The Rena grounding has become known as New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster. Early on the morning of October 5, 2011, the Cargo Vessel Rena struck Ōtaiti (Astrolabe Reef), about 12 nautical miles off the Tauranga coast in the Bay of Plenty, and grounded. As we approach the ten year anniversary, we look back at the stories that were told in the aftermath.

Rena photo exhibition

Marking ten years

An exhibition documenting the drama and tragedy of the grounding of the Rena is set to launch this month to mark the tenth anniversary of the disaster.

A collection of photos, taken by brothers Ross and Graeme Brown of Vision Media, will be on show in an outdoor display across October and November at Mount Maunganui and Tauranga city centre.

Ross and Graeme were commissioned by Maritime New Zealand to keep a photographic record of the disaster response back in 2011, and their photos and videos were subsequently seen by millions around the globe.

“It was an awesome experience to fly out there and record it photographically,” says Ross. “The idea of an exhibition came about to show a collection of photos all in one place that tells the story of the Rena.”

Ten years on, they began the task of shortlisting 400 from thousands of photographs, and finally selected 20 that will be displayed on billboards at Coronation Park from October 5-18.

The display will then switch to The Strand from October 19 to November 15. Each of the 20 boards is being sponsored by individuals, businesses and organisations.

“With the hundreds of images we’ve gone through, I think we’ve come up with some real gems,” says Graeme.

It is not surprising they ended up with so many images. What started out as two or three days’ work back in 2011 ended up being over four months. Things kept moving.

“The ship kept breaking up and all of the debris was arriving at different beaches around the Bay of Plenty,” recalls Graeme.

“Ross and I would drive to different locations to cover the event for Maritime New Zealand.”

Graeme’s first flight out to the Rena was with the Air Force.

“Even though there was a lot of disaster, the main thing about it for me was that there was no human life lost. Every day Ross and I would put out video footage and photos which were released by Maritime NZ, so everybody had access to them.

“I’ve never spent so much time in a helicopter before or in a big inflatable boat, getting out to the Rena and spending quite a lot of time just recording the cutting up and salvaging of it.”

Every day they covered more and more - the morning briefings, events, container recovery, beach clean-ups and visiting surrounding islands.

The exhibition includes stunning photos of containers teetering precariously, media at the incident control centre, hundreds of people wearing white overalls kneeling on the beach picking up oil, a little blue penguin being washed at the wildlife response centre, riggers balancing on top of containers, and the moment when the Rena broke in half.

There are also lighter and inspiring moments, like the release of penguins on Mount Main Beach, with the birds waddling around in various directions before finally taking off towards the water.

They also captured those poignant final moments before the remains of the Rena disappeared below the white foam on the reef.

“It was a life-changing experience,” says Ross.

Rena remembered

A disaster unfolds

The Rena grounding has become known as New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster.

Early on the morning of October 5, 2011, the Cargo Vessel Rena struck Ōtāiti (Astrolabe Reef), approximately 12 nautical miles off the Tauranga coast in the Bay of Plenty, and grounded. At the time of impact the vessel was travelling 17 knots and was carrying 1368 containers of cargo, 1733 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel fuel. Maritime New Zealand declared a national response, and mobilised the National Response Team for oil spill response; the beginning of what would become the largest clean-up in New Zealand maritime history.

In the course of the first month, the owner and their insurer’s salvage company Svitzer worked around the clock to remove oil. However, severe weather caused oil to spill from the wreck and wash up on land, causing grave concern and threatening long term damage to some of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches.

Volunteers, iwi, the New Zealand Army and other trained responders spent long hours cleaning up oil from nearby beaches.

More than 1000 dead birds were found, and 300 birds, mainly little blue penguins, were rescued and taken to the wildlife oil spill response facility.

In all, 88 containers were lost overboard and containers and debris washed up on beaches - some many weeks after the actual disaster. Eleven containers were identified as containing hazardous goods, complicating the exercise even further.

Local iwi supported the efforts to clean-up coastlines, and a combined force of people from all walks of life was swiftly organised.

An exclusion zone was set around Ōtāiti, beaches were closed to the public and people were warned against eating kaimoana, seafood.

For many months the clean-up continued, and the wreck site itself is regularly monitored at her resting place off the coast of Tauranga city - one of New Zealand’s busiest ports.

To date, the Rena remains the largest ever ship wreck in New Zealand waters.

Breaking the bad news to the world

Brian Rogers

A highly experienced and qualified skipper, Brian arrived on scene in his seven metre alloy Pelin pontoon Waterline photography boat, and knew instantly there was a disaster unfolding. But it took a while for the enormity of the event to impact national and international news.

