New Zealand lost one of its environmental heroes when Dr Roger Grace QSM died at Warkworth Hospital on June 28. For more than 50 years, Dr Grace combed the seas around NZ from Stewart Island to the Kermadec Islands, measuring, counting, monitoring and recording changes in everything from crayfish and scallops to kina barrens and freshwater eels. He was a passionate advocate for marine protection areas and was instrumental in setting up marine parks at Tawharanui and Mimiwhangata, north of Whangarei.
Dr Grace discovered his love of the sea at the family’s bach in Red Beach on the Hibiscus Coast. He studied marine biology at University of Auckland, completing a PhD on the animals and marine sediments at the entrance to the Whangateau Harbour in 1972. It became one of his favourite dive locations, despite being chased out of it on several occasions by bronze whalers. He worked as a consultant biologist for numerous Government agencies, harbour boards and private companies, and voluntarily contributed his time to countless environmental organisations. He was patron of the Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust, and recipient of the prestigious Green Ribbon Award, a Queen’s Service Medal, the NZ Marine Sciences Society John Morton Award, Forest & Bird’s Old Blue, the Wyland Award and a Mobil Environmental Award.
During the 1970s and 80s, he was one of NZ’s top underwater photographers and was a founding member of the Underwater Photographic Society of NZ. As a regular contributor to boating, fishing and diving magazines, he worked hard to raise awareness of NZ’s marine ecology and associated environmental issues. His photos were featured in the first issue of NZ National Geographic and he was one of the early advocates for cockle monitoring in the Whangateau Harbour.
Dr Grace was a contemporary of other marine enthusiasts such as Wade Doak and Kelly Tarlton, and had the privilege of diving with international figures such as underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic photographer David Doubilet. But he told Mahurangi Matters several years ago that one of the most interesting aspects of his career was his 20-year association with environmental campaigner Greenpeace. He sailed on the Rainbow Warrior on several occasions to many parts of the world, including two voyages to Antarctica. He recalled staring down the barrel of a flare gun while chasing a drift-netter in the Timor Sea and ducking for cover when fire hoses were turned on the crew and frozen fish were thrown at them.
Friends and colleagues described Dr Grace as an unassuming and even-tempered man who always had a smile on his face, especially when ice cream, rum or his homemade feijoa wine were on the table. He was equally at home taking a group of school children on a snorkelling expedition as he was talking to a room full of scientists, and he never lost his enthusiasm or curiosity for the creatures that live in the sea. Many felt that his natural modesty meant he never truly got the recognition he deserved for a lifetime of dedication and achievement. One friend remembered how he would work on a project and when the funding ran out, he would just carry on without it, “because he believed the work was too important not to be done”. He believed in making decisions based on sound science, not emotion and friends hope his legacy will be a greater awareness of the urgent need for New Zealanders to take better care of their marine environment.
Dr Grace died of cardiorenal failure and is survived by his two daughters, Shelley and Vanessa.
Grace memorial fund set up
A Dr Roger Grace Memorial Fund has been established, which will be administered by the Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust. A special committee made up of environmental group representatives and a member of the Grace family will decide on where the funds will be spent. Priorities identified so far include:
• Long-term crayfish monitoring at Tawharanui
• Marine conservation establishment projects
• Annual Memorial Whangateau Snorkel Day
• Triennial award for early career recipients for contributions to New Zealand marine conservation and communication, to support and give credence to their future work.
To donate or find out more, visit emr.org.nz
A public farewell for Dr Grace will be held at the Mahurangi East Community Hall on Saturday, July 20, at 2pm. Friends, colleagues and members of the public are invited to attend.