They had been two-and-a-half weeks at sea, crossing the ocean from Auckland to Rarotonga.
When Ant Vavia and the rest of the crew of the sailing vaka Marumaru Atua sailed into Avatiu harbour, it was an emotional homecoming.
Vavia was asked to lead the chant as they pulled up to moor at the dock, crowded with friends and family and VIPs and wellwishers.
“The captain said, don’t get emotional, you’re leading it, you can’t be emotional – don’t be that guy.”
But seeing his family on shore and, to his surprise his partner Jessie who had flown in from New Zealand, he struggled to hold back tears.
“It was beautiful.”
This was a proud homecoming for Vavia. But it wasn’t his first homecoming. His has been a life of gradual return home to the islands of his ancestors.
Visiting his mother’s home island of Mitiaro when growing up, fishing, snorkeling and exploring, little did Anthony Vavia realise his childhood experiences would have such an influence on his later career path later.
In year 11 he knew it was “time to knuckle down” and seriously think about what he wanted to do. “OK, I’m halfway through high school, the papers I select need to count.”
Talking with his dad and mulling over what profession he wanted to pursue, Vavia realised he wanted a career that was adventurous, always learning, but also problem-solving.
His dad suggested, how about a marine biologist?
“I had no idea what that was,” says Vavia, “so I had to Google it.”
Reading about marine biology Vavia thought, “I could so do this, it looks so much fun, I grew up around the ocean, why not get amongst it.
“My dad would take me fishing, snorkeling, camping, pitch up a tent, make a fire and cook, we had a general love for the outdoors – that’s how I looked at marine biology and thought ah yes, I can do this.”
Leaving Onehunga High School was an interesting time for Vavia. He was torn between accepting a scholarship to study marine biology, or training as a helicopter pilot for the Navy: “both exciting and adventurous careers surrounded by the ocean.”
The decision was made for him – Vavia didn’t pass the helicopter pilot test.
In 2014, he attended Auckland University of Technology to study marine biology. To balance the stress of study, he would take a day off, hang with friends, go for walks – and get out in the ocean.
Anthony Vavia joined the crew of Marumaru Atua in New Zealand last year and sailed for the first time to Rarotonga.
“It’s one of the best experiences of my life,” he said.
“I’ve made lifelong friends voyaging, and you just learn to work together and trust one another, and forced to pay attention to the stars, to the sea, the current, the wind.
“The environment, the stars, because there is no artificial light the stars really stood out, especially when they reflected off the ocean.”
What is it about voyaging that he loves? “You won’t find out until you’re out there, it’s an experience that you will grow inside. Voyaging will always be a part of my life.”
At the same time, he had begun studying towards a doctorate in marine sciences. “This took a lot of reading and planning, getting told you’re wrong, methods or ways of approaching questions or problems and providing evidence of why things should be done,” he says. And that was just the proposal …
Once that proposal was approved, Vavia says, that was when the real field work began. And like the decision on whether to be a marine biologist or a helicopter pilot, the choice on where to conduct his research was easy: it had to be his family’s home island of Mitiaro.
It is a place he loves, it’s a place he’s passionate about, a place he is happy to wake up to. “The first thing that came to my mind was home, why not bring it home.”
Last year he moved to the island where he will be based for three years. It was a big lifestyle change for a boy who’d grown up in Auckland.
“I knew that anything I’d learn from there would be beyond just academic material, it would be lifestyle, culture, people, history.”
Vavia has blended in with the people, meeting relatives, and is learning the language.
“I enjoy the challenge, getting to know the people has been really good, so I can put names to faces, and my Maori has improved,” he grins.
“Now and then I’ll message my Mum and my Nana in Maori, then she would reply in Maori, and I would just give up,” he laughs.
“I’ll take one step at a time!”
Vavia aspires to design something that will be useful for people. “Otherwise this information will just sit in a journal and only be read by other scientists. I want it to be applicable.”
He hopes his research will provide an indication of Mitiaro’s fisheries, whether they’re sustainable. “Just from what I’ve just seen and from what I’ve observed, people don’t complain, they always have food.
“They don’t abuse the ocean, they get what they need then they distribute it to other families that might be unable to fishing. They don’t sell it, you give.”
Mitiaro is known for its healthy lagoon.
“The variety of coral reef fish, seeing herbivorous fish such as parrot and surgeon fish is good, they are indicators of a healthy reef. The waters are beautiful.”
He hopes Mitiaro will have something to offer other Pacific islands in sustainable practices or any other rural coastal communities that depend on marine resources.
There are a lot of challenges around fisheries, there are challenges for some rural subsistence dependent communities, he says.
“We could learn from the Pa Enua and how they manage their resources.”
Vavia shares his story with young people, working with Te Ipukarea Society and delivering presentations to schools in New Zealand and the Cook Islands.
“Some young people doubt themselves, and that’s what I want to emphasise with the kids, you’ve got to do it, don’t doubt.
“They are capable if they let themselves be, work hard, and you can be.”
“You don’t have to become a scientist or a marine biologist, what matters is that they do what they want to do, whether it be a plumber, electrician, as long as they work towards something that would motivate them and make them happy.”