Brian and Claire Rogers are owners of Sun Media, which publishes The Weekend Sun, Coast & Country News and Waterline, the region’s long serving boating magazine.

The company also runs popular news sites SunLive and Rotorua Now.

An avid boatie, Brian grew up sailing, fishing, kayaking and diving in the Bay, and has owned many yachts and power boats over the years. He’s also been a coastguard rescue boat crewman, and until recently a coastguard skipper with Tauranga Volunteer Coastguard. Not only does he have a passion for the sea, he has specialised in covering news events on the water.

When the Rena ran aground, Brian received an early morning call from a concerned fisherman saying there was a ship on the reef. “I wasted no time in launching and getting out to the reef, hoping that it wasn’t a serious incident but just a shallow grounding,” says Brian.

“I’d hoped the ship might be off the reef by the time we got there. Unfortunately, as history has played out, that wasn’t to be the case.”

The first news photos from the reef were snapped from the Waterline boat, before the exclusion zones were in place.

“When we arrived the ship was terribly aground and grinding on the reef. I said to my buddy that they would never get the ship off there. I knew it was going to break up.

“Here was this pristine reef, our diving and fishing mecca, with a bloody great container ship smack on top. It was heartbreaking.

“The crew were relaxing at the stern, leaning over the rails sipping on coffee, waving out and having a good laugh.”

Brian then broke the news to the world. “At the time I don’t think anybody, including ourselves, realised the enormity of the tragedy until we got there that morning.” It took a few days for momentum to build in the global media, as the incident took place on the same day that American businessman Steve Jobs died. Media outlets were also busy with the Occupy Wall Street Movement. “The worldwide media, and even the national media, were slow for this to register on their scale of disaster. It was a day or two before it really kicked into gear. But when it did, Tauranga was on the map for all the wrong reasons.”

Monitoring the reef

From scrap yard to thriving kelp forest

Dr Phil Ross, a marine ecologist at Waikato University, was in the final weeks of completing his PhD when the Rena ran aground.

Ten months later he found himself monitoring the impacts of New Zealand’s worst marine environmental disaster.

“My focus has been on the Astrolabe Reef and the other reefs around that area,” says Phil.

“The main thrust of the science was initially trying to understand the state of the environment, what contaminants might be in the ecosystem and food chain and getting some baseline information, to be able to put in place a monitoring program that was going to be able to continue into the future and give an indication of how the environment was recovering over time.”

Dr Chris Battershill had already conducted surveys of other reefs in the area immediately following the grounding, before containers, debris and oil had travelled.

“That gave us a pre-Rena baseline,” says Phil, “and an indication of how things should be in the absence of a shipwreck.”

A plan to monitor the reef’s ongoing recovery was developed with input from a wide range of stakeholders including the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, with funding then coming from the ship’s owner and insurance company.

“Astrolabe Community Trust was established once a resource consent was granted for the wreck.”

In addition to the monitoring conditions the Astrolabe Community Trust administers a number of restoration and mitigation funds which provide for the Motiti Island, Coastal Te Arawa and Tauranga Moana communities, as well as for the Bay of Plenty coastal volunteer community.

This includes a contestable fund that provides for annual research and education scholarships for the duration of the consents.

Hugo Shanahan led the communications and stakeholder work on behalf of the Rena owners, transitioning into a trustee role for the Astrolabe Community Trust.

“The trust administers the conditions of consent that were put in place through the consent process,” says Hugo. “We’re into the third year of that now. The most significant and important work stream has been the implementation of all the environmental monitoring and management plan. At the coalface of that is Dr Phil Ross and his team at the University of Waikato.”

After sampling and laboratory testing, Phil’s team puts all the information together into a report for two independent advisory groups – the Independent Technical Advisory Group and Kaitiakitanga Reference Group.

They assess the work and the results go to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council’s team.

The reports are made available at:

“The owner’s representatives visited Tauranga twice a year, every year for a long period of time, and had hundreds of meetings, working to build open and trusted relationships across the community,” says Hugo.

“Their priority was to understand future options for the wreck, including complete a major clean-up of debris to support the recovery of the reef – which was driven by community feedback through the consultation stages.”

The monitoring programme put in place initially meant Phil’s team visited the reef every six months, and then once a year after five or six years. From initially seeing the reef looking like a scrap metal yard, Phil says over the last five years it’s turned into a thriving kelp forest.

“It’s a fantastic place to go out and dive,” he says.

Monitoring of the Rena will continue for 20 years from the time consents were granted.

