How to survive a shipwreck:
A sea level rise story

How to survive a shipwreck: A sea level rise story

There are many lessons climate scientists can learn from mātauranga Māori. Lesson one is: don’t panic.

This story was made with support from the Science Journalism Fund

Hank Dunn (Te Uri o Tai, Te Rarawa) has survived five shipwrecks in his lifetime. He told me this a few moments after I met him at the Deep South Challenge climate change conference in Auckland. The room was full of scientists and researchers and Hank seemed to stand out the same way I did – like maybe we’d washed up at the Maritime Room on the Viaduct by mistake. I told him I was there to write a story about sea level rise and he chuckled with raspy laughter and said he’d had heaps of near-death scrapes with Tangaroa.

“The last time,” he said, leaning in and whispering, “was out in Whangapē. Me and my mate went out to get some pāua. Normally we just park up at the mouth and walk around the coast but on that day it was oil-slick calm, so I said to my mate, it’s oil-slick calm, I may as well take you round and drop you off and then come back to anchor. Well, I dropped her off with all the gear but without the extra weight the boat was sticking up in water, like this.” Hank pointed his hand up, elbow down.

“I reached for the tiller to extend it but I wasn’t watching the bar, my own stupid fault, and when I stood up a small wave hit the boat from side on and knocked me clean overboard. Boom! Hit the water, down and straight out to sea. I kicked off my gumboots and swam for a bit but nope, no chance. The tide was on the way out. I looked back and the boat was spinning round and round in circles.” Hank cracked up laughing and slapped the table. “The tiller was jammed hard to the side!”

A few people looked over at us. I lowered my voice. “So what’d you do?”

“Well, like I said, it’s not the first time I’ve had to swim for my life. I didn’t panic.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Panic’s what kills you, you know.” He told me that he flipped over onto his back for a while to rest and get his breath back, and a moment later he felt something hit his shoulder. He turned around to see his fish bin floating past. “Well I grabbed that and turned it upside down to trap the air. Then I pitched myself across it and just lay there, heading out towards Australia.”

By this point the welcome speeches were underway and a hush had fallen over the room. Hank raised his eyebrows at me as if to say ‘here we go,’ and turned to listen. I took out my notebook and opened to a blank page.

What the science says about sea level rise

Western science is useful to help us understand climate change generally, and sea level rise specifically. Using complex modelling systems, scientists can paint a picture of how the planet has changed over time and try to predict, with a mixed degree of certainty, what will happen in the future. In terms of cause and effect, much of the science around sea level rise is common knowledge today: greenhouse gas emissions are causing the atmosphere to heat up and as temperatures increase, the sea is rising and expanding. Scientists warn that the consequences of sea level rise are potentially catastrophic. We’re already feeling and experiencing the consequences in Aotearoa, including increased intensity and frequency of floods, coastal erosion, storm surges and contamination of fresh water. Around the country, the cascading effects have been seen with bridges collapsing, landfills spewing their contents, and urupā teetering on cliffs.

Volunteers cleaning up landfill rubbish from 1313 ha of the Fox and Cook rivers, along 64km of the South Westland coastline (Photo: South Westland Coastal Cleanup Facebook)

What western science isn’t so good at is communicating to non-scientists how different environmental processes are interconnected. The language of climate change assumes I already understand what phrases like parts per million mean, or the significance of 1.5 degree warming, or how an agreement made in Paris might impact decisions that are made by my local council where I live in Porirua. To further complicate things, Western science (as with Western health and education) has a tendency to isolate issues and treat them separately. Ocean acidification is discussed in one report, overfishing in another, plastic pollution in another – even though all of these things have implications for the delicate balance of the same marine ecosystem.

There’s a risk that those less familiar with the terms, like myself, can become locked in unhelpful binaries of ‘good’ vs ‘evil.’ Carbon dioxide, for example, isn’t bad. Plants consume it and give off oxygen. Without these natural ‘sinks’, as they are sometimes referred to, we wouldn’t be here. The problem is that nature can’t process the bad stuff at the rate at which humans produce it. Not even close.

