Interview with a critically threatened space suit model

Department of Conservation —  17/09/2020

Tūturuatu/shore plover nest on the shore of Waikawa (Portland Island), about two kilometres from Rocket Lab’s launch site on the Mahia Peninsula.

Rocket Lab has just launched a fundraiser in support of this small, plucky endangered bird – which takes the form of a pretty sweet Mission Patch featuring a tūturuatu in outer space.

I’ve taken a rare opportunity to interview WRWR, the model for the patch. He shares his experience of modelling, being a critically threatened bird, and the joys of island life.

The design and Mission Patch for Rocket Lab’s fundraiser.
📷: Stephanie Galla/ rocket Lab

WRWR, thanks for agreeing to interview. I’m really grateful to be invited onto your territory.

You’re welcome! Just ah, make sure you stay in the boundaries. That couple over there? (Bobs head to the left, towards two shore plover several meters away; they bob their heads and squeak) Rude, nosy. Loud. As. Anything.

Ok well, first, where does your name come from?

It describes my leg bands – White Red White Red. Sometimes they call me ‘Uncle’ because I used to hang out with the juveys – that’s the juveniles – you know, look out for them.

WRWR struts his stuff on Waikawa
📷: Jamie Quirk

Rocket Lab’s fundraiser is an exciting initiative for getting some more support and awareness of your species. I love the mission patch! Tell me about modelling for it.

(Looking at the patch) It’s pretty good, huh, and I’m so grateful for the support this fundraiser offers our community. Stephanie Galla, the artist who designed this, did a really good job of capturing my essence. I was trying to look aspirational.

It was three days of modelling to get it right, about four hours a session. They wanted to put me up in a hotel but no way I was leaving my lovely partner YBBY alone to make sure the Neighbours didn’t encroach on our territory. I had Stephanie come out here and sit with me for a while. She was great. Made sure I kept hydrated while I was in the suit and helmet, I had this little straw and a mealworm smoothie.

Wait, you actually wore an astronaut outfit?!?

Rocket Lab tailor-made it for me, obviously I’m a bit smaller than your average astronaut. (Chuckles, then gets serious) But that might change in the future. No need to be sizest eh. From little things big things grow.

Trickiest bit was the end of my beak sometimes hit the glass. It was pretty warm in the astro suit, but I guess you need that in space. Did you know they actually offered for me to go up to space on the next launch? Decided not to. Just too big a risk with those folk next door.

Aerial view over the Rocket Lab launch site, looking towards Waikawa.
📷: Rocket Lab

How did you feel to be chosen?

Honestly, it wasn’t surprising – but it also felt like a real honour. I’m not egotistic but I’ll readily admit, I’m a handsome bird. Plus, check this out– (Performs a series of rhythmic head- and full-body bobs) – it takes a lot of practice to get this good. Not to mention, I was one of the few who survived The Rat.’

That’s another thing I wanted to ask about – you hatched here in 2002, and when the rat arrived in 2012 you were one of the 10 survivors.

Yep, born on Waikawa. My parents met here though they were both immigrants from Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre, which was called Mount Bruce at the time.

The Rat was a pretty harrowing experience. (Pause. Long pause.)  Rats can swim. They can swim, and they can hide and hitchhike. They’re devious creatures and they are well aware manu from Aotearoa didn’t evolve to cope with them. If they get a chance to make it to a predator free island, they will take it.

I, uh, I lost my first partner, RYYO. I’d been with her since 2002. She went missing and we don’t know for sure, but…

(Long pause.)

When DOC realised what was happening they got the big traps out. Over the years they’ve been helping us rebuild, keeping up with monitoring and trapping and introducing new birds from captive breeding facilities.

Anyway, there’s 82 of us now. 50 of us are paired up, plus there’s a couple of young ones from the last season.

A sample of the local community.
📷: Rose Collen

I’ve been told there’s only about 250 tūturuatu in the world. That’s shocking! What’s it’s like being critically threatened?

What’s it like being rude? (Clears throat) Sorry. There aren’t many of us, and it’s hard. Puts a lot of pressure on you, especially when there are so few places you can live without those introduced predators. Most of us are in the Chathams, a few on Motutapu. DOC is trying to help us set up on Mana, but it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to be the first birds in a new place.

I mean, we have our territories, but we have our communities too, right. In autumn and winter we tend to hang out a bit more and just divide up for breeding season. We need each other if we’re going to make it.

Yeah, I see you looking over there – and no, that couple can stay where they are. Totally not community minded at all.

They look friendly enough to me.


Looking from Waikawa back towards the Mahia Peninsula.
📷: Dave Houston

Ah so anyway, what’s Waikawa like as a place to live?

Pretty sweet. We live on the shoreline, and while we’re still rebuilding since The Rat we have room for the community to expand. I would definitely ask anyone who visits the island to make sure you’re not accidentally bringing things ashore, whether it’s checking your boat for (gulps) rats, or getting rid of seeds. We have a problem with introduced Darwin ants, which just eat everything. They get in our nests too.

DOC and the local vollies – that’s volunteers – take pretty good care of the place for us, traplines and monitoring and other island maintenance. Lets us focus on maintaining our territories and getting down to the business of setting up families.

I’ve been a bit inspired by the whole modelling experience actually, thinking about dabbling in the arts. Performance arts is obviously where I would fit best – (Does some more sweet bobs then suddenly flaps wings and flies low while chittering wildly) – so I’m thinking about the next steps for progressing my career. Maybe social media? 

WRWR, demonstrating the avian version of ‘blue steel.
📷: Jamie Quirk

7 responses to Interview with a critically threatened space suit model

    Robyn McCool 22/09/2020 at 9:35 am

    Jess, you’re a star interviewer! I have very fond memories of ‘Uncle’ and you’ve captured his no-nonsense personality beautifully. 👍Great way to highlight the incredible work the Waikawa team is doing with these precious little birds, year after year. I was lucky enough to buy one of these patches, the artwork is adorable!!
    Ngà mihi,


    Bloody brilliant! Now THAT’S how to tell a conservation story… Engaging, humorous, witty and full of real facts disguised as fun. Well done.


    Brilliant article WRWR ! I wish you luck with your modelling career and will keep an eye out on social media.
    How do we support you and Rocket Lab’s fundraiser Patch ? I would love to get one, where do I start ?

    CAROLE STEWART 17/09/2020 at 1:39 pm

    Entertaining and informative. As pretty as the tuturuatu are, the views of Rocket Lan and Waikawa are fascinating too. Three cheers for Conservation and NZ Shore Plovers (TUTURUATU)