Ferrying riggers and divers

Anna Willoughby

Skipper Anna Willoughby has been working on boats for over 20 years, managing yachts and charters.

After hearing on the radio that the Rena had hit Astrolabe, she got on the phone to the harbour master’s office to ask if they needed a skipper. An hour later, she was amongst the first boats out to the reef.

Anna would spend the best part of the next couple of years involved in the salvage operation; ensuring public safety, running patrols, and hauling out debris from the water.

“Initially I was doing the exclusion zone patrol,” she says. “That was basically keeping the public out of the work area. It was a bit like a movie set out there - there would have been 20 vessels and helicopters, so a lot going on.”

Her work also included setting up oil booms out at Mayor Island and helping on Motuotau when that became heavily affected by oil.

“We were getting out with crowbars and wire brushes cleaning oil off rocks, and also getting debris out of the water – all sorts of flotsam and jetsam came in to the harbour. Couches, animal pelts, commercial-sized lumps of butter, timber - pretty much anything you could think of.”

Her contract changed to the daily ferrying of riggers, divers and personnel.

“They were long days, sometimes up to 17 hours. It was a turning point when the Rena broke up, and we realised that it was going to be a long-term project, not a quick fix.”

As a local, Anna found the sight of plastic beads breaking free to be particularly hard.

“Just seeing the magnitude of those beads spewing out of these containers and knowing that for every bag you got, there were probably about three or four broken bags that were impossible to clean up.

“Even now you still get plastic beads on the beach. For us locals, it was personal.”

The community response

Bruce Fraser

A week after the Rena struck the reef, Bruce Fraser, a public relations consultant, was asked to set up and coordinate the volunteer programme from the incident command centre, which was based in an old supermarket building opposite Tauranga Boys’ College.

“There was no blueprint for that at all,” says Bruce. “It had never been done internationally before.

“The oil had been coming ashore for a few days. Everything was turning to custard in terms of an environmental impact. The public were being told to stay off the beaches and for good reasons – the authorities hadn’t, at that time, worked out whether that oil was toxic.

“But people were going onto the beaches, with good intentions, trying to clean it up. They were bringing the oil back up onto the walkways and footpaths, into their cars and cafes. The authorities tried to keep them away but there was a mounting sense of community anger and frustration.”

The volunteer team held the first beach clean-up on October 14, with a health and safety induction, team leaders, protective clothing and equipment, and a quickly growing database of 8000 people that wanted to help. Making sure people were safe was a key focus.

“It was just an amazing response,” says Bruce. “It was mainly people from the Western Bay of Plenty who had seen the impact of the oil on their beaches, and people from all over New Zealand wanting to volunteer.”

He asked for feedback from volunteers, modifying the program and listening closely to community concerns. The beach clean-up had a four-pronged approach involving iwi, the Defence Force, contractors and volunteers, with localised groups looking after their own sections.

“We got this wonderful community response. Corporates turned up to feed volunteers, and there were food trucks and neighbours coming across the road with scones, cakes and pikelets. Our community came together in all sorts of ways.”

The Mayor’s view

Stuart Crosby

Stuart Crosby, mayor of Tauranga from 2004 to 2016, was flying to Wellington on the morning the Rena grounded.

Upon receiving a phone call from a Motiti Island resident wanting to know who was coordinating the response, he immediately flew back to attend his first meeting with Maritime New Zealand at Tauranga Airport.

“I am forever grateful to the team that took over a thousand tonnes of oil off the Rena in the first phase of the emergency under very challenging circumstances,” says Stuart.

“I shudder to think what would have happened if they hadn’t got that heavy fuel off. It was bad enough with the 350-odd tonnes that landed on our coastline, so another thousand tonnes would have been catastrophic.

“It was the biggest maritime disaster in modern history at the time, and the biggest oil spillage in our history. New Zealand was under-prepared for that. Without that international experience from the salvage companies, we couldn’t have done it.”

He found that both Mayor Paterson from Western Bay and himself were initially side-lined, as it was a Maritime New Zealand response.

“I knew once that oil hit our beaches it was going to be our problem and our community would be incredibly upset and want answers.”

After engaging with then Minister Stephen Joyce and government officials ahead of a media conference, the relationship improved considerably.

“We all started working really well together. The salvors did their best to retrieve as much of the Rena as possible and make it safe.

“As mayor of a city, you get to experience extraordinary events of all sizes. I was incredibly proud, but not surprised of how people came together quickly to volunteer.

“Community relationships were strengthened and environmental care groups are now stronger than ever.”

