Topic: Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill: A Story from the Rena Disaster by Debbie McCauley

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Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill by Debbie McCauley is a bilingual children's picture book on the Rena Disaster which was released on 5 October 2014. In 2015 Mōtītī Blue won the Best Non-fiction category in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The book was also shortlisted for the 2015 LIANZA Elsie Locke Non-fiction Book Award. ISBN: 9780473268695.

When Rena grounded on 5 October 2011, spilling an estimated 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into Tauranga Moana, the impact was devastating for the people of the Bay of Plenty. With each turn of a tide, more toxic oil was washed up on Mōtītī and Matakana islands, along the Mount Maunganui coast and down to Maketū. It was a heartbreaking sight. What was worse was the multitude of oiled birds and sea creatures, most of whom would die of suffocation from the toxic oil. Despairing residents were buoyed by the sight of oiled little blue penguins that were recovering well at the Te Maunga Oiled Wildlife Response Centre. The release of the penguins back into the wild was a promise of hope for the future of Tauranga Moana.

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill: A Story from the Rena Disaster (2014) by Debbie McCauley

BLURB: On 5 October 2011 a large container ship grounded on a reef off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, spilling an estimated 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the ocean. The impact was devastating, not only for the people of the area, but for the many thousands of birds and sea creatures who were covered in the toxic oil. One of these oiled birds, a little blue penguin we’ve named Mōtītī Blue, was rescued and treated at the Te Maunga Oiled Wildlife Response Centre. This is the story of his recovery and release. This bilingual book includes colour photographs, fact boxes, maps, graphics and a timeline. More information can be found on this page: Mauao Publishing.

Author: Debbie McCauley
Translator: nā Tamati Waaka i whakamāori
Cover: Elliot Mason
Designer: Sarah Elworthy
Publisher: Mauao Publishing (Tauranga)
First Published: October 2014
ISBN: 978-0-473-26869-5
RRP: $34.95



  • 24 March 2015: Motiti Blue is shortlisted in the LIANZA Children and Young Adult Book Awards for the Elsie Locke Non-fiction Award.
  • 9 June 2015: Motiti Blue is shortlisted in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults.
  • 13 August 2015: Motiti Blue wins the Best Non-fiction category in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
  • 2 October 2015: Motiti Blue is selected as one of 200 outstanding children’s books published around the world in 2014. “Each year the language specialists at the International Youth Library (IYL), in Munich, Germany, select newly published books from around the world that they consider to be especially noteworthy”. The 2015 White Ravens printed catalogue contains 200 titles in 36 languages from 55 countries. The catalogue was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 15 October  2015. All 200 White Ravens books were displayed at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair from 4-7 April 2016.
  • December 2015: The Blind Foundation picks Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill to be produced in braille, large print and e-text which will make it accessible to those who are blind, deaf-blind or low-vision through the Blind Foundation’s library service.
  • 2016: Waikato University’s New Zealand Children’s Literature paper selects Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill as a set text for picture books.




Rena Disaster free book package

Rena Disaster free book package with Tommy Kapai Wilson (Photo: Debbie McCauley)



Really nice book, good work - John McIntyre (The Children's Bookshop, 2014).

I have read through your new book and I think its tremendous. The photographs are so crisp and the dialogue boxes give good amounts of information - Marie Gradon (Children's Librarian, 2014).

The back cover pictorially details the little penguin’s transition from black, oily blob to clean and functioning water bird. Although the cover colours are predominantly of the sea and the sky, there is a black oily splodge to remind us what this is all about. It may be a children’s story but in essence it’s a clear and simple reminder of the speed at which an environment can be devastated - Rosemary Balu (ARTbop, 2014).

I just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying sharing your beautiful book at school. I am relief teacher so I move around classes quite a bit and Mōtītī Blue has become my favourite book to use with new classes. The younger children (5-6) mostly don't remember the event but they have heard of it. They love the story of little Mōtītī and we talk about how Te Maunga is so close to where we are. The older ones do remember the event and some have family members who donned the white suits and helped clean the beaches. Others can recall the rubbish and the oil on the sand. Of course many of the children have a penguin story of their own from being on the beach or around Mauao. The book provides us with a good 20 minutes of story and discussion and the children are totally engrossed. One class did some fabulous writing telling the story from the perspective of the penguin. Another good talking point is why the ship got on the reef in the first place and the dangers of shortcuts and irresponsible behaviour. So, thank you for putting together this fabulous story of our place. It is wonderful - Bonnie Hebenton (Teacher, 2014).

