Chance holiday snap alerts scientists to discovery

16:00, Mar 08 2013
The raft of ash and pumice spotted by Maggie de Grauw on a flight from Samoa.
AT SEA: The raft of ash and pumice spotted by Maggie de Grauw on a flight from Samoa.

A Waikato woman who snapped a chance picture of debris from an undersea volcano as she flew home from a Samoan holiday alerted scientists around the world to a major discovery.

But the tale of co-incidental discovery doesn't end there; she found debris from the same eruption on a Coromandel beach months later.

Tirohia artist and jewellery maker Maggie de Grauw was flying home from a holiday in Samoa in July last year when she spotted a vast brownish-grey slick on the surface of the ocean beneath the aircraft 800 kilometres northeast of Tauranga. It turned out to be from an undersea volcanic eruption.

Maggie de Grauw
FIND: Maggie de Grauw with pumice from the site.

"I took a couple of pictures [from the aeroplane] wondering if it was an algal bloom, oil spill or, recalling a conversation with a friend the week before, a deposit from a volcano," she said.

On her return to New Zealand, an internet search led her to Scott Bryan, a vulcanologist at Queensland University.

She sent her photographs to him and he alerted geologists in New Zealand and the United States.

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Nine days later the crew of an airforce Orion found the deposit over an area 250 nautical miles by 30 nautical miles.

Then a Niwa marine biologist identified the sediment as likely to have come from an underwater volcanic eruption.

Ms de Grauw said Robert Andrews of the Smithsonian Institute emailed her to tell her if she had not photographed the raft no-one would have known there had been an eruption on the Havre seamount on the Kermadec Ridge. It had no history of erupting.

The photographs Ms de Grauw took were used in a report on the eruption by the Smithsonian Institute.

But the story doesn't end there.

"This January, six months to the day after photographing the pumice raft, I was beachcombing at Opoutere and Hot Water Beach and found some chunks of pumice covered with ‘goose barnacles', which rarely make it to our shores, so I let Niwa know and they asked me to send samples down," she said.

"It has just been confirmed the pumice . . . came from that undersea eruption of Havre," she said.

Ms de Grauw has previously used pumice beads in her jewellery work, but now has some new material with special significance.

"Now I have confirmation from Niwa about the pumice being from the raft I saw, I am going to make a series of pieces using this freshly spewed-out pumice to commemorate my accidental journey into a scientific discovery," she said.

Waikato Times