Postcards from the Edge: Aotea

Department of Conservation —  18/05/2020

When you consider that living on an island is a form of isolation from the mainland, did lockdown look and feel any different to normal life? We thought we’d ask our dedicated rangers that live on the islands of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park to share their experiences during Alert Levels 3 & 4. Welcome to Postcards from the Edge!

Great Barrier Island/Aotea, the eastern sentinel of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, is known for its stalwart population of 1,000, who have chosen a different lifestyle to the hustle and bustle of urban centres. Forget streetlights, reliable broadband, popping down to the supermarket for that missing ingredient, or to your closest mall to replace that thing that just broke. If you’re in a fix, it’s your neighbours that lend you the eggs, the tools, or the manpower to get the thing done. A sense of community goes a long way on Aotea.

So, while life wasn’t much different under Alert Levels 3 & 4 for DOC Supervisor Sarah Dwyer and her family, she says that self-isolating was still a challenge for this strong, tight-knit community, used to freedom of movement and a water-based lifestyle.

Getting our in the fresh air.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

Sarah and her family are relative newbies to Aotea, having moved to the northern end of the island 3 years ago from the Hibiscus Coast. When her role was advertised, it was a no-brainer for her and her husband, Dave to make the move – he had spent most summers on the island since he was a child, surfing his favourite break. It was, however, Sarah’s PhD research, investigating the distribution and habitat use of whales and dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf, which brought them to take up permanent residence. The idea of raising their children (now 18 months and 3 years) immersed in nature and spending family-time boating, fishing, surfing, kayaking, and hiking in their favourite place was the clincher.

Family walks.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

When asked how they coped during Alert Levels 3 & 4, Sarah replies,

“We spend a lot of time doing activities in nature anyway, so we carried on with our nature treasure hunts that our kids love. This time of year is great for searching for funghi, and rock pools are a favourite place to look for marine critters. We have some ‘pet’ octopus living in the estuary who we sometimes visit at low tide.”

Mushrooms found in May – we use the Seek app to find out the names of the different species.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

“Now that it’s getting dark early, it’s great to go out looking for frogs. The wetter the better so it’s a perfect activity when it’s raining. The current ‘froggie spotting’ record is 23 in a night! We have also hauled out the telescope and checked out the Moon and Venus, which is easy when there is no light pollution from streetlights around!”

“It’s great to see the kids growing up aware of, and respecting, the natural environment around us – something shared by all Barrier kids,” says Sarah.

Practicing planting skills with mangrove seedlings.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

Sarah has always been fascinated by nature. Biology was her favourite subject at school, leading her to study it at University. As soon as she learnt to dive she became hooked on the underwater world and decided to focus on marine biology. Specialising in dolphins and whales (cetaceans), Sarah spent many days out on the Hauraki Gulf in a small boat searching for them to map their distribution, looking to identify hotspots that could be used to help manage and protect these taonga. Part of this work, focused on common dolphins/aihe, has recently been published and provides information for marine spatial planning.

Common Dolphin Hauraki Gulf.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

Her research revealed that common dolphin hotspots are large and change over space and time, and therefore drawing a boundary on a map would not be the best way to protect them. Rather, we need a dynamic approach to protecting marine mammal populations of the Hauraki Gulf, such as protecting their food sources.

In her role at DOC, she supports a team of rangers to complete various work programmes such as checking tracking tunnels on pest-free Mokohinau and Rakitū islands and responding to marine mammal strandings. She is also in the early stages of starting a citizen science project focused on the marine mammals around Aotea, in particular bottlenose dolphins/terehu that are found here year-round.

“The island community is passionate about protecting our marine environment. This project aims to bring us together to collect valuable long-term data that can be used to monitor dolphins and their marine habitats,” she says.

During Alert Levels 3 and 4 Sarah worked from her home office, which was possible thanks to their Au Pair from Germany caring for her young children. Following significant preparation for Alert Level 4, she says it was back to ‘business as usual’, planning work for the team that could be safely carried out at different Alert Levels.

Reflecting on this experience, Sarah observed how great it has been to see a focus on encouraging people to connect more with nature.

Camping in our garden.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

“Hopefully one of the positives coming out of this is that it encourages us to align our values with nature a little more. We all know how good getting out in nature is for personal wellbeing – for me there’s nothing that feeds my soul more than bobbing about on a boat on the ocean. I believe that the more people engage with nature, the more they want to protect it.”

After a day spent at the beach, where her 3-year old son gathers cockles and mussels for the family’s dinner (his favourite), she ends her email simply:

“We feel very privileged to be able to live in such a wonderful place.”

Snorkel adventures.
📷: Sarah Dwyer

In New Zealand, common dolphins/aihe and bottlenose dolphins/terehu can be found close to the coast and are regularly seen in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana where they feed and breed. The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park is a whale and dolphin hotspot; of the 88 species of whales and dolphins in the world, 25 spend time in the Gulf.

Love it, restore it, protect it.

You can help dolphins by:

From a commercial or recreational boat:

  • Carefully approach dolphins from their side and slightly to the rear.
  • Operate your boat slowly and quietly at ‘no wake’ speed within 300m.
  • Don’t approach a group of dolphins if three or more boats are already within 300 m of the group.

From a recreational boat or swimming:

  • Avoid loud or sudden noises that could startle dolphins.
  • Don’t swim with dolphins when calves are present.
  • Don’t try to touch the dolphins or feed them.
  • Cooperate with others so all may see the dolphins without putting them at risk.

5 responses to Postcards from the Edge: Aotea


    My buddy Sarah! What a legend….
    Super photographer on top of everything else, I am in awe


    your pretty awesome to be doing this kind of work from such a beautiful place. just loved you snaps of the colored fungi, reminded me of taking my girls hiking around the Lake Rotoiti beech forest in Nelson.the colors were so vivid like your snaps it all came flooding back😁. Sadly neither have gone on too work outdoors, both work indoors, a barrister & it techo.Still my grandy’s might venture forth yet😁. Thanks for sharing such wonderful stories about your work have great admiration for your commitment with 2 young ones at heel as well😇.


    Nice to read of the work being done now.

    Peter Hallinan 18/05/2020 at 9:25 pm

    Great post, Sarah. You’re a great scientist and a great mum as well 🙂

    PS: Tried to comment earlier on my Mac but website wouldn’t let me in – but iPhone had no problems…


    What a cool story. I bet those kids grow up to be real doers in their communities. That’s some leading by example, right there!