Mōtītī Blue is a little blue penguin caught in the oil slick that came from the wreck of the Rena near Mōtītī Island in 2011. His story is one strand of this book as he struggles to stay afloat, is rescued, taken in for cleaning and later returned to the sea. Through him we also see the effect of the disaster on the ecology of Mōtītī and the lives of its people, and the considerable efforts volunteers made to clean up the damage. This is complemented by numerous photographs and copious use of text boxes packed with information, clearly laid out and easy to follow in this beautifully designed book. The text of the story is also translated into te reo Māori by Tamati Waaka. The strong conservation message is a warning of the potential for disaster and a celebration of the efforts by ordinary people to look after their environment. Comes with a free poster - The Children's Bookshop (Book News & Reviews, Term 4, 2014).

This is a story from the Rena disaster of a little blue penguin, one of the 365 blue penguins that were cleaned up, rescued then returned safely to the wild. This is a poignant story that can be read by/read to children; it is also of general readership level for everyone in terms of the story and the historical references, maps, scientific and environmental notes found on every page. The timeline, maps and charts of the Rena grounding disaster are a great resource. The author's love of Tauranga, its history, its people and community is very apparent. Author McCauley's acknowledgements and thank yous are heartfelt and reflect the variety of people who supported the book. Eliot Mason created a lovely penguin for the cover – little Motiti Blue looking longingly over the contaminated as are marine life. One thing that stands out is the Te Reo Maori. This is a wonderful full of hope, full of different heroes, Kiwi book - Jean Fraser (Bookline, Newsletter of the Friends of the Tauranga City Libraries Incorporated, Christmas 2014, Volume 18, Issue 2, p. 5).

This book is going to be a very useful resource for the classroom. Social Studies teachers could use it when studying 'disasters' and Science teachers could use the book when looking at the affects of oil spills on wildlife. Children will want to read it for enjoyment too. Young kids could have the story read to them or read it themselves. Older children will enjoy reading the extra facts. It could be used in kura kaupapa schools too, as it has Maori translations on each page... A well thought out book that is packed with lots of interesting facts. Highly recommended - Maria Gill (KidsBooksNZ, 6 December 2014).

On the 5 October the Rena carrying 1,368 containers hit the Astrolabe Reef off the coast of Tauranga with such force that part of it’s hull was melted onto the reef. In the days that followed 350 tons of oil sunk to the seabed and polluted 400km of coastline. This 32 paged book gives a portrait of that disaster but personalizes it in the fate of Motiti Blue a little blue penguin who along with 364 of his buddies was caught in the pollution that was caused by the wreck. The story of all the wildlife that was affected by the oil from the wreck and the cost to the environment and to human activity is documented in simple terms. Add to this the life cycle of the little blue penguin and how birds are cleaned and returned to the environment are covered not just in English but also in Maori. The information is in bullet point boxes amongst the photographs that come from a number of sources. This is a powerful, accurate and superbly illustrated picture book sized work of a major marine disaster. An excellent resource for a study of the Rena disaster and a beginning study for senior students wanting to dig further - Bob Docherty (bobsbooksnz, 15 December 2014).

What a treat  for a Monday morning; to be able to read such a delightful story alongside such captivating detail of events that unraveled following the Rena disaster. This book is a must for every New Zealand child - Helen & Anne (Books For Kids, 19 January 2015).

Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill is a narrative non-fiction story from the Rena shipping disaster that happened off the coast of Tauranga on 5th October 2011. In the days that followed 350 tonnes of oil sunk to the seabed and polluted 400km of the pristine Bay of Plenty coastline. This bilingual children's picture book tells the story of Motiti Blue, a little blue penguin caught up in Rena's oil slick. It follows his journey through rescue, rehabilitation and release back into his natural environment on nearby Motiti Island. The Te Reo Maori translation included on each page opens the story up to a wider audience and acknowledges the impact on the tangata whenua of the area. The stunning photographs that illustrate the story remind me of when I headed to the beach to witness the disaster firsthand. Informative fact boxes throughout add a significant amount of important detail to Motiti Blue's story. The Maori translation will give another audience to the story; I am sure the translator was chosen with thought of the tangata whenua of the area. Overall the entire concept and production is a credit to the author, publisher and book designer. I highly recommend this informative book as a resource for all level of schools, one that could be well utilised during studies not just on disasters, but also on wildlife and the natural environment - Kate Vose, Tauranga (Magpies Magazine, Volume 30, Issue No. 1, March 2015, p. 7).

