Diving for history of the Southern Cross Cable

Massey University PhD candidate Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, with the mural Te Ika-a-Māui, the story of Māui fishing up the North island in the background. Now freshly restored, the mural was found while she researched her project on the history of the Southern Cross Cable.

Artist Bronwyn Holloway-Smith really tested the depths of her comfort zone by learning to scuba dive as part of her PhD research into the history of the Southern Cross Cable – New Zealand’s primary internet connection to the rest of the world.

Aspects of her work, including a hand-held tour guide pinpointing some cable landmarks, will be on display at City Gallery Wellington from tomorrow as part of an exhibition This is New Zealand; a collection of works by New Zealand artists that considers the subject of national identity.

Since its installation in 2000, the cable, a thin tube with a width the size of a garden hose, has carried 98 per cent of New Zealand’s international internet traffic to New Zealanders – 4.5 million of whom use it on a daily basis, and a third of whom are constantly connected.

In the past popular media has typically told two types of stories about submarine internet cables,” says Ms Holloway-Smith, who is carrying out her research with Massey’s College of Creative Arts.

“There is the connection narrative which tells of new cables coming online, and the disruption narrative which is about cables being severed or coming off line due to accidental or purposeful damage or acts of nature. My work is about helping the public better understand New Zealand's internet infrastructure by telling new stories that move beyond these two categories.”

The cable is 30,000 kilometres long and traces a figure eight over the floor of the Pacific Ocean. From Takapuna Beach on Auckland’s North Shore it travels to Hawai’i, plunging to a depth of seven kilometres in the Kermadec Trench. From Hawai’i it continues to the United States mainland and back, then through Fiji, Sydney and Muriwai Beach in Auckland’s west. Landing stations in Auckland at Northcote and Whenuapai connect the cable with local New Zealand networks.

The route was developed in the early 1960s for an earlier communications cable known as the Commonwealth Pacific Cable (COMPAC).

One objective of Ms Holloway-Smith’s research was de-mystify how the cable operates and how the internet is provided to New Zealand homes and businesses.

“Expressions like The Cloud, wireless and cyberspace evoke ideas that it is all happening above our heads when it is all actually beneath our feet.”

She should know. Determined to actually see and touch the submerged cable, Ms Holloway-Smith planned a dive to the cable in a part of the Hauraki Gulf where it passes through a disused-explosives dumping ground. She gained her advanced open water diving license, then upskilled with a deep diving course to test if she was physically capable to undertake the challenge.

“Diving can affect bodies in unpredictable ways – both physically and psychologically. I wanted to find out if I could handle it, and if I could do it safely.”

In addition, she wanted to determine whether a dive to the cable amid growing security restrictions was achievable too.

Earlier this month she realised her ambition by diving to the cable in a secret location in the Hauraki Gulf.

“It was an exercise in real persistence but I got to hold it in my hands, a bit like Māui in E Mervyn Taylor’s mural Te Ika-a-Māui: the story of Māui fishing up the North Island.”

Ms Holloway-Smith’s reference to Taylor represents an intersecting of two projects that have come to fruition at the same time. The night after the exhibition opening, the book she edited, Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E Mervyn Taylor about the lost murals of the New Zealand artist, craftsman and designer will launched.

Since 2014 she has led a search for 12 murals he created between 1956 and 1964. The search was inspired by the discovery of one of his few surviving murals Te Ika-a-Māui stored in cardboard boxes in a disused cable station she visited for her Southern Cross Cable research.

Taylor was commissioned by the New Zealand Post Office to create the ceramic tile mural, since lovingly restored by Ms Holloway-Smith, showing Maui drawing New Zealand “out of the Pacific into the telephone systems of the world.”

Having toiled for some years in the shadows if not the depths with her research, Ms Holloway-Smith is looking forward to the prominence her work will enjoy from the exhibition opening and book launch.

“I’m excited about finally being able to share my past four years of work with the public.”



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