Revisiting a dark chapter of Wellington’s history. Blinding you with science. And a trip of a trip.
The Wahine disaster
In April, Wellington commemorated the 40-year anniversary of the darkest chapter in its brief history: The Wahine disaster. The Wahine (“woman” in Maori and Hawaiian, and pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable) was an electric steamer ferry built in Scotland in the early 1960s. At the time, the Wahine was one of the largest ferries in the world, with modern cabins and amenities and room for 928 passengers. She came to Wellington in mid-1966 and sailed between Lyttleton (Christchurch) and Wellington. (See an advertisement from the time.)
On the evening April 9, 1968, the Wahine left Lyttleton en route to Wellington. When they set sail, no one expected a difficult crossing. But the weather conditions changed drastically over night. A warm tropical cyclone that was rapidly moving south collided with a cold southerly front (do we ever know about those!) heading north from Antarctica. The two systems couldn’t have met in a worse place: They joined directly over Wellington, creating freak storm with violent turbulence. In the early morning hours of April 10, winds up to 125 knots hit Cook Strait. The city was slammed with winds up to 275 km/h – the strongest ever recorded in New Zealand. Remember me talking about wind force back in the days of the container ship? The maximum on the Beaufort scale for wind force 12, or winds of 120 km/h. Old Sir Francis sure didn’t take Wellington into account when he came up with this scale. As I’m writing this, they are forecasting gales up to 140km/h from later on today. Is not so great akshully.
But back to the story. Around 6 am, when the Wahine approached the entrance to the Wellington harbour heads, they had practically no visibility thanks to the storm and turbulent seas. Worse, the ship’s radar had failed too. When the captain was unable to get the ship back on course, he decided to turn around and head back out to sea, but instead the vessel was driven into a reef at the entrance to the harbour. Then they lost the starboard propeller, and the port engine failed, leaving the ship without any propellant power. At this point it was obvious that ship was in big trouble. The passengers were asked to put on their life jackets and report to the muster stations.
Dragging her anchor, the Wahine was pushed north by the storm and drifted into the harbour, near the western shore. The weather was so bad that help from the shore was not possible. Hours later, around 11 am, they finally managed to get the anchors to hold near the beach at the suburb of Seatoun. Several attempts to bring help with tug boats failed due to the ongoing storm.
It is hard to imagine the horror the passengers and crew must have felt that day, being trapped in such violent weather conditions for hours without rescue in sight. And those people watching from the shore or following in front of their televisions and radios were equally powerless and unable to do anything about the events unfolding in front of their eyes. It was about to become worse.
In the early afternoon, the ship was swung around by storm and tide and was increasingly leaning to starboard. At 1:15 pm, the captain gave order to abandon ship. Because of the heavy list, only four of the eight lifeboats could be launched, and most of the inflatable life rafts simply flipped in the storm. However, the ship was surrounded by rescue boats by then and many passengers were able to reach them and get to the shore. Not everyone was so fortunate though: Over 200 people ended up in the water and were pushed across the harbour to the rocky eastern side of the bay. This part of the bay is uninhabited, and the only small road was blocked by landslides and had become impassable. Tragically, some people actually reached the shore, only to die of exhaustion or exposure once there.
The Wahine eventually capsized completely at 2:30 pm. Of the 734 passengers and crew, 51 died that day; 2 more later from injuries sustained in the wreck. The Museum of Wellington City & Sea has a permanent exhibit dedicated to the Wahine, along with heartbreaking video footage from the day.
The Wahine disaster is not only the most traumatising event in Wellington’s history, it also marks the coming of age for television news broadcasting in New Zealand. The event was captured live and and reported on television and radio as it happened, and footage was screened around the world; unusual for New Zealand at the time. (See a news clip on Te Ara.)
To this day, questions remain how such a disaster could have happened to a state-of-the-art ship, within sight of New Zealand’s capital city. While the horrible weather certainly caused the accident, it is unclear if different decisions both by the ship’s captain and ashore could have avoided the large loss of lives.
The storm did massive damage on land as well. Roofs and power lines were ripped off, people were hit by flying debris, and several houses were completely destroyed. Roads were flooded, cars and ambulances blown over—all of which made it more difficult to get help to the injured. An eye-witness who was a young worker at the time, trying to make a delivery in Wellington, tells about his experience:
“As I looked through the windscreen I thought the weather looked a bit rough, but as a born and bred Wellingtonian, I was used to a bit of a breeze.[...]