Saving the wildlife

Julia Graham and Paul Cuming

In the months prior to the spill, Julia Graham had been studying little blue penguins in the Coromandel, whilst also maintaining a close eye on the Mount Maunganui penguin population and nesting areas.

“When the oil spill happened, I knew it was going to be bad for them,” says Julia. “There are approximately 1500-1800 little blue penguins in the Mount area.”

Paul Cuming has been studying the Mauao grey-faced petrel colony of around 600 birds since 1990.

The Massey University wildlife oil spill response team realised both Julia and Paul were going to be invaluable, and sent them out to lead teams that rescued penguins, petrels and other birds.

“One night we brought back about 40 penguins,” says Julia. “It didn’t seem that bad at first, but after two or three days, the oil really hit.”

The heavy fuel oil spilling from the Rena resembled thick black tar. Many marine birds and animals were covered in it. The birds’ feathers stuck together so they couldn’t fly or swim, which meant they couldn’t feed. More than 2000 birds died including shags, petrels, albatrosses, plovers and little blue penguins, but early rescue efforts meant that many were saved.

“We were finding birds covered in oil, sitting in their burrows on top of eggs.” Back at the wildlife centre, the penguins had large swimming pools and aviaries to recover in.

Julia, Paul and others went on to form what is today known as the Western Bay Wildlife Trust, which continues to monitor, protect and restore native populations and ecosystems.

“We still see Rena penguins, and they’ve still got microchips,” says Paul. “We were able to prove that penguins can be rehabilitated. Birds that feed about 20km offshore flew over the oil to get to their burrows.”

“For the core members of the Trust, seeing the penguins get released was a really significant moment,” says Julia.

Maritime New Zealand

Nigel Clifford

Maritime New Zealand’s deputy director of safety and response systems, Nigel Clifford, was working in incident response when he received a phone call at around 3:30am on the morning of October 5, 2011, informing him that the Rena had run aground.

“It quickly became apparent that there was a risk of a very significant oil spill,” says Nigel. “We immediately declared a national level marine oil spill response.”

Maritime NZ has teams ready 24/7 for oil spills and also for search and rescue.

“Very quickly the rescue coordination centre established there was no immediate risk to life, but at the same time, our marine pollution response service team, working closely with regional council, were able to deploy our capabilities quickly.”

Staff were on the ground in Tauranga at first light, with equipment shifted into place soon after.

The potential leakage of oil, and the possibility of the ship breaking up and generating more pollution, had to be managed – as did challenges around cargo. “The local community were incredibly motivated and keen to do their bit and to get involved. It did take Maritime New Zealand a little while to get to understand the depth of that feeling and support.

“It probably took a week or ten days before we began to get really organised in terms of working in partnership with the local community and harnessing the energy, enthusiasm and support in a way that was effective and safe.”

It was one of the first major oil spills in the world at that time to harness volunteers in such a way.

“Primarily it’s about personal safety, and making sure people don’t trip and hurt themselves or get contaminated.”

Visits to local marae helped to build relationships with the local community.

“We gained a better understanding of the deep commitment to the guardianship of the environment, the need to work closely with local community and iwi, and how critical it was that it had be done as a partnership. Over time, it was good to see the [Rena] owners make an effort.”

Iwi liaison

Jack Thatcher

Jack Thatcher initially found himself being volunteered to look after the Western Bay of Plenty iwi that were most affected by the oil.

That role grew to a wider responsibility for the whole Bay of Plenty and as a national iwi liaison.

The involvement of Jack’s team was invaluable, as the oil was also impacting on areas across the region that held important significance to Māori. He found himself signing off requisition forms and allocating out safety equipment such as overalls and gloves.

“We worked alongside the Department of Conservation and also helped create the cultural impact reports,” says Jack.

In amongst the paperwork and difficult decision-making, he met two or three times a day with an array of the groups, from wildlife to salvage operators to iwi leaders.

“We started getting a really awesome vibe going throughout almost all of our iwi groups, as they came together to assist.

“It was a world-first, using volunteers; they came from all over the place. There were about 8000 volunteers that came in to work our beaches during that initial three-week period, when we got most of the rubbish and oil off the beach. We had probably about 1000 volunteers come out of our iwi groups.”

he iwi liaison team became a prominent part of each day at the Incident Control Centre on Cameron Road, initiating the same cultural practices that were a normal part of their lives.

“We started our day with a karakia and singing a waiata. Almost the entire ICC were there every morning for the karakia and the briefing that followed. We felt this might help everybody to raise their spirits.”

It worked, as people at the centre started saying how great they felt afterwards and the various teams connected more closely.