25 Oct 2021

A Decade On Since The Rena Disaster

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:06 pm on 25 October 2021

It's now ten years since the Rena cargoship struck the Ōtāiti (Astrolabe) reef, 25km northeast of the Tauranga Harbour.

A decade on, Irihapeti Dickson (Te Patuwai, Ngāti Awa, Ngai Te Rangi) talks for the first time about her experience coordinating the clean-up.

Irihapeti Dickson was part of the co-ordination efforts during the Rena Disaster, 2011.

Irihapeti Dickson was part of the co-ordination efforts during the Rena Disaster, 2011. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

At 2:20 am on the 5th of October 2011, one of Aotearoa's worst-ever maritime disasters occurred.

Timber, plastic beads and rubbish washed ashore at Mōtiti Island and the Tauranga shoreline.  Around 350 tonnes of oil spilt into the ocean killing wildlife and the nearby kapata kai (local food resource).

Irihapeti Dickson was part of the coordination team, based at the incident command centre, where she oversaw the clean-up efforts on Mōtiti Island. 

Her most vivid memory on that day was in the early hours of that morning receiving a call from her daughter Hiraina that a ship had gone aground.

It was the school holidays and families were already at Mōtiti, Irihapeti says.

“Having all the whanau over there they were able to mobilise, not realising the magnitude of the disaster they did the best with what they had, having whanau contacts was a major resource, [we got] in touch with Ballance for rubbish bags…our local flight centre Island Air – it was just a matter of setting things up."

MV Rena was stuck on Astrolabe Reef as it was pounded by high seas off the coast of Tauranga (picture released on 4 April, 2012).

MV Rena was stuck on Astrolabe Reef as it was pounded by high seas off the coast of Tauranga (picture released on 4 April, 2012). Photo: Maritime New Zealand via AFP

Ten years on, plastic translucent beads are still visible on the island usually scattered between the stones on the rocky shoreline and at the urupa (burial grounds).

“The crates of plastic that was squashed and packed in crates, those were a headache…and clothes,  there was all sorts of rubbish… all sorts of timber treated and untreated, those ones [people] who were helping out after the grounding...I think some of them ended up with new steps... you know, rights of salvage” she laughs.

In 2020 the Environment Court ruled to implement a reserve on three reefs near Motiti Island that prohibits fishing and collecting shellfish at Otaiti, Te Porotiti and O karapu reefs, and at Motuhaku and Motunau Islands.

“What that’s actually done is that [because] they closed off the outer islands… recreational fishers move in closer to fish… everyone from here [Mōtiti] knows that’s our kapata kai…it’s unfortunate that that’s happened.”

While Irihapeti says families are still able to fish and gather seafood, there is a collective effort within whanau to give certain areas a break from overfishing or kaimoana-gathering and move to other spots on the island.

Irihapeti has six mokopuna and her whanau still head to Mōtiti to stay in the whanau home to get away from what she calls the ‘concrete jungle’.

As a wāhine Māori, she proudly wears a moko kauae.

This is the first time she has publicly talked about the Rena disaster.

“I feel like I owe it to some people to reflect on that time and to show my gratitude on behalf of all of us… and to commemorate those that we lost since then…some were very close, my daughter who was the island liaison, she lost her life two years later, my father who really enjoyed taking the SCAT teams for Maritime New Zealand NZ around the islands to assess the damages… he thoroughly enjoyed himself, he passed away a year later...it did take a toll on our family but we persevered… it may seem like ten years ago it may be a long time but it is still fresh in my mind."

Photographer Ross Brown was hired by Maritime New Zealand as the main photographer during the Rena Disaster. At the time, he called his brother and photographer Graham to help with the coverage.

Four days of work turned into four months and the pair worked long hours with little sleep. It was physically taxing, from hanging off the side of helicopters, capturing ‘rescue and release’ photos of wildlife to the hundreds of community volunteers.

Ross and Graham both took thousands of photos from that time and chose 20 to display in an outdoor photographic exhibition on display across October and November at Mount Maunganui and Tauranga City centre.

Graham and Ross Brown were the main photographers hired by Maritime NZ during the Rena Disaster

Graham and Ross Brown were the main photographers hired by Maritime NZ during the Rena Disaster Photo: Sunlive Media

The exhibition at Coronation Park, Mount Maunganui

The exhibition at Coronation Park, Mount Maunganui Photo: Sunlive Media

The exhibition at Coronation Park, Mount Maunganui

The exhibition at Coronation Park, Mount Maunganui Photo: Sunlive Media