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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.
"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.
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.
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.