The oceans of Aotearoa are full of wonder, magic, mystery and awe. Hidden beneath the waves are some of the most fascinating and unique creatures in New Zealand, all with remarkable stories to tell. 

Following on from the bestselling The Meaning of Trees, Natural Sciences Assistant Curator Robert Vennell has released his new book Secrets of the Sea.

2023 Ockham Book Awards: Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-fiction | shortlist

Secrets of the Sea

Secrets of the Sea

Secrets of the Sea is a fascinating introduction to New Zealand's fish and shellfish, weaving together history, biology and culture to reveal how these unique and intriguing creatures have shaped our lives. Ranging from sandy shores and rocky reefs to the open ocean and its cavernous depths, Auckland Museum's Robert Vennell celebrates the magic and mystery of the world beneath the waves.


Robert Vennell

Robert Vennell

Robert Vennell works as Assistant Curator at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum in the Natural Sciences department. 

In 2019, Robert released his first book; The Meaning of Trees which was listed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2019 by CanvasNewsroom and The Listener and was longlisted for an Ockham New Zealand Book Award. 


Rob discusses the inspiration behind Secrets of the Sea 

Your last book was on the meaning of trees, how did you pivot from the land to the sea?

The idea for this book came while I was part of a research expedition to the Poor Knights Islands – one of the best dive sites in the world. While camping out on the islands I got the opportunity to explore this underwater world and it completely blew me away. It’s like getting a glimpse of what New Zealand’s oceans looked like before people arrived. I left the islands inspired to learn everything I could about these incredible creatures.

What do you hope people will take away from the book?

We have so many fascinating and unique native species in our oceans, but because they are hidden underwater they are often out of sight and out of mind. I wanted to find a way to reveal these amazing creatures and share some of their stories. My goal for the book is to show that even though these species live in a different world to us, they have had a profound impact on our lives on land.

Did Museum collections help in your research and stories in the book?

I was lucky to be able to explore the Museum collection while researching the book and was able to feature some of the artworks of sea creatures from former Museum curator Arthur Powell. A massive highlight for me was being able to see a specimen of the extinct Upokororo or New Zealand grayling (Prototroctes oxyrhynchus). This was a fish that was beloved by both Māori and Pākehā and once found in almost every river in the country, but it rapidly went extinct and hasn’t been seen alive for around a hundred years.

Do you have a favourite species in the book and why is it your favourite?

I really enjoyed learning about the history of the Octopus in New Zealand. Today they are seen as incredibly intelligent and beautiful creatures, and even star in Netflix documentaries. But back in the day, many New Zealanders were terrified of them. They were called the “devil fish” and people were scared to swim in areas with octopuses. In the same way we have news stories about shark attacks today, there used to be lots of sensational news articles about octopuses attacking people at the beach.

Secrets of the Sea in the media


The secrets of the seas around Aotearoa

Listen to Rob's interview on RNZ's Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan.



The past and future of New Zealand's ocean

Tune in to Rob's interview on TVNZ's Breakfast with Indira Stewart.


The Spinoff

When toheroa soup went global

Read an excerpt from Secrets of the Sea as shared by The Spinoff.



From vermin to icon: New Zealand’s long and fascinating relationship with eels

Read an excerpt from Secrets of the Sea as shared by thisNZlife