Busi­ness in great wa­ters

It’s the wildest, most beau­ti­ful, feared and least-known ocean on the planet. Yet when you men­tion the South­ern Ocean one name al­ways comes up – Rod­ney Russ.

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY MATT VANCE

Rod­ney Russ loves to share the South­ern Ocean.

Russ has spent more time in this ocean than most and has shown more peo­ple its beauty than any­one else I know. To say he is a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for South­ern Ocean wildlife con­ser­va­tion is the un­der­state­ment as wild as a wan­der­ing al­ba­tross.

Russ’ story starts not in the depths of a South­ern Ocean gale but on the banks of the Waimea River near Nel­son. He was a farmer’s son who had a healthy fix­a­tion on the birdlife of the river.

In the early 1960s a lo­cal con­trac­tor ex­ca­vat­ing gravel was asked by a small boy not to work near a pied stilt nest. It was a first at­tempt at con­ser­va­tion and the be­gin­nings of a life that would be ded­i­cated to open­ing aware­ness of the wildest and loneli­est reaches of the planet.

Russ’ youth was spent be­tween his de­sire for the out­doors and en­dur­ing the stuffy rigours of Waimea Col­lege. When the prin­ci­pal of the col­lege sug­gested he might be wast­ing his time in the class­room, Russ took the hint and left school.

While ex­pec­ta­tion was that he would go farm­ing, it was his pas­sion for wildlife that drew him into ap­ply­ing for a Wildlife Ser­vice in­tern­ship. The Wildlife Ser­vice was a small depart­ment un­der the Depart­ment of In­ter­nal Af­fairs and as it hap­pened a breed­ing ground for most of the great names in New Zealand wildlife con­ser­va­tion.

In 1972 when a fel­low trainee pulled out of the New Zealand, Aus­tralian and United States Auck­land Is­land Ex­pe­di­tion, Russ was asked to join for a three-month stint on the Sub-antarc­tic Is­land. “I loved ev­ery minute of it. Tears streamed down my cheeks when we left and I promised my­self I would re­turn,” he says.

It was the first of many ex­pe­di­tions to the is­lands and it was where Russ earned the nick­name of ‘The Ev­in­rude Cow­boy’ for his abil­i­ties as a Zo­diac helms­man among the big swells and treach­er­ous coast­lines of the South­ern Ocean.

His tenac­ity got him no­ticed and he was part of some ground-break­ing teams that worked on sav­ing the Chatham Is­land black robin and the kakapo and the Camp­bell Is­land teal.

In the late 80s, the Wildlife Ser­vice was ab­sorbed into what would be­come the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion. With the fo­cus mov­ing away from field­work to pa­per­work and a young fam­ily to feed, Russ made the un­likely break into the world of the­ol­ogy.

He stud­ied at Knox The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege at the Uni­ver­sity of Otago and it was dur­ing his uni­ver­sity hol­i­days that he took up work as track war­den and as co-co­or­di­na­tor of the Na­tional Parks and Re­serves Sum­mer Hol­i­day pro­gramme in Dunedin. This work sparked an idea to form a com­pany tak­ing na­turelov­ing tourists to Fiord­land by launch.

“These early ex­pe­di­tions re­con­nected me with my love of the ocean. They fo­cused my thoughts on the Sub-antarc­tic and how much I would en­joy shar­ing these is­lands with vis­i­tors,” he says.

“We op­er­ated our first ex­pe­di­tion to the Auck­land Is­lands for a group of pen­guin lovers from Ja­pan. We com­bined that cruise with a cen­sus of the rock­hop­per pen­guin colonies on the Auck­land Is­lands.”

This theme of tourists and trav­ellers mak­ing a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to con­ser­va­tion con­tin­ues to the present day and is at the core of what would be­come Her­itage Ex­pe­di­tions.

Find­ing suit­able char­ter ships for the Sub-antarc­tic was al­ways a chal­lenge, as the South­ern Ocean de­mands a lot from a ves­sel. Ini­tially Her­itage Ex­pe­di­tions used the Acheron, the ves­sel Russ had first trav­elled to the Auck­land Is­lands in 1972.

When the Acheron be­came too small, the com­pany switched to Pa­cific Ruby (nick­named the Rolling Ruby) char­tered from Youth with a Mis­sion. She spent half the year spread­ing the gospel in the heav­enly wa­ters of the South Pa­cific, the rest as a char­ter ship to Her­itage Ex­pe­di­tions bat­tling with the hellish seas of the South­ern Ocean.

“Those early years were fun. We kept one step ahead of the author­i­ties who were de­ter­mined to put us out of busi­ness.”

In 1993 the busi­ness took a large step up when it signed the char­ter for a 48-berth Rus­sian re­search ship Aca­demic Shokalskiy. This re­quired a guar­an­tee of one hun­dred days work each sum­mer, which forced the com­pany to ex­pand into tak­ing ex­pe­di­tions to the Ross Sea and East Antarc­tica.

With the bank not in­ter­ested in such a high-risk ac­tiv­ity, the ven­ture was funded in the first sea­son on cash flow. The Shokalskiy quickly be­came a fea­ture of the South­ern Ocean, as did the en­tire Russ fam­ily with Russ’ wife Shirley run­ning lo­gis­tics and his sons Aaron and Nathan tak­ing to ex­pe­di­tion travel at an early age.

Ten years later a new char­ter agree­ment was signed on Shokalskiy’s sis­ter ship Pro­fes­sor Khro­mov and Russ be­gan re­search­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of run­ning ex­pe­di­tions to the Rus­sian Far East.

A few com­pa­nies had tried and failed to get a foothold in eastern Rus­sia, as the area had al­ways been off-lim­its dur­ing So­viet times, due to the pres­ence of mil­i­tary bases and the prox­im­ity to the United States.

At the best of times do­ing busi­ness in Rus­sia is a com­plex and frus­trat­ing un­der­tak­ing and it was pure tenac­ity and hard work that got them there.

LEFTThe Ev­in­rude Cow­boy’s in­ter­est in con­ser­va­tion led to the es­tab­lish­ment of Her­itage Ex­pe­di­tions. RIGHTThe Pro­fes­sor Khro­mov in Com­mon­wealth Bay – in a snap­pier colour scheme.

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