The Kermadecs: an ocean wilderness
Just a few hundred kilometres from New Zealand, within our exclusive economic zone, there is an ocean region of incredible diversity – a place of dramatic landforms, unspoiled oceans, and extraordinary variety of life.
The Kermadec region – between New Zealand’s North Island and Tonga – is one of the last relatively untouched wilderness areas on the planet.
The product of violent collision between two continental plates, it is globally significant for its geology.
It is a cradle of life: a place isolated by deep water, with an arc of undersea volcanoes stretching its length. It teems with birds, whales, dolphins, fish, turtles and other unique sea creatures, many of which exist only there.
The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, a 620,000 square kilometre, no-take zone, would be one of the largest marine reserves in the world and a fitting designation for a region of New Zealand that the National Geographic Society has called "one of the last pristine sites in our ocean."
Dramatic geology unparalleled in the southern hemisphere
The largest volcanic islands of the Kermadec region - Raoul, Macauley, Curtis, Cheeseman and L’Esperance- are the only uninhabited subtropical island group in the southern hempisphere.
Beneath its waters is the longest under water volcanic arc on the planet – more than 50 submarine volcanoes extending along the 2,500km collision zone between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. This is a place where striking volcanic landforms and incredible displays of volcanism, submarine hydorthermal venting and geomorphc features are still being discovered.
Imagine a world under the sea where mountains over 2,000m high rise to within 65m of the sea surface and on islands above the surface 30 vent cones are to be found around the rim of a volcano.
To the east of the islands, the Kermadec Trench plunges more than 10 kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface – about five times deeper than the Grand Canyon. It is the deepest ocean trench in the southern hemisphere and the second deepest on the planet. More.
A crucial role in our ocean ecosystem
The region’s high volcanic activity, extraordinary range of environments, and relatively unspoiled nature gives it a crucial role in ocean ecosystems.
Deep in the trench, where light cannot reach, new populations of organisms are still being discovered - feeding on dissolved minerals in super heated water emitted from thermal vents. What would be a poisonous environment to most living things is their home. These microscopic creatures – and the mussels, shrimps, worms and other animals that feed on them – form an ecosystem unique to the region, perhaps to the planet.
Closer to the surface, the Kermadecs’ environment offers breeding and feeding grounds for important populations of whales and dolphins, sea birds, and an extraordinary variety of fish and other species.
Once the most prolific whaling ground in the Pacific the Kermadec region provides an important transitioning environment for marine mammals making their seasonal journeys between the tropics and cooler waters around New Zealand and other southern islands.
Thirty-five species of whale or dolphin – including the magestic blue whale, fin and sei whales- are thought to migrate through Kermadec waters and some may breed in the region.
The region is a hotspot for sperm whales and humpback whales. In the 1880’s the presence of significant whale populations made the Kermadec region one of the most prolific whaling ground in the South Pacific – over 150 whaling vessels working the region between 1830 and 1840. More recently, a survey in 2009 recorded over 100 humpback whales off Raoul Island in a single day.
Many species of whale and dolphin may be present across the Kermadec region, but have not been classified due to lack of data. More.
A sea bird refuge of major international importance
The Kermadec Islands form a seabird refuge of major international importance.
Of about 350 species of seabirds worldwide, more than 50 are found in the region, ranging from tiny storm petrels to large wandering albatrosses.
Some are found only in the Kermadecs, while others – many from mainland New Zealand and our subantarctic islands – forage for food in the region or migrate through.
Fourteen species breed there, including the entire world populations of Kermadec storm petrels and Kermadec little shearwaters, and globally significant populations of several other species. View a video of a black-winged petrel feeding its chick on Raoul Island.
In all, up to 6 million seabirds breed on the Kermadecs annually.
Five species that nest there are considered vulnerable (Kermadec little shearwater, white-naped petrel, white-bellied storm petrel, Tasman booby, and New Zealand sooty tern).
Species that migrate through the region include wandering albatross, blackbrowed albatross, black petrel and white-chinned petrel. More.
Five of the world’s seven sea turtle species
Incredibly, five of the world’s seven sea turtle species are found in the Kermadecs: hawksbill, leatherback, green, loggerhead and Pacific ridley turtles.
These species regularly wander through the region on route south from their mainly tropical habitats.
Fish – just the beginning of what we know
The Kermadecs have a unique mix of marine fish species, many of which use the area as a migratory corridor between tropical and cooler waters. Without the islands as ‘stepping stones’, many would be unable to journey south to New Zealand.
About 150 fish species are known in the region – including large predators such as sharks, rays, tuna, bass, bluenose and hapuku, and many species of reef fish.
Some species – such as Kermadec spiny dogfish – are endemic to the region. For other species the Kermadecs contain the world’s last unfished populations.
From southern bluefin tuna and Harrisson’s dogfish to sharks, giant grouper, and bigeye tuna the Kermadec seas are full of species that define ocean health and vitality.
But what is known about the fish of the region is only the beginning. Large parts of the Kermadec oceans – particularly those below depths of 600 metres –are virtually unexplored and it is highly likely that future surveys will discover new and rare species. More.
Crustaceans – specialised for Kermadec habitats
The region is unusual for its mix of tropical and temperate species of crustaceans (crayfish, crabs, prawns and shrimps). Altogether, 88 species of crustacean are known in the region. Of these, 17 are known only in the Kermadecs, including some that are new to science.
Some are specialised for Kermadec habitats – for example, two species of ‘vent crabs’ that live near thermal vents. More.
New to science
The Kermadecs have a unique population of tiny sea anemone-like animals known as bryozoans. Of 256 species identified so far, at least 38 are endemic and many are new to science. Some are ‘living fossils’, present in the oceans since the time of the dinosaurs tens of millions of years ago.
In recent years, scientific expeditions have collected samples of corals, including species that are to be found only in the Kermadec region. More.
A distinctive history
The Kermadec Islands and their surrounding waters are also important for their history.
Once a staging post for Polynesian voyagers to and from New Zealand, the Kermadecs were also significant for European voyages of discovery in the southern oceans, and for their role as a centre of 19th century commercial whaling.
Since the 1980s, they have been internationally important as centres of conservation – in particular sea bird recovery.
The Kermadec environment is a place of inspiring diversity.
Since 1937, the Kermadec Islands have been accorded nature reserve status. Beginning in the 1970’s the eradication of pests has put the islands at the forefront of island restoration efforts, paving the way for the restoration of millions of seabirds.
In 1990, the Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve was created, prohibiting all fishing and mineral exploitation in an area from the coastline out to 12 nautical miles around each of the islands.
In 2007, a benthic protection area was established, banning bottom trawling and dredging within 100 metres of the sea floor throughout the 200 nautical mile EEZ. More.
A globally significant contribution
The Kermadec region is a significant pillar of New Zealand and global geological and marine diversity. It provides a safe haven for species that are unknown or rapidly declining elsewhere, and a sub-surface wilderness that scientists and adventurers are only now beginning to explore.