We all remember how shocked we were when the ship, Rena, hit the Astrolabe Reef off Papamoa in 2011, resulting in our worst ever maritime environmental disaster. Motiti Blue is an informative non-fiction children’s book which describes the effects of the oil spill particularly on a little blue penguin. It tells of the mammoth effort that went into the clean up and the rescue of the animals and includes many stunning photographs of the penguins and the emergency response. The beautifully presented bilingual book is written in text appropriate for primary to intermediate children. There are timelines, maps and textboxes with extra information throughout, which makes it a valuable learning experience as well as a heart-warming story. Motiti Blue is a timeless book about a terrible accident which is now part of our history - a story of hope about how a community can pull together - Hibiscus Matters Children & Childcare Feature 2015 (3 June 2015, p. 14).

This attractive bilingual story provides eye-opening detail on a major New Zealand environmental disaster, making it an excellent resource. Well-written in a clear unemotive language and accompanied by excellent photographs, the book provides many interesting angles on the disaster, the clean-up and the rescue of hundreds of little blue penguins. The story uses simple vocabulary, yet additional panels have more detail making the book suitable for an older age group if needed. The accompanying timeline, map and bibliography add further depth. The bilingual text adds more value and has been translated by Tamati Waaka, who we understand to be a native speaker of te reo Maori. The book is well-designed with strong visual appeal, very attractive cover illustration, and charmingly appropriate endpapers which depict the 365 little blue penguins which were safely returned to the wild (LIANZA Children and Young Adult Book Awards judges, 15 June 2015).

Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill is a very clever book indeed and a worthy finalist in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults - Elisabeth Matsis (The Booksellers New Zealand Blog, 5 August 2015)

In summary this an excellent example of how a book can work for students to help them develop their sense of curiosity and research- and also to take their research further using the online links mentioned in the book. Debbie McCauley and her team should be congratulated on their wonderful achievement - Barbara (National Library of New Zealand Services to Schools, 5 August 2015).

Every detail in this outstanding book has been lovingly laboured over – timeline, maps, acknowledgements, additional information. It has an evocative cover, resonating endpapers, thoroughly thoughtful design. And the heart of the story – the fate of Mōtītī Blue – nimbly engages the reader in both of our spoken languages for deep and recursive reading. Hats off to this small independent publisher for caring enough, for being
persistent enough to get it so right. Awesome. (New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Annemarie Florian, Judge, 13 August 2015).

Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill - Tauranga City Library window display (2014)

 Tauranga City Library window display 2014 (Photo: Paul Cuming)


Book Launch:

A book launch was held at Tauranga City Library on the third anniversary of the Rena Disaster: Sunday 5 October 2014 (3pm to 4pm). Earlier on the same day was the Mauao Area Wildlife Trust Open Day.

book launch

Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill: Book Launch cake (Photo: Debbie McCauley)

Thank you Sonny (Ranapia). Tena Koutou Katoa, Nau mai, haere mai, Ki te whare pukapuka o Tauranga Moana. Ko Debbie, Toku Ingoa. Welcome to Tauranga City Library, my name is Debbie McCauley, thank you all for being here today. Who knew that writing this book would give me the opportunity to actually stroke a little blue penguin in the wild. Two weeks ago I had the privilege of being part of a group led by wildlife advocate Dave Richards and his daughter Becky. At twilight we visited the penguin burrows, listened to their calls and watched them arrive home from a long day at sea. My daughter even had one scamper across her shoes. It was a great experience and brought home just how precious our local environment and wildlife are and how great an impact that humans can have, both positive and negative.

Kaumatua Te Patuwai Motiti Sonny Ranapi

Kaumātua Sonny Ranapia (Photo: Lee Switzer)

Three years ago today when the Rena container ship grounded I was just as shocked as everyone else. Look at what had been done to our beautiful backyard. I could only imagine how terrible this was for those on Motiti Island. This wasn’t in their backyard - this was happening inside their kitchen, this toxic sludge covering their fridge and pantry and well-meaning strangers trampling through their home and sacred sites. The effects are still being felt today as the clean-up and protest actions continues.

Out of all of this a persistent little blue penguin came to live with me. He wanted his story told and he wasn’t going to leave me alone until it was done. Motiti Blue was a wonderful subject as his story, although initially heart-breaking, has a happy ending so makes an ideal children’s book. I think the story of the rehabilitation of the little blue penguins and their release back into the wild helped to lift the community out of what was a mood of anger and despair.

