In his teens Wade Doak made his own diving helmet from an ice cream tin, garden hose and a bicycle pump. At the Canterbury Underwater Club he met fellow diving enthusiast Kelly Tarlton. The pair would become leading figures in the young New Zealand diving scene. Their generation pioneered underwater exploration: discovering, photographing and naming aquatic species new to science. “We were like the first guys on the moon,” Doak told New Zealand Geographic in 2006, “except this moon had life.”
In the 60s Doak moved north, to explore the Poor Knights Islands (off the coast from Whangarei) with Tarlton, mapping and learning about their unusual ecosystem which combines warm and cold currents. Tarlton developed his own underwater 16mm movie camera housing, using a DC-3 propeller dome.
In the early 70s Doak and his wife Jan and family joined American marine biologist Walt Strack on a Pacific undersea research adventure, based on the research vessel El Torito. They used Strack’s yellow submarine and scuba to learn about coral reef ecology, and dived World War II wrecks. They also helped Strack produce The Islands of Friendly Fishes, capturing the previously unseen undersea world of the Poor Knights on film.
It would be the beginning of a lifetime using storytelling — film, books, and later blogs — to convey to viewers the wonders of Aotearoa’s undersea world.
Documentary The First Move, a Tale of Dreams and Dolphins (1978) followed Doak and his whānau as they studied the sea mammal, a subject on which Doak was an authority. Directed by Kiwi Julian Olivier, it explored the sophisticated social world of dolphin pods, as well as the close relationship between local iwi and the creatures. In Opo (1991) Doak reflected on the famous dolphin’s complicated relationship with humans: from shared delight to tragedy.
For a 1981 edition of series Contact, Doak and director Doc Williams looked at the Poor Knights’ volcanic origins.
In the 1990s Doak directed a trio of documentaries for NHNZ. Expertise in underwater filming contributed to the company's growing global reputation. In Wild South doco Masters of Inner Space (1992), he shone a torch on the design evolution of underwater species. Castle of the Deep (1995) delved into the ecosystems of the Knights’ sea caves, comparing them to streets where “1000s of metres of vertical descent are traversed [by sea animals] as one swims horizontally into a darkening cul de sac like Rikoriko Cave".
In another Wild South doco, City Under the Sea, Doak showcased the Knights’ undersea residents. “I tried to explain the complexity of their living patterns by comparing them to the life of a big city. We used a number of novel camera techniques such as remote control of a camera on tripod.”
Doak also co-wrote Mirrorworld (1990) with Martin Banks, an award-winning look at Fiordland's water worlds, and was a research consultant for the NHNZ series Deep Blue (1997), which followed currents and winds across the Pacific — from Java Atoll to Doak’s beloved Poor Knights – to chart how they influence ocean life.
Doak was involved in many pioneering dives to wrecks, and was a consultant for the Shipwreck series, which told the stories behind maritime tragedies around New Zealand.
He was interviewed for many current affairs shows, both for his marine ecology knowledge and as an advocate for conservation (including a 1995 60 Minutes profile entitled ‘Wade’s World’). He guided German, Japanese and French TV crews to the Poor Knights, a topic for which he was an acknowledged expert. His own films included DVD catalogues of Poor Knights’ fish species and invertebrates, and charts of seasonal changes.
Doak was instrumental in securing marine reserve status for The Poor Knights; they received full protection in 1998.
In 2012 he was awarded a Queen's Service Medal for services to marine conservation. Wade Doak passed away on 12 September 2019. He was 79.
Profile updated on 18 September 2019
Wade T Doak's Blog. Accessed 18 September 2019
Wade Doak, Ocean Planet - The Underwater World of Wade Doak (Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984)
Wade Doak, The Deep Blue - A South Pacific Odyssey (Auckland: Harper Collins, 1996)
Wade Doak, Gaia Calls - South Sea Voices, Dolphins, Sharks and Rainforests, (Studio City: Divine Arts, 2012)
Kennedy Warne, ‘Poor Knights, Rich Seas’, New Zealand Geographic, March 2006