Topic: Grounding of Rena

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The diaries of a volunteer responding to MV Rena grounding, Astrolabe Reef, Mount Maunganui, 5th October 2011

Archived version here.

News Wednesday morning 5th October 2011 of a ship ashore on Astrolabe Reef near Motiti Island didn’t just raise alarm bells for marine organizations, the immediate thought in my mind was the abundant marine and birdlife associated with the pristine feeding grounds for both fish and birds. It didn’t take long for the Oiled Wildlife Response [OWR] Unit that I am a member of to contact me, and the first debrief was Friday 7th October. The team leader called me because of my involvement for 20 years studying birds on Mauao [Mt Maunganui], with Grey-faced Petrels, under the organization of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand [OSNZ]. I could handle the birds which will be washing up. They are quite feisty, so someone with handling skills was required. The height of the breeding season for offshore feeding seabirds such as the Diving Petrel and Grey-faced Petrels is right at this time of the year. I was heartbroken already thinking that this year’s chicks will be wiped off the Grey-faced Petrel family tree. Saturday dawned calm and clear, thankfully as the oil would have been blown on to the beaches if the Easterlies were strong. OWR provided coveralls, goggles, latex, woolen and vinyl gloves, dead bird bags, capture nets, pillowslips, plastic live bird boxes, towels and gumboots. We were then assigned DoC personnel and radios, and in our case, 2 Quad bikes and a flatbed truck. The beach we were assigned was Maketu, from the Kaituna River Mouth, to Maketu Spit. No oil yet on this beach. We found no dead birds either, although a team later that day found fresh dead birds that had died of other causes (usually lack of food). The Saturday afternoon we spent on the Quads assessing Papamoa Beach, and mapping zones to be used with oiled beach clean-ups.  In the evening we were tasked to assess the potential losses of colonies of birds on Motuotau, or Rabbit Island. We had previously used this island as a control site to assess comparisons with a pest-free site (the island), and pest-infested Mauao, prior to large-scale pest control being carried out on Mauao. What followed was an astounding amount of paperwork and high-level clearances, with endless delays and frustrations due to the work being very dangerous. The additional fact that the work had to occur on the island during the hours of darkness complicated matters.

We eventually left on the DoC boat Rewa. Departing from Salisbury Wharf, Mt Maunganui, on Sunday I was thinking of how to assess birds that were in underground burrows, on terrifically steep cliff faces, all the time kitted out in non-breathable, cumbersome coveralls, gumboots, and carrying plastic bird boxes, a camera, and a head torch. The landing on Motuotau went smoothly, with Rewa anchored near rocks on the Mount Maunganui side of the island, with the swells less than a metre in height on the landing rocks. Gear and food for a 2 day, 3 night stay was offloaded from Rewa on to a small inflatable dinghy, and ferried ashore in five trips, with personnel including two DoC staff to operate radios and two of us from OWR/ OSNZ.

Camp was set up about 70 metres up the side of the cliff, in one of the few near-flat areas on the island. A tarpaulin was erected to shelter any birds we found. A quick check of the shoreline provided only one dead penguin, thankfully. This was oiled to about 2 percent of its body.

The island was mapped into workable grid areas, marked with reflective tape, and after 7.30pm we started regular runs throughout the grids. We were finding many Diving Petrels, and a few Grey-faced Petrels returning to the colony. But we found many more penguins than we originally thought were there, thanks to the island being pest-free. Picking these birds up was a challenge, as they are wild birds and dislike large two-legged mammals interfering with their daily lives! We assessed their plumage for oil, as they would have been close to the oil slick when feeding at sea. We smelt them, and marked them with a little Twink to make sure we didn’t pick them up again. The Twink is non-toxic and washes off in sea water. At midnight we called it a night, and went back to the tents, happy in that we didn’t find any oiled birds apart from one penguin, which was so lightly oiled that we were able to clean it there and then.

The call came in from the command centre that bad weather was on the way for the following morning and we had to be ready to leave the island on the boat at 9am. We woke and quickly had breakfast and decamped with all the gear down the cliff to the landing area. The waves were big, and it would be marginal if we were to be plucked from the island. Our food would last for another two days and the weather was predicted to remain bad for the rest of the week. We would run out of food Wednesday and water on Friday, as there is no fresh water on the island.

The skipper of the DoC boat Maataariki arrived and made a quick recce of the potential dangers, then brought the boat very close to the shore out of the rocky reef’s way. The small boat was moving more than two metres up and down, and offloading the inflatable dinghy proved to be tricky. The dinghy was rowed up on the rocks quickly and we loaded it fast. I was the first to go back to the big boat, hanging on to gear and the side of the dinghy in the swells. Not one bit of gear or a human was lost overboard in the tricky situation, as we had done this many times before, and the skipper was ex-Coast Guard. As I hit the deck of the Maataariki with a thud, I was tasked with packing all the gear forward in the bow. The pitching of the boat provided some interesting angles of attack, with the boat totally moving up and down frantically in the two metre swells. The weather started to deteriorate and we hastened the exercise. 10 minutes later we were heading out towards the oil slick to get around the back of the island where the ocean swells were less likely to capsize us. The boat was cresting waves and hitting troughs more than the height of the boat, and green water was coming over the bow. The slick was close, and hit the beaches later that day. We slowly proceeded at 4 knots until we were clear of the worst of the swells, and snuck in to the channel as the tide was going out. Sulphur Point never looked better as we disembarked the boat and kissed the ground.

Tuesday, day four, was spent cleaning oiled seabirds up off the beach, something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. More about this when I can face writing about it.

Wednesday, Day 5, was spent from dusk until 10pm retrieving oiled wildlife off the Mauao base rocks, Moturiki, and Main Mount Beach. We encountered no dead animals but oiled animals which had somehow escaped being oiled at sea, only to return to their nests and walk through the oil on the rocks. The NZ Police crew assigned the beach were delivering animals from as far away as Papamoa Beach, including a beautiful Buller's Shearwater (see photo). This bird is unlikely to survive. The seas were tremendously rough and we smelt the oil before we saw it. The oil on the rocks was of the consistency of marmite. THe irony of it all was the huge cruise ship exiting the Tauranga Harbour, after spending a terrible wet day in port learning access to our internationally-famous beach was closed.

Thursday, Day Six, work started at 7pm sharp with OWR Teams assembling at the Mount Maunganui surf club. We hastily assembled plastic boxes, while a couple of members of the public helped out. Three teams of volunteers covered Moturiki, Mauao and Mount Main Beach. The penguins found tonight were oiled from 1% to 100%. Birds that had flipper bands from