Rena Disaster Play - Cleaning the oil from the beaches

Rena Disaster Play - Cleaning the oil from the beaches (Photo: Lee Switzer)

I had seen local artist Elliot Mason’s painting ‘Little Blue Penguin’ online and was captivated by it - I just knew that this had to be the cover and when Elliot agreed it was incredibly exciting. What was even better was that Elliot’s artwork was inspired by his involvement in a team capturing oiled little blue penguins. His penguin is looking out to sea, about to set off on a fishing voyage into the oily water. The patterns on the rocks represent various species of marine rock life simplified to represent the creatures of the area. Elliot created several artworks that reflect on his experiences during the time.

Rena Disaster Play - Little blue penguin getting washed with detergent

Rena Disaster Play - Little blue penguin getting washed with detergent (Photo: Lee Switzer)

Writing and publishing a children’s book is all consuming as my family well know, but they somehow manage to cope with it. You think it is finished and get it through to the book designer with a sigh of relief. That relief is short-lived, however, because this is when the real editing process begins with hundreds of changes over a period of a few weeks. Important information and photo permissions turn up at the last minute and things must be reworked so they fit into the story. I’m incredibly lucky to have very talented book designer Sarah Elworthy on board who can not only cope with all the changes but has suggestions of her own and three young boys to run the content past.

Tamati Waaka has done another done a beautiful job of translating the story into Te Reo Maori. This was facilitated by Rangituaia Walker who has been a great source of support.

Rena Disaster Play - Drying off the little blue penguin

Rena Disaster Play - Drying off the little blue penguin (Photo: Lee Switzer)

Maritime New Zealand gave me permission to use their images which was great but I also had several other wonderful people and organisations who provided photos once they heard about the project. I wanted images that were from the Rena disaster and not from anywhere else. It was a huge challenge to find pictures that would best fit the story but Sarah and I have done the best job we can and I think the result is brilliant.   

What a relief when my shipment of books turned up on my doorstep two days ago - there wasn’t a repeat of the Rena and they were all safe and sound. Customs weren’t looking for drugs like last time and the only hold ups were due to the Moon Festival and major traffic jams in China.

This is a story that is far from over. It must never be forgotten if we are to learn lessons from it and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Just because the wreckage is now below the waterline and not sitting atop Mauao doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. Thank you.

Speaker introductions:

Stuart Crosby I was incredibly impressed by our next speakers ability to hold a very frustrated city together and  provide leadership throughout the disaster. He understood the long term impact on the environment and has been a great advocate for the removal of the wreck from Tauranga Moana. Please welcome Mayor of Tauranga City, Stuart Crosby.

Debbie McCauley and Stuart Crosby

Debbie McCauley and Stuart Crosby (Photo: Lee Switzer)

Paul Cuming Our next speaker has been a passionate wildlife advocate for many years and is a member of the newly formed Mauao Area Wildlife Trust. During the Rena disaster he worked day and night to collect oiled wildlife and, luckily for us, he kept a diary of his experiences which can be found on the Tauranga Memories kete. Several of his photographs appear in the book. I have great respect and admiration for his knowledge and dedication to our local wildlife. Please welcome ornithologist and librarian Paul Cuming.

Wildlife Advocate Paul Cuming

Wildlife Advocate Paul Cuming (Photo: Lee Switzer)

Tommy Kapai Wilson When our next speaker found out about Motiti Blue he was quick to contact me about his own Rena project. Imagine if you will, a pack of books going out free to every school in Tauranga Moana that includes Motiti Blue, M is for Mauao and a Rena information poster. All funded by the Rena Recovery Fund. It’s great to work with someone who shares the same goal, telling stories from our own backyard in order to educate and improve children’s literacy. Please welcome author Tommy Kapai Wilson.

Tommy Kapai Wilson

Author Tommy Kapai Wilson (Photo: Lee Switzer)

Richard Moore It was during a frantic search for extra images to help tell Motiti Blue’s story that I stumbled across an amazing website. On it were hundreds of fantastic photographs documenting the disaster, some of which would fit  perfectly into the story. And when I contacted the website owner, he was more than happy to provide those images for my use. During the disaster he had even hired a plane and flown over the wreck to take photographs. More recently he has taken the time to visit Motiti Island and speak to the locals. Please welcome journalist and photographer Richard Moore.

Journalist & Photographer Richard Moore

       Journalist & Photographer Richard Moore (Photo: Lee Switzer)


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Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill: A Story from the Rena Disaster by Debbie McCauley

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Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill: A Story from the Rena Disaster by Debbie McCauley by Debbie McCauley (Tauranga City Libraries) is Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International