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  • On 5 October 2011, the cargo vessel Rena was grounded on the Astrolabe Reef off the Tauranga coast. The ship was carrying 1,368 containers, 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and about 70 tonnes of diesel. The ship began to break up, and hundreds of tonnes of thick fuel oil and dozens of containers spilled into the sea. This was described as the worst environmental marine disaster in New Zealand and was a real concern for most New Zealanders. The oil killed and damaged sea birds and marine life. Containers and oil were strewn along the Bay of Plenty coastline.

    The disaster galvanised scientists and environmentalists into action. Aside from the clean-up, research studies were refocused to include possible effects of the Rena. New research began, focusing on effects of pollution from the Rena on marine life.

    Rapid response to the Rena

    Immediately following the grounding of the Rena on the Astrolabe Reef a marine response team was formed.

    It was the hot topic of discussion in environmental circles. In schools, teachers and students discussed it in current events, and it often led to more in-depth studies on the environment.

    We realised this story should be on the Science Learning Hub. It was a great opportunity for students to learn about environmental disasters, the consequences and responses needed. I visited Chris Battershill from the University of Waikato who was heading up the science research in response to the Rena grounding. He told me about research that was already under way concerning the marine environment in the Bay of Plenty (and how this would be helpful concerning the Rena incident) and research that had just begun. From there, I met a number of people involved either with research or the clean-up.

    New Zealand research

    Marine research was already happening in the Bay of Plenty. This research continued, but the focus changed slightly to reflect or incorporate the Rena incident. New research specifically relating to the Rena began, but much of this research was to be long term. When I spoke to those involved, they had only just started developing their ideas. Consequently, the research I presented on the Hub was mostly research that had begun before the disaster took place.

    Science ideas and concepts

    The science ideas and concepts underpinning this story involve the marine environment. The articles include ideas about habitats found in the Bay of Plenty (estuaries, beaches, rocky shores and offshore islands, which have warm currents and attract tropical marine life). There is an article on marine biodiversity and why it’s important and another on adaptation of species to habitats. Human impacts on various habitats and how they change marine environments are addressed, along with an article that discusses stress on ecosystems and their resilience to that stress.

    Additional articles

    Other articles include bird recovery, pollution from Rena, the oil clean-up, and iwi and kaimoana. The article about bird recovery was written after talking to Emma Sommerville, who played a prominent role in helping to save oiled birds. The pollution article talks about the pollution that came from the ship. The article about cleaning up the oil discusses the use of dispersants and briefly touches on other methods of clean-up. The article Iwi and kaimoana explains how local iwi were affected by this disaster and why they became an important part of the clean-up.


    Student actitivites include a card activity on marine habitats. It addresses why and how animals and plants are best suited to different habitats. Firstly, characteristics of habitats are matched to particular habitats. Then the animals and plants are matched to their appropriate habitat. URLs are given for rocky shore and estuary studies.

    Another activity introduces students to biodiversity. Students make models of a marine ecosystem and then explore ways humans might impact on that ecosystem.

    Responding to Rena incorporates a video that shows the response to the Rena from the University of Waikato and the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic. Students consider, through role-play, what is involved when responding to an environmental disaster.

    Students also experiment with sorbents (materials that absorb oil) as they explore how to clean up oil.

      Published 28 September 2012 Referencing Hub articles
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