I got out of the car with a bit of a struggle into the wind, but soon became aware of an unbelievably strong wind. [...] before I could find any shelter, the wind blew me out into the middle of the street, into the path of oncoming traffic [...] Some people were clinging to lamp posts [...] the shop’s huge plate glass window was completely blown out by the wind.”
The 40th anniversary of this dark day in Wellington’s history also served as a powerful reminder of the forces of nature. This is just as true today, in 2008, despite all the technology available to us. Only days after Wahine day, a group of teenagers from Auckland on a school trip got into bad weather while canyoning in a river gorge. When trying to cross a rapidly swelling river to get to safety, they got trapped in the flash flood, and six students and a teacher were swept away and lost their lives. Extreme weather is never far away in New Zealand.
Arr, squiddy, I got nothin’ against ya
No one can claim that this blog isn’t educational. Today we hear about the adventures of a group of teuthologists, which of course means scientists who specialise in the study of cephalopods, in other words, squid scholars.
In February 2007, New Zealand fishermen in the Ross Sea in Antarctica caught a rare Colossal Squid. At 10 meters long and weighing 495 kg, it was the largest squid ever caught, and that was by pure luck: The squid had been eating one of the Patagonian toothfish that the fishermen had hooked on a line, and was pulled up along with its snack. Well, maybe the luck wasn’t so much on the squid’s side.
Colossal Squid are shorter, but much heavier than their more common distant relatives, the Giant Squid. Squid enthusiasts argue which one of them really is the world’s largest invertebrate—I guess it depends on how you define “large”. Regardless, they are both impressive. To put the size of this beast in perspective, one of the scientists famously stated that “if calamari were made from the squid the rings would be the size of tractor tyres.”
The squid was brought to Wellington’s Te Papa museum for scientific study. And this is where in April of this year a group of scientists got together to dissect it, along with a couple other specimens.
It wouldn’t be 2008 if the squid didn’t have a blog; in fact, the whole event was live-blogged and video-cast via SquidCam and attracted thousands of followers across the world. People could watch as the scientists carefully thawed the frozen squid (a multi-day process utilising a purpose-built 10,000 litre tank) and follow their progress in real time.
This way we could not just watch the team have a little taste (for scientific reasons only, of course. The verdict: edible but somewhat tough and bitter), but also learn about such fascinating squid facts such as
- Tentacles: Giant Squid have suckers, Colossal Squid have hooks!
- Eyes: The eye of the Colossal Squid is the largest eye of any animal, with a lens the size of an orange which lets in lots of light that allows the creature to hunt in total darkness in depths of 1000 meters.
- And my favourite, the brain: A squid’s brain surrounds its small oesophagus, therefore everything it eats needs to be reduced to a really small size, because it needs to pass through the middle of the brain. Seriously. Wow.
Since the examination finished in early May, the squid has been sitting in a storage tank and is being prepared for being put on display at Te Papa. I’ll so be there. More pictures in Te Papa’s photo gallery.
Don’t know much about history
The other day I had some Australian wine. On the bottle, the label proudly announced that the winery had “well over 40 years of history”. The dimensions on this side of the planet are definitely a bit different than those in Old Europe.
This shall suffice as a somewhat far-fetched intro for a story about a study which made it into New Zealand news in early July, and which challenges the presumed ancient history of this country. It is commonly believed that the first humans arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia more than 2000 years ago. However, the study came to the conclusion that this migration didn’t happen until much later, in the late 13th century.
The researchers took radiocarbon dating from bones of the Pacific Rat, or Kiore, and from rat-gnawed seeds. They found that nothing dated back further than 1280 AD. The kiore cannot swim very far, therefore, so the scientists, it must have arrived aboard ships along with the human settlers. Other evidence from archeological sites, changes in fauna, and Maori oral history support these findings.
The question of first human settlement in New Zealand has been debated for years. As one might expect, the new findings are controversial, not the least because while it confirms that Maori were indeed the first settlers of New Zealand, it also means that the first European settlers, starting with Abel Tasman in 1642, arrived not 1500, but a mere 350 years later.
