National Geographic : 2007 Apr
Reserve status protects creatures as small as this fanciful sea slug foraging in the Poor Knights Islands. water giving instructions to excited children decked out with zingy wet suits, dive masks, and flutterboards. She sent them off like ducklings, half a dozen trailing a parent, to the nearby reefs, where leatherjackets, seahorses, and anemones awaited discovery. They dipped their faces underwater, popped up, and squealed, "I saw a fish! I saw a fish!" Yet this brand new library of the sea is only half its intended size. The application sought protection for three sites, but only two were approved. The site most popular with anglers- the largest of the three-was removed from con sideration at the 11th hour by conservation officials with no stomach for a fight. For the students, it was a bitter lesson in polit ical expediency and a reminder of the strength of the anti-reserve lobby. New Zealand may have led the world in creating no-take reserves, but many of its citizens continue to resent their existence and dispute their worth. Not so the commercial crayfishermen of Fiordland, a wilderness in southwestern New Zealand, who voluntarily vacated prime lobster fishing waters and instigated the creation of a network of protected areas. Ten no-take reserves and five no-anchoring areas now preserve under water communities so vulnerable to damage that scientists have dubbed them "china shops." Many of the treasures found in these sites are there due to a stroke of hydrological serendip ity. Tannin-stained fresh water flowing into the 80 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * APRIL 2007 fiords from rain forests forms a light-blocking layer several feet thick that floats on the denser seawater. The presence of this layer allows nor mally light-shy species such as black coral, lamp shells, and sea pens, a type of soft coral, to live at much shallower depths than usual. Descending into the fiords is like landing through smog in an aircraft. For a few seconds everything is brown, and you're diving blind. Then, at the mixing point between fresh and salt, the water starts to shimmer like a mirage, and you emerge like Alice through the looking glass. Projecting from the fiord walls are ten-foot-tall black coral trees. Butterfly perch shoal among their branches like Christmas tree ornaments. Symbiotic snake stars-sulfur yellow, burgundy, spotted, or boldly striped-entwine their arms tightly around twig and trunk. Wax ascidians-sponge-like encrustations drip down the rock faces like melting candles. A pea green sea slug the size of a grapefruit rests in corpulent splendor on a boulder. At a site called Strawberry Fields, pimply, red sea squirts turn the rocks into an underwater fruit bowl. Arrays of sea pens stand on the seabed like some kind of alien installation. Cruising them are nosy, in-your-face blue cod, wearing perpetual frowns on their frog-eyed noggins. Longtime crayfisherman turned eco-cruise operator Lance Shaw shudders when he thinks of the damage the steel pots did as they were low ered down the walls, crushing whatever was in their path until they landed on a suitable ledge. "When I started diving and saw what was living on the walls, I thought, What have we done?" Fiordland's reserves and a handful of others have brought New Zealand's tally of no-take areas to 31, covering nearly 8 percent of the country's coastal waters. Yet 99 percent of this protected habitat lies within just two reserves, each hundreds of miles from the mainland, and the smallest of the country's 14 terrestrial national parks protects an area greater than all the coastal marine reserves combined. Yes, New Zealand has led the world in marine protection, says Ballantine, but what is there to cheer about "if you're leading in a race of arthritic tortoises?"