Floating towards Australia

Hank had time to think while he was heading out to sea on his fish bin. “I said a karakia to Tangaroa and Tāwhiri-matea to ask for help. I said, Help me! I want to go home! I was lying there on my fish bin when I heard a funny noise. Nnnneeeeeeee! Nnnnnneeee! I turned around and there’s the coast guard. Guy leans over the boat and says to me, ‘what are you doing out here?’ I looked at him and said, havin’ a swim mate, what does it look like?”

Hank boiled over with laughter. We were sitting outside overlooking the glittering Waitematā in downtown Auckland. He dotted a measure of tobacco along his paper, rolled it up with one hand and sealed it with a lick.

For two years, Hank Dunn collected water samples from all around the valley, recorded daily temperatures and rainfall information, and conducted interviews and household surveys (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

“I’ve had some scary ones. Out in the Hawkes Bay one time I swam five miles in the dark to get to shore. I was only 20 years old, young and strong and powerful. My great grandfather’s brother was an endurance swimmer. He survived a shipwreck in a storm off the Kaipara Heads in 1903, so maybe a bit of him has rubbed off on me. Anyway, my sister was having a birthday party and Mum said to me, go and get some kai. The boat was a 16 footer, 40hp Johnson motor. I went out from Napier towards Cape Kidnappers because that’s where the pāua is. I dropped the anchor, threw my tube over the side with my bag on it and got in the water and started diving. Filled my bag with pāua and kina. Then I went to get some snapper. There’s this place called the Springs, fresh water comes up from underneath the ocean. It bubbles up like a fountain. Just down from the current I caught about eight good snapper. It was about 6pm and coming on dark. I looked over towards Māhia and I could see all these dark clouds. I thought, shit that doesn’t look good, I better get the hell out of there.

“I pulled the anchor up and started the motor and took off. The wind got up really strong, blowing me from behind. When you’ve got a following wind and the waves are all going the same way as you, you have to stay off the wave so you don’t fall in front. Sometimes you have no power but the wave is still pushing you. Other times you got to use the throttle to stay with it. Well, anyway, the worst happened, the boat fell off the top of the wave and hit the bottom and flew apart. Just disintegrated. Electrolysis, a boat engineer told me afterwards. So I was swimming. I surfed in on the waves and whenever I got tired I’d roll over onto my back and have a rest. Swam ashore, walked back to my car, got in and drove home with an empty trailer. Mum came out on to the porch and said: Where’s the fish? Where’s the boat?”

Hank took a drag of his smoke and puffed with laughter. “I said to her, There’s no fish. There’s no boat. Boat’s gone!’”

Don’t panic

The debate about human-induced (“anthropogenic”) climate change has largely been settled, but it has been replaced with a new and equally passionate debate: how do we tackle the problem when the political and economic incentives still reward “business as usual?” The urgency of the situation, combined with a lack of clarity about how the science should be interpreted and applied – personally, politically, locally and globally – contributes to a sense of panic.

But panic, as Hank says, is exactly what kills you.

Hank isn’t your typical lab-coat wearing researcher. A structural engineer by trade and a fisherman at heart, he was invited to attend the Deep South Challenge conference to talk about a water quality project he’d been involved with in his papakāinga of Pawarenga. This Te Rarawa-led research project focused on water sustainability into the future. For two years, Hank collected water samples from all around the valley, recorded daily temperatures and rainfall information, and conducted interviews and household surveys. Hank was ideal for the role because he was born and raised on the whenua and knows it better than his own reflection. The papakāinga stretches the length of a long gravel road on the southern shores of the Whangapē harbour. To the north is Ahipara, to the south-east is Pangaru. On the map, the Hokianga looks like a long, jagged scar extending deep into the tail of the fish. Whangapē, by contrast, is just a small tear, a narrow thread of water leading to a sheltered enclave flanked by forested hills. It’s a kete kaimoana, a fish-basket. To Hank, it is paradise.