To which I would like to add that I have yet to find an Australian wine which I really enjoy.
I have a new favourite city, and it’s Hong Kong. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days there last month on the way back from another trip to Germany.
As an aside, it’s quite shocking to visualise the impact of such a trip. Flying halfway around the world and back covers about 40,000 km. For every passenger and kilometre, a large plane emits 110g carbon dioxide, which adds up to a shocking 4.5 tons of green house gases per person (I had a source for this but can’t find it. Go google it.) This is the equivalent of driving 25,000 km with a mid-sized car.
Thankfully, I don’t have a car, mid- or other sized. 95% of my life takes place within a circle of about 1 km radius. Home, work, gym, shops, bars, restaurants, cultural venues, waterfront and so on are all within this area, and I rarely ever even use a bus or taxi. However, while this lifestyle is not just carbon friendly but super convenient most of the time, it can a bit get claustrophobic, so once in a while I have to even things out by going on a big trip (and leaving one giant footprint, I guess.)
As I said, I went to Germany for a few weeks in May, and I had a fantastic time, despite being a bit too early for real summer and the European Football Championship. As a dedicated expat, I did of course, after I got back to Wellington, get up at 6 in the morning and braved cold and darkness to watch the semifinal and final—the only games shown live at the local sports bar. Sadly, the German team didn’t show quite the same dedication in return and lost the final 0:1 to Spain (and to be honest, the way they played, they should have lost semifinal against Turkey too…)
Hong Kong, Take Two
Now that I have managed to write four entire paragraphs under the headline “Hong Kong” without actually talking about Hong Kong, it may be best to start over. Although I’m still not really sure how to write about Hong Kong. It was such an intense experience, such an onslaught of impressions on all senses in an amazing place like nothing I have ever seen before.
One way to approach understanding the intensity of Hong Kong is to look at its population density. With 6,407 people/km2, Hong Kong is the fourth most densely populated country in the world, after neighbour Macau, Monaco and Singapore. For comparison, Germany has 232 people/km2. The United States have 31 (of course this varies greatly by state), and New Zealand has 14.9. It doesn’t stop here though: Mong Kok, a neighbourhood on Kowloon Peninsula, houses 130,000 people/km2. Not only is this 8,844 times more than in New Zealand, it also apparently is the highest population density in the world. Mong Kok means “flourishing/busy corner”. I have found this to be true. Mong Kok is where I stayed.
I was expecting that dealing with crowds on this scale would be difficult, maybe stressful, especially since it was my first time there. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case. In fact, it was extremely fascinating to see how this city itself seem to work as its own organism, and how easy it was to become part of it. Maybe it’s precisely because there are so many people in such a small area that they had no choice but to figure out how to live together well. I like to experience new cities by simply walking their streets, and even though I didn’t always exactly know where I was going, and I had a rather big and bulky camera bag, I could wander around for two days amongst the crowds without anyone bumping into me or those little awkward dances which ensue when walking along Lambton Quay in Wellington’s shopping district and no one can decide how to give way to oncoming pedestrians. Wherever I went in Hong Kong, the atmosphere seemed busy and high energy, but calm at the same time, if that makes sense.
In the two days, I managed to see a good deal of central Hong Kong, including
Temple Street Night Market with its colourful stalls, fortune tellers and great street food
- The above mentioned Mong Kok neighbourhood, where most streets have high concentration of a single type of shop (e.g., only aquariums, only sports shoes, only kitchen supplies, and so forth), and where Chinese culture clearly dominates
- The promenade in Tsim Sha Tsui with its tribute to Hong Kong film and amazing views across the harbour
- Taking the ferry across the harbour like the locals do
- Staring in amazement at the crazy bamboo scaffolding everywhere (see the photo album for a few examples)
- The excellent Hong Kong Museum of History, which didn’t just give me a place to wait out a heavy mid-day thunderstorm, but provided an interesting and immersive view of Hong Kong’s history
- Riding the super steep tram up to Victoria Peak (although the view was obscured by really low hanging clouds)
- Wandering through the financial district with its maze of walkways and malls
- Looking up at the unbelievably large apartment towers everywhere
- The beautiful Hong Kong Park with its aviary, right in the middle of the skyscrapers
- Simply going with the flow of this beautiful, madly intense city
Lots more pictures: Hong Kong Photo Album