Postcards from the Edge: Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands

Department of Conservation —  04/06/2020

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/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana to share their experiences during Alert Levels 3 & 4. Welcome to Postcards from the Edge!

Island Supervisor Karl Fisher’s days usually fly by in a blur of team management, infrastructure maintenance and biodiversity work, slotted in between meetings, MOR’s (Monthy Operating Reviews), compliance duties, phone calls and emails. Like most rangers, he is happiest when he is working. So, you can imagine what it must have been like when he was required to ‘down tools’ and stay in his bubble to stop the transmission of COVID-19. Suffice to say, one week in, Karl’s wife exiled him from the home office to the workshop for being too vocal and animated!

Karl is responsible for a team of rangers who undertake work on adjoining Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands, as well as Motuihe/Te Motu-a-Ihenga. If you have visited, you’ll know that Rangitoto is bustling with visitors who make the 1-hour trek to the tihi/summit to enjoy the views out to Tāmaki Makaurau. The determined among us make the 4-hour walk to Home Bay on adjoining Motutapu Island, usually for a spot of camping. Between Rangitoto and Motutapu, the islands receive around 100,000 visitors a year.

The city from Rangitoto.
📷: Karl Fisher

The COVID-19 lockdown threw Karl well and truly in the deep end on Monday 23 March.  He needed to make quick decisions about who was staying on the island, the logistics of moving freight and people, completing necessary fieldwork, and organising food trips before Alert Level 4 came into play at 11:59pm on Wednesday 25 March. By Wednesday morning, the island population had reduced from nearly 30 people (from DOC, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, Motutapu Outdoor Education Camp, Motutapu Restoration Trust, and Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust) to just 14, divided into 6 bubbles.

Asked what it’s like having the island relatively to themselves, Karl responds, “I am comfortable with living in isolation and the thought of sharing Rangitoto and Motutapu with only 14 people was really appealing at first. However, it was completely unnerving when it was finally locked down. Rangitoto is an iconic destination; with no visitors and hardly any vessels in the Hauraki Gulf, it conjured up thoughts of apocalyptic movies.”

Rangitoto looking over to Motutapu.
📷: Todd Eyre Photography

To keep his rangers from going stir-crazy, Karl needed to get creative, sending staff on long walks to observe boats and record compliance issues, setting up telescopes to view the water tanks, and cleaning the office and the DOC houses. Changing the work roster from 10 days on/4 days off to a ratio of 5:2 was the best thing that happened for Karl’s wellbeing during this challenging time. “Having two days off while still living in your workplace is manageable, four days off drives you nuts,” he explains.

As the days turned in to weeks and the country was getting more of a handle on what lockdown meant, and what can and can’t be done, the team was granted permission to maintain the islands’ essential infrastructure. This included checking buildings, water and power systems, and maintaining the islands’ predator trap network.

Having the responsibility for looking after the 14 people who remained on the islands during lockdown fell heavily on Karl. He says, “I was txting daily, asking for their health status, monitoring their food situation and their general wellbeing as well as providing them with a situation report from our team.”

By day 15, the Rangitoto/Motutapu “apocalypse survivors” were not displaying any COVID-19 symptoms and had relaxed into becoming an island bubble while maintaining good hygiene and social distancing. Moving back into the work office was a huge relief to Karl whose exile in the workshop was becoming a health hazard from two pīwakawaka/fantails dive-bombing around his head. At one point he considered wearing a helmet and visor!

All over New Zealand we noticed and welcomed wildlife back into suburbia, but on Rangitoto one group of birds was presenting a bit of a problem. White fronted terns, red billed gulls, shags, gannets and black backed gulls had taken over Islington Wharf due to massive bait fish balls in Islington Bay. What’s the problem exactly? Karl explains, “it absolutely pongs, and anything you leave on the wharf gets covered in guano. I am praying for rain, because if it doesn’t, I’ll be water blasting the wharf – spray splashback is going to suck!”

Spoon Bill at Isington Wharf.
📷: Karl Fisher

At the time of writing, during Alert Level 3, all DOC staff besides Karl and his wife Michelle, had returned home once necessary maintenance had been completed. Two members of Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki returned to the island, a sight for Karl’s sore, people-starved eyes.

Did Karl still feel like he was in an apocalypse movie? “By week six, those initial unnerving feelings had settled down and I really enjoyed looking out and not seeing a single person. The air quality was so good we had views into the city that were super-sharp and clear; from our house we could clearly see Manukau City Council buildings which are a long way off as the kaka flies.”

As Level 2 became a reality and people naturally wished to get back out on the water, Karl hopes they will be mindful of checking their boats for pests like plague skinks and Argentine ants and predators like stoats, rats and mice. Karl comments, “we really understand how much people are itching to get out on the water and back into nature. We just ask them to please check their boats first.  An idle boat at a marina or on a driveway is a nice warm place for rats and mice to nest.  A predator incursion on any one of the 40 predator-free islands in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park would be a disastrous consequence of Level 2.”

Karl ended up staying on Motutapu and Rangitoto for ten weeks in total, finally breaking his stay last weekend to attend his daughter’s 21st birthday in Auckland. What a party that would have been!

Motutapu and Rangitoto islands were officially declared predator-free wildlife sanctuaries in 2011, following the world’s largest predator eradication programme of its time. Along with the other 38 predator-free islands of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana, they play a significant role in protecting our most endangered wildlife, including takahē, kiwi, tīeke/saddleback and hihi/stitchbird. Alert Level 2 means we can enjoy more of the activities that connect us to nature, including boating and fishing out in the Gulf. Before you head out on your boat, please check for predators such as rats, mice, stoats and other pests such as plague skinks and Argentine ants, to help keep the Hauraki Gulf predator free. Please also remember to leave any dogs or pets at home if you are visiting our predator-free islands and call 0800 DOC HOT if you observe anyone engaging in inappropriate behaviour around the islands.

Love it, restore it, protect it.

One response to Postcards from the Edge: Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands


    Gteat report and welcome to the Anthropocene Park. Need to have other reports like this from Conservation parks like Cornwall and Maungawhau Parks that receive 10x + the use. Also of equal national importance. Come on Ak City rangers.