Pawarenga, on the southern side of Whangapē harbour in Te Hiku o Te Ika/Northland

With his hands-on experience, Hank joined one of the conference panels to talk about the future of water in our changing climate. He took a seat at the edge of the stage beside another Māori researcher, Lani Kereopa from Te Arawa’s Climate Change Working Group. At times it felt like there were two different conversations going on. Every time Hank or Lani spoke, the discussion would ebb and then flow off in a different direction. Where scientists used words like climatological forecasting and causality, Lani used words like restore and protect. Where an engineer talked about the tensions between valid versus non-valid uses of water, Hank described the waiora of Tāne that runs down from the ngahere in small streams as a gift from our atua, Tāne Mahuta. At one point, in an attempt to weave the disparate threads of conversation together, the facilitator, Simon Wilson, asked ‘who is science for?’ and Hank, not realising his mic was on, leaned over and whispered to Lani, ‘Science is for Pākehās’.

The room erupted with laughter, but Hank wasn’t joking.

A panel at the 2019 Deep South conference ‘Changing with our Climate’ chaired by Simon Wilson, discussing water quality  with Hank Dunn (far left), Lani Kereopa (to his right), James Hughes, Andrew Tait, Blair and Jenn Purdie.

Mātauranga Māori and sea level rises

Like the word kaitiakitanga, mātauranga Māori is a term that is becoming more and more familiar to Pākehā scientists in the climate change space. Loosely translated it means ‘knowledge.’ It is often seen by Western science as a Māori perspective on science, or as Simon Wilson suggested, ‘a cultural overlay’. In fact, we could describe mātauranga as a complete system of knowledge and Western science as the cultural overlay. Science is based on evidence and observation, and accumulates data to generate pictures and predictions. But in order for the information to make any sense it still needs to take the shape of a story. This is where science tends to fall down and mātauranga excels. Facts just don’t make for very memorable or compelling characters.

I’m no expert on mātauranga, but it has helped me to think of te huringa o te āhuarangi, or the changing of the climate, as the next chapter in our story of creation: Much has changed since Tāne-mahuta made the call on behalf of his siblings and wrenched his parents apart so that there could be light in the world. Papatūānuku’s intimate cycles have been observed and harnessed to sustain the living. Tamanui-te-rā rises in the east and provides heat, energy and light. Tāne absorbs the excess heat produced by living creatures and transforms it into life-giving oxygen. Tangaroa draws and captures harmful excesses in the atmosphere and buries it all deep in the ocean floor. Rongo-mā-tāne and Haumia-tiketike provide sustenance in the form of kai and medicine for healing. Everything both living and inanimate possesses mauri, an inherent life force which generates, regenerates, upholds and unites the diverse elements of creation. Tohunga adept at reading signs in the natural world (land, sea and air), provide guidance and caution – as do non-human kaitiaki. The organisation of society is held together by beliefs, habits, rules and customary practices that help non-tohunga (or non-scientists) navigate and live within the natural world harmoniously. Although Tāwhiri-mātea can be fearsome, with his storms and gusts of riri, he and his brother Tūmatauenga remind us that all families have mamae and all things exist in balance, even struggle and hardship. Ranginui keeps watch on his whānau from a distance, lamenting the separation from Papatūānuku in a way you can occasionally catch glimpses of when red streaks appear on a fractured grey sky.

Māori Marsden and the woven universe

Long before the science around human-induced climate change had been accepted, the Reverend Māori Marsden described the intimate balance between all things in a paper commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment in the late 1980s. It was titled The Natural World and Natural Resources:

“Papatūānuku’s children live and function in a symbiotic relationship. From unicellular through to more complex multicellular organisms, each species depends upon other species as well as its own to provide the basic biological needs for existence. The different species contribute to the welfare of other species and help sustain the primeval mother, herself a living organism. They also facilitate the processes of ingestion, digestion and waste disposal.”

