Making calls to the wilds

A Department of Conservation ranger well hidden in the dense bush while counting yellow-eyed...
A Department of Conservation ranger well hidden in the dense bush while counting yellow-eyed penguins as they go out to sea. Photos: David Smith
Orokonui volunteer David Smith talks to Alyth Grant about his wider volunteering activities in the Deep South. Volunteering has become part of the New Zealand way of life. The previous government understood how to harness the willingness of New Zealanders to get involved in their communities through changes to the organisation and funding of conservation work on the basis of "partnerships" with community groups.

While nobody has appreciated the cuts to Department of Conservation funding, there are some benefits to the focus on conservation enthusiasts in the community.

The Doc office for coastal Otago, for example, now regularly sends out a newsletter that includes information about volunteering opportunities with the relevant environmental organisations around Dunedin.

This helps bridge the communication gaps between, for example, the ever-changing student population and long-standing organisations such as Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust (YEPT), Sinclair Wetlands, Landscape Connections and the like. That makes recruitment of volunteers much easier.

That simple means of reaching out reinforces our sense that we are all in this together and it will only be our combined efforts that will rescue our environment and wildlife.

Many volunteers belong to more than one organisation. One such person is David Smith, who volunteers for Orokonui Ecosanctuary, but also for YEPT, and also directly for Doc. He not only has the practical skills required for building infrastructure, trapping and the like, but some extremely useful professional skills - he spent most of his working life at sea as the captain of different kinds of ships. So for him it was a natural progression post-retirement to volunteer as a crew member on Doc expeditions involving sea voyages.

The Evohe also visited Bounty Island, well named for its plethora of bird and animal life.
The Evohe also visited Bounty Island, well named for its plethora of bird and animal life.
Late last year, he crewed on the Evohe on a trip to the subantarctic Auckland Island group with a Doc team to carry out the annual yellow-eyed penguin survey. That would not be everybody's choice of cruise, involving as it does "a day and a-half of horrible southern ocean stuff" to get there, but for David the reward is great.

"It's really special when you get down there, just knowing you are in the wilderness, nobody else around [There's no Wi-Fi anywhere!] Everybody enjoys it. It doesn't matter what the weather is like. It's always a treat."

The group worked north to south, from Enderby Island, down the east coast of the main island, into Carnley Harbour, with Adams Island to the south. Thus David saw parts of New Zealand not even the paying tourists see. Adams Island, for example, is totally protected, as it has never had any kind of predator on it. Consequently, only people involved in scientific work are allowed on it.

The "treat" of being part of that crew has costs beyond the rough sea voyage: early starts are the order of the day, as the teams are set down about 4.30am to begin their work. The landing sites are accurately recorded with GPS details, and the count goes on for four hours. In order to avoid possible double countings, only penguins seen coming out of the bush and actually entering the water are counted. Late returnees arriving from sea in the morning are not counted and the official count stops at 9am.

The Evohe at anchor under the gaze of Salvin's Albatross.
The Evohe at anchor under the gaze of Salvin's Albatross.
It may sound like a straightforward task, but apart from Enderby Island, where the bush is only now regenerating since the days it was farmed, and which is relatively flat, the steep terrain and the dense bush make for hard going.

But opportunities for special experiences abound. "We had a bunch of penguins just sitting on a rock that hadn't gone to sea and by 9 o'clock the official count was over, and these guys were just hanging out, and so while all the volunteers were collecting themselves together we happened to go past these penguins. And we were probably 3m away from them. They knew we were there, and we were sketching them and photographing them and saying `Wow!' to each other and they were completely unafraid of us, which of course you wouldn't get on the mainland. Albatrosses too. You can see them on the nest just alongside the track."

Two years ago, David was part of a particularly exciting and challenging trip, to the Antipodes Islands, again as a crew member at the start of the "Million Dollar Mouse" campaign to completely rid the islands of mice.

Counting the birds on Bounty Island.
Counting the birds on Bounty Island.
"That was great to be involved in. We were taking out builders. They had to fix up a hut which had been taken out by a landslide. And we were taking out Doc and helicopter stuff. It was a big operation. We tied in with a ship called Norfolk Guardian. She brought out helicopters and the poison and equipment. The terrain is very difficult. There's no such thing as a beach. It is all rocky platforms and a bit of a cove where you can get in sometimes. It's very hard and dangerous to get people on land with all their gear."

Now David will be waiting just as keenly as the Department of Conservation for news of the success of that operation. Two breeding seasons have gone by, and the HMNZS Wellington recently left to take about 10 people, two tracking dogs and tracking tunnels, hoping for a zero mouse count. Later this month, David will be going out again on the Evohe to bring the scientists back.

David Smith and Alyth Grant are both volunteers at Orokonui Ecosanctuary.


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