By Daren Grover, General Manager, Project Jonah New Zealand.
With the theme of this year’s Conservation Week being ‘Love My Backyard’, the team at Project Jonah thought long and hard about how they might promote their big, blue, backyard. Being based in Auckland, the Hauraki Gulf was an obvious choice. Then an email popped up from Sarah, the DOC Marine Ranger on Aotea/Great Barrier Island. “We’d love you to come to across and share your knowledge on how to respond to a marine stranding with our community. How about during Conservation Week”? As neither Louisa (our Volunteer and Communications Manager) or I had visited before, how could we say no!
The Sunday saw us take the ferry to the Island thanks to sponsorship by Sealink. We were joined on the crossing by a pod of dolphins, playing in the bow wave at the front of the ferry – a good omen for our visit!
And once we were on the Island… wow! Driving along narrow windy roads cutting through native bush with glimpses of white sand beaches, we had to feel the sand between our toes.
And the birds! As a bit of a twitcher, it’s hard not to be impressed by the kākā, kererū, kōtare and even pāteke. It’s heartening to hear that the island is free of possums and mustelids, and it was a treat to see so many banded rail/moho pererū, a flightless bird rarely seen on the mainland.
On day one we visited three schools, the first of which was Okiwi School. We were warned the children know their marine mammals. After an incredible mihi and moving waiata, we were blown away by their knowledge. Most of the class were able to tell the difference between male and female orca (the shape of the dorsal fin). We shared our knowledge with them and, after measuring out the length of whales and dolphins in the playground, we headed to our next destination.
At Kaitoke school (near Claris), we were expecting to present to one class, but we were greeted by the whole school! There was much enthusiasm and sharing of stories and practical learning sessions in the playground were a highlight.
Finally, it was the turn of Mulberry Grove School in Tryphena. A range of children from years one to eight took part in our exercises, who now can’t wait to see a stranding and tell their parents the right things to do!
Day two was an early start. We took students (locals of all ages) through our marine mammal medic course, teaching them the basic techniques to help stranded marine mammals as well as how to look after each other at a stranding. We also headed to Gooseberry Flat Beach and put what we’d learnt into practice on our life-size and life-weight model whale and dolphins. Despite a strong southerly blowing onto the beach, we were able to successfully refloat our ‘stranded’ cetaceans. We were then joined by our volunteer trainer Elijah who flew to the Island, joining the pilot up front for the flight and getting a new perspective of the Hauraki Gulf!
On day three we trained a larger group in the north of the island, at DOC’s office in Okiwi. Another enthusiastic and mixed group of locals, DOC staff and local police were taught the safe techniques and strategies used at strandings, as part of the Medic course. Our afternoon was spent at Okiwi estuary, at low tide, again refloating our stranded cetaceans with the skills learnt in the morning.
It’s so great connecting with communities, and giving them the tools and knowledge to help stranded cetaceans return to the ocean. Aotea has had many strandings in the past, and now we hope that with their new knowledge and some past experience, the local community will be better equipped for a successful outcome in the future.
We were sad to have to leave, but that didn’t stop us squeezing in some sightseeing, including part of the Mount Hobson Track. While watching breaching whales and dolphins on the ferry home, we both agreed we’ll be back again soon.
Project Jonah’s mission is simple; to create a world where whales and dolphins are respected and protected. For more information on their charity, marine medic courses and other work, visit www.projectjonah.org.nz.