Over time, this fine balance has been disrupted. The mauri that binds the fabric of the universe is showing signs of fraying and it’s not hard to see why: Humans have peeled back the skin of Papatūānuku’s belly and gutted her vital organs with one spade and buried their shit with the other. Ranginui’s throat is closing over from the stench and pity of it all. Human hunger to consume is more than Tāne can absorb, more than Tangaroa can hold, more than we should ask or expect them to absorb or hold, and Tāwhirimātea is angrier than ever. And who can blame him? Perhaps he is saying ‘See! I told you so! I told you our parents should never have been separated!’ Meanwhile, in a place so far away it may as well be our imagination, the ice is melting. We are not there to witness the ice sheets crash into the ocean but the ripples reach our shores one way or another. Tangaroa, sometimes calm and life-giving, sometimes unpredictable and harsh, is rising up.

Every iwi has its own mātauranga specific to their whenua. People like Hank and Lani, as mana whenua, are carriers of that knowledge. One of the strengths of mātauranga is that the solution to the problem lies in the story itself: to live in harmony with nature, and to correct the destructive path we are on, we need to correct and restore the balance between all living things. Rather than isolating problems, we need to understand that when we take, consume or rob the mauri of someone or something else, the impact or cost will be transferred elsewhere in the fabric. It doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t use the resources around us, but we need to exercise restraint and caution. We shouldn’t be naive and think that severely or disproportionately screwing with natural processes won’t come back to hurt us somewhere down the line.

Science is only part of the answer

To restore the balance it isn’t necessary for everyone to understand every detail about how natural environmental processes work. In fact, Māori Marsden suggests that ‘know how’ is pointless without ‘know why’. He says that it is far more important to connect the information with our beliefs and value systems. Individually and collectively, we need to live much more consciously with the understanding that everything we do and every consumer choice we make (or don’t make) will have repercussions, positive or negative, somewhere else in the ecosystem on which we depend. Lani says that it’s not about the management of nature, but how we manage ourselves to live in a relationship with nature. “Science is only part of the answer. For us in Te Arawa, we need to incorporate our values. Then we can ask ourselves, are we all doing our part to deliver on those values?”

Lani Kereopa (Te Arawa) speaking on the panel at the Deep South Challenge conference

This is a vital motivating connection that the western climate change narrative is often lacking – or conveyed using binaries that have the opposite effect on people, creating fear, confusion, anxiety and apathy. It’s not that science isn’t valuable, it’s that the advice and findings aren’t always packaged or delivered in a way that policy makers, let alone the layperson, can apply or comprehend.

In essence, we need a better story. We need a story we can buy into not just with our heads, but with our hearts.

The moral of the story – avoid, adapt, abandon?

Probably my favourite of all Hank’s shipwreck stories is the one where he was on a fishing trawler in the Waitematā. He told me this one over lunch. “It was about one o’clock in the morning and we ploughed straight into the Takapuna reef at full power. Luckily we had an emergency raft on top, one of those ones that automatically blows up. I went to get a knife to cut the rope and called out to the skipper to get in. He said ‘nah, I’m staying on the boat.’ I said ‘aye? You’re an idiot. This thing’s gonna sink, mate. I grabbed the paddle and started rowing and the last I saw him he was climbing up on top of the roof and shouting into his radio ‘mayday, mayday!’ He was rescued a few hours later in a state of shock.”

The reason I enjoyed this story so much is because Hank clearly has a knack for telling it. He finished up describing how he’d rowed ashore on first light at a nudist beach in Takapuna. “I saw a crowd of people coming down the stairs and I waved out to them to raise the alarm, but then I took a second look and thought, hang on a minute, they haven’t got any clothes on!” It was punchline I could tell he’d delivered before and I was still wondering about the moral of the story when I went to sleep that night.

