The deep Pacific waters off Kaikōura, New Zealand, teem with abundant wildlife: fur seals laze on rocks near the shore, dusky and common dolphins compete with albatross and petrels for fish, and sperm whales rise for air and then descend to submarine canyons, hunting for giant squid.

This January, Hokies in wetsuits joined in the action.

“The guides encouraged us to make a lot of noise to attract the dolphins to you,” said Mollie Coogan, a participant in this year’s Sustaining Human Societies and the Environment trip, one of many of the Hokies Abroad experiences offered at Virginia Tech. “I found that it was really successful to hum the ‘Star Wars’ theme. About five dolphins came really close when I did that.”

Coogan, a senior in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, estimates that she spotted more than 100 dolphins on the swim, which gives visitors the opportunity to see wild dolphins in their natural environment. The experience – a culmination of three weeks spent traversing the South Island of New Zealand – also provided students with one more opportunity to see how the country balances a demand for tourist experiences with a need to protect a land featuring landscapes and wildlife that are unique in the world and uniquely vulnerable.

“Our students had the opportunity to explore the concept of sustainability from many different directions and capacities,” said Lynn Resler, a professor in the Department of Geography. “From tourism to farming to forestry, the students were exposed to the interplay between the natural environment and how human actions can impact natural spaces.”

A dynamic landscape and an ecology in flux

Geographically isolated in the southern Pacific, New Zealand was the last large geographic landmass inhabited by humans. The first arrivals – Polynesian sailors who reached the islands somewhere between 1280 and 1350 – found a landscape of vast forests of tōtara and kauri trees that boomed and echoed with the calls of dozens of bird species. The first humans to walk on the land would have encountered an ecosystem unlike any other in the world — from vivid green alpine parrots and nocturnal kiwis to the giant, flightless moas and the Haast’s eagles that hunted them.

The settlement of Māori people on the land — and the arrival of European colonists three centuries later — would alter that ecosystem drastically. From stowaway rats, dogs, cats, and possums to the commercial rearing of sheep and cattle, non-native animal species spread quickly across the landscape. Plants quickly followed: slow-growing hardwood trees such as rimu and kahikatea trees were cut down with non-native pines and poplars gradually taking over once-native forests.

“One thing that surprised me was the lack of endemic mammals,” said Coogan. “With the exception of two species of bats, all of the mammals were introduced, and they’re a big threat to the native birds. We learned about efforts on the main islands and the smaller refuge islands where they’ve managed to wipe out predatory species like rats and stoats.”

A person holds a plant while two others look on.
Students learned about irrigation and crop farming practices in Methven, New Zealand. Photo by Craig Ramseyer for Virginia Tech.

Students on the trip were able to see the modern ramifications of such changes while also learning about efforts throughout the country to protect native plant and animal species. They visited a forestry plantation, spent time talking with farmers about agricultural practices in the Canterbury region, and toured a hydroelectric dam that provides a significant portion of the region’s electricity. They also visited the Hinewai Reserve, an ecological restoration project on Banks Peninsula that aims to encourage the regeneration and repopulation of native plant and animal species.

Resler, who has visited New Zealand on previous study abroad trips, said she observed a significant effort to limit the encroachment of invasive plants this time.

“Around the outskirts of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, you could see the work that New Zealand is putting in to keep invasive, or ‘wilding’ pines, from getting close to the park,” said Resler, whose research focuses on mountain ecosystems. “There were heaps of cut, invasive pine trees on land adjacent to the park to limit the dispersal of seeds into protected areas.”

While sustaining an equilibrium between modern economic demands and the need to protect a unique ecosystem was often at the center of discussions, the students had ample time to experience the views of a country famous for jaw-dropping scenery.

“New Zealand has a dynamic landscape,” said Assistant Professor Craig Ramseyer, who co-led the trip. “It is a new land, which allows students the chance to see things changing on a timescale that is far different than the one we have in the Appalachian Mountains.”

From a sailing cruise through the fjords of Milford Sound to a hike to see the maritime Fox Glacier and the tallest mountain in New Zealand, the students had plenty of chances to experience the wilder edges of the country.

“We did a hike along the Hooker Valley Track and got to see Aoraki Mount Cook,” said Matthew Orwig, a senior meteorology major from Virginia Beach. “We also did a swim in one of the glacial streams. The water was very cold and very shocking to the system.”

How immersion leads to insights

In addition to learning about ecological sustainability, students had the opportunity to learn about the history, language, and philosophy of the Māori people and how those elements are integrated into the fabric of the society of Aotearoa, the te reo Māori language name for New Zealand.

“There’s a lot of effort put into bringing the perspectives and the voices of the Māori into places like the national parks,” said Ramseyer, who teaches climate modeling in the Department of Geography. “We heard lectures on Māori cosmology and listened to oral histories and stories that gave us a useful background for a lot of the places we visited.”

Students stand on a bridge in a forest of tall trees.
Students on a bridge along the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Photo by Craig Ramseyer for Virginia Tech.

Coogan, who previously went abroad on a student leadership trip to Israel to learn about geopolitical conflict there with the Hillel at Virginia Tech student group, said experiencing the interplay of different cultures is important in preparing students to engage in the world.

“I think my experience tied together a lot of the things I’ve been learning in my coursework,” said Coogan, who is a member of Lambda Iota Mu, a fraternity committed to conservation service work in the community. “We had people from all different majors on the trip, from people majoring in fish and wildlife to people majoring in engineering, and I think we’ll be able to tap into what we learned on the trip in the work we do in the future.”

For Orwig, the overseas experience has practical applications: as a member of Naval ROTC, he will be attending flight school after graduating in the spring.

“Going forward in my career, there’s a good chance that I’ll be going to different countries by myself,” said Orwig, who is a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. “Having some practice in allowing myself to be immersed in a new place and learn from a culture will allow me to adapt easier.”

Ramseyer said the broadening of perspectives that comes from being in a new place for a long stretch of time is a critically important part of the educational experience.

“There’s nothing like getting on the ground and seeing a landscape with your own eyes and getting the chance to engage directly with a community and culture,” said Ramseyer, “We had something like 60 different activities planned, and the students were phenomenal about asking good questions and really getting as much as they could from the people we spoke to. That kind of immersion is something you can’t replicate on campus.”

Future CNRE overseas study experiences include a trip to Tasmania and Queensland, Australia, this summer and a January excursion to learn about the human impacts on Antarctica in 2024.

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