand climate change in Breaksea and Dusky sounds, because this is their back garden, and the home of their charter vessel, the Pembroke.

“They’ve noticed changes in the ecosystem and animals that visit throughout the years. They now want to give something back to the area.”

When the Pembroke heads out on a trip, Paul and Katherine will lend divers a GoPro and provide forms so they can record what they see.

“That will get fed back to us to build up a picture of different habitats and different ecosystems,” says James.

To date, the majority of research in Fiordland has focused on the northern fiords, particularly Doubtful Sound. This project will give us a better understanding of the whole Fiordland ecosystem, so it can be better managed, says Alice.

The initiative has financial support from the Fiordland Marine Guardians and the George Mason Charitable Trust. The team hopes to raise additional funds for further research on the bleached sponges discovered earlier this year. A Givealittle page has been set up so people wanting to support the work can contribute.

If you’re keen to support the project, you can also email James at or Alice at

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