For some communities, avoiding the hazard of rising seas isn’t an option. In places like South Dunedin, flooding and rising groundwater is unavoidable. Māori communities, a significant number of which are in low-lying and coastal areas, are among those most vulnerable. Devising viable long term options is a challenge – and not a cheap one. Without proper funding and resources, hapū will not be able to take the steps necessary to protect their marae, papakāinga, taonga or urupā. Adapting to the threat of sea level rise isn’t as simple as building a wall or shifting a wharenui. In many cases there’s nowhere to move to. For iwi and hapū that have already suffered massive land loss through colonisation, the remaining coastal land is often all that is left – just the roof of the ship sitting above the waterline. Leaving is the absolute last resort. Not everyone wants to, not everyone can. Abandoning your whenua, or ‘managed retreat,’ to use climate adaptation language, almost makes the choice sound pleasant or relaxing instead of totally devastating. Where are people expected to go? Some might be able to jump into a life raft and leave, but mana whenua are the land. How can whānau retain connections to ancestral land if it’s under water? Glug glug glug.

The power of whakapapa

At least one of the reasons Hank has survived five ship wrecks is because he keeps his wits about him in a crisis. He conserves his energy and uses all the physical and spiritual resources he has at his disposal.

Another reason is whakapapa. A few weeks after the conference I went to visit him in Pawarenga to hear his final two shipwreck stories. I arrived in the dark and nearly drove straight into the sea.

Where the road meets the sea at Taiao (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

The next morning I stood on top of Taiao and looked down on the marae and saw in daylight what by night I could only feel: Tangaroa has washed away the road away and is coming for the wharenui. We hiked up to the urupā beside St Gabriel’s church with the distinctive red roof and Hank told me the stories of Te Rarawa and Te Au Pōuri. He pointed to his father’s farm on the distant shore in Whangapē and told me how his father swum his horse across that river with his clothes tied to the horse’s head. When he got to the other side he chucked on his shirt and pants and headed to the Pawarenga dance where he met Hank’s mother.

Hank was quiet for a moment and then he said, “A person who doesn’t know their whakapapa is lost.”

For someone whose whakapapa has been eroded by waves of colonisation, these words are painful to hear. But they’re also reassuring, because people like Hank, who are custodians of the stories, are generous in giving them back.

Returning to his homestead surrounded by old boats and motors and his two kittens, Lion Red and Speights, Hank pulled out a family photo album where the article about his Great Grand Uncle Wattie appears:

“One of the greatest feats of survival from a watery grave was performed by a Māori, Wattie Dunn. He was a crew member of the ill-fated May which was being towed to sea by a small tug boat… Gale force winds were met at around midnight and the Pilot had to let her go as it meant disaster for both. A witness said that the May lay broadside for about 5 minutes before it finally rolled over to reappear with only the foremast standing. A man was seen clinging to the mast. Wattie Dunn was in the boiling surf for over half an hour battling with the breakers. He passed closed to the Concordia [another ship] and was offered a lifebuoy but he refused it and carried on to shore.”

Hank points out Taiao marae from the hill (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

The fact that Hank’s tipuna refused the lifebuoy and continued to swim is a point of pride for Hank. It is a reflection of the resourcefulness and self-reliance of iwi when it comes to solving problems. At the conference, Lani made this point specifically and eloquently. She talked about Te Arawa’s comprehensive climate change strategy that includes plans for food and water security and mechanisms to protect homes and marae from flooding. “But,” she said, “there’s no funding or support to implement these plans. The scientists come in and do a bunch of research and then leave. They’ll say, ’this is what needs to happen,’ but we already knew what work needs to be done. The funding isn’t there to create the green infrastructure we need to protect our waterways, or to support us to achieve real land-use change and establish circular economies at a marae and community level. We want to achieve full food and power sovereignty, but at the moment all we can do is report on it. That’s why Māori communities have this sceptical view of science. It’s good for the scientists and their jobs because it ticks boxes and produces reports. But if we actually want to get things done, we have to try and find ways to do it ourselves.”

A lack of resources for iwi to be self-determining in climate change adaptation was highlighted as a key concern in a 2019 report by the Deep South Challenge. The research by Catherine Iorns highlights the inadequacy of the current legislative environment to ensure that Māori will be able to exercise tino rangatiratanga around decisions that affect them. The Crown is the Treaty partner but the land most at risk of sea level rise falls within the jurisdiction of local councils and their statutory responsibilities to Māori are not as water tight as those of central government. The Resource Management Act is insufficient on its own because it does not specifically mention climate adaptation in relation to iwi. The guidelines put out by the Ministry for the Environment and the Department of Conservation around sea level rise are non-binding – in other words, iwi may end up relying on the goodwill of councils rather than rights that are meant to be constitutionally protected.

Don’t panic

Hank told me his second to last shipwreck story just on sunset. We’d finished the tour of Pawarenga, which included visiting the two other marae in the valley, Morehu and Ōhaki, and were back at his whare frying a steak. The kittens mewled at us through the window.

“Me and a cobber, Ruki Hita, were working on the chain in Tomoana Freezing Works in the Hawkes Bay. One afternoon after work we were setting a net in the Tūtaekurī river. We’d set our net there before and knew it pretty well. There are a lot of different lagoons up in that place. It’s sort of like a big estuary and the mouth of the river is below, yeah, the sea is actually a lot lower. So the water flows down and drops into the ocean. Big tide when it comes in. Anyway we set the net where we usually put it. I had an anchor on one end of the net and a sack of rocks on the other. We put some buoys along the top of the water and made sure the net was untangled, then rowed ashore in our ten foot dinghy. We were havin’ a smoke and a yarn when I looked up and saw our net was moving. You could see it in the current. I said to the bro, shit our net’s on the move! It was about to get dragged out to sea. We got in the boat and rowed out. My mate was on the paddles. I pulled up the anchor at one end and then started hauling the net. Had about three quarters of it in the boat when I heard the roaring.

“I turned around and wow, we were right by the mouth. It was steep like a waterfall. I looked at how much net was still to bring in and could see it was too much. We were powering towards the mouth. I yelled to my mate, get the net out of the boat! But we couldn’t get it out, the anchor got stuck under the seat! I said to my mate, cut the rope! And he goes, I can’t, I left the knife in the car! A huge wave came and picked us up and dumped us upside down. I came up and looked around and my mate was near the boat. He was struggling, calling for help. ‘Cuz! Cuz! Help me!’ He had a huge swandri on and gumboots. I told him he was gonna end up like a fish caught in the net if he didn’t get out of there. I got him to take off his boots. Showed him how to get across the breakers. I had to take a hold of him and turn him over onto his back because he was struggling. I told him to relax and let himself go, and that’s how we made it to shore. Used the waves to swim and turned over to rest whenever we got tired. The next day we went back to the river and picked up the net. The boat got smashed up on some rocks but the paddles were there. My mate didn’t want to come out, he was scared of sharks. I said: Don’t think about sharks, just keep focused on what we’re here for. So I swam out, pulled the net in, and it was full of fish!”

There’s one more shipwreck story to tell, but if you want to hear it you’ll have to go and find Hank in Pawarenga. For now, there’s work to get on with. There’s the work to communicate what sea level rise is about, how it is connected to everything else in the ecosystem, and what we can do as individuals, whānau, and communities, to restore the balance between all things.

Then there’s the work to prepare for the hazards and threats that are coming regardless. This is all the more challenging in a country where colonisation has left many of our people struggling, lost, less equipped and needing help just to stay afloat – let alone thinking about saving Papatūānuku as well.

But we can awhi each other. We are resourceful and resilient, and like Hank says, worrying or panicking isn’t going to save us – we just need to focus on what we’re here for and get started. Sometimes we’ll have a following wind, sometimes we’ll need to use our power to stay on top of the wave. Taking rests to conserve our energy is important. Whatever the future holds, we have the land to draw on and give back to. Atua and kaitiaki and ancient knowledge to guide us. We have karakia and whakapapa. And most of all, we have our stories.

I asked Hank if he ever wondered what Tangaroa was trying to tell him with all these close-calls and he laughed. “I suppose I ask myself, what did you get saved for? Why did the atua bring you back? Must have been for something. Maybe that’s why I am here. To do this work. I know I’ll never die by drowning, I can swim like a fish!”

He mihi tēnei ki a Matua Hank Dunn, nāna i whāriki mai ēnei kōrero whakahirahira hei koha mā tātou. He mihi mutunga kore.


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