“No new buildings were brought into use in 1966,” reads the University of Otago annual report of that year. It fails to mention, though, that a significant new resource – almost as good as a building – had been commissioned for use: the Research Vessel Munida. It is perhaps not surprising that the Otago authorities did not mention their new boat, as they may have felt rather uncomfortable about its arrival!
The project to obtain this marvellous new resource was the brainchild of the redoubtable Dr Betty Batham, Director of the Portobello Marine Biological Laboratory. She was a brilliant Otago science graduate of the 1940s who completed a doctorate at Cambridge. She returned to Otago in 1950 to work at the Portobello laboratory. It was originally founded in 1904 as a fish hatchery, at the instigation of George M. Thomson, naturalist and teacher of biology at the Otago Boys’ and Otago Girls’ High Schools. It was managed by the Portobello Marine Fish Hatchery Board and funded by the Marine Department. During the 1930s funding was cut and the station deteriorated and in 1951 it was handed over to the University of Otago.
The fish hatchery was in a very good location for carrying out research into marine science, but it was rather isolated. After ferry access slowly wound down in the early 1950s, and before the road from Portobello was opened in 1956, the easiest way to transport people and materials to the marine lab was to row across from Port Chalmers. The university initially renovated the old hatchery building, but replaced it with a new building in 1960, complete with public aquarium. A further new research building was completed in 1987.
A research vessel would clearly be a great asset for marine biologists, along with other university researchers, such as geologists. But it was a very expensive item, unlikely to be funded by the university. Legend has it that Betty Batham noticed an article in the Otago Daily Times about lottery funds one day in the early 1960s. The Golden Kiwi lottery, launched in 1961, was enormously popular and bringing in large funds to the government. In response to public concern that the profits were being allocated to “unworthy” causes, the government decided to open up grants to a scientific project, especially a large one unlikely to be funded through normal channels. By the end of the week Betty had put together an application for a grant, had it signed by the acting vice-chancellor (allegedly he didn’t read it), and sent it off to the Department of Internal Affairs.
The university authorities were surprised to learn that they had been awarded a lotteries grant to design and build a marine research vessel and staff it for five years! The grant was a very substantial one of £45,000, equivalent to close to $2 million in today’s money. Of course, this was a major responsibility for the university, which would be left to fund the project after the first five years. The 15-metre RV Munida was built in Lyttelton and fitted out in Dunedin, entering service in the middle of 1966. With its wide range of oceanographic equipment it was a real boon to the university’s research. To help make good use of this new resource the entrepreneurial Betty Batham applied to the Nuffield Foundation, which funded a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship in marine biology. That fellowship was awarded to John Jillett, who joined the permanent staff once the three years was up, eventually succeeding Batham as Director of the Marine Laboratory in 1974. Research into marine science continued to expand and in 1992 it became a full university department. As John Jillett comments, the oceanographic environment in southern New Zealand is unique, making it a wonderful location for scientists who come from around the world to research here.
Bill Tubman, who was skipper of the Munida from 1966 to 1985, was a talented photographer who put together some wonderful albums recording the boat’s various voyages and activities. These are now held with the Department of Marine Science archives in the Hocken Collections, and the lovely early photograph of Betty Batham with the crew comes from that source. The Munida got a new engine and a refit in 1988, and was eventually replaced with the RV Polaris II in 2007. Do you have any stories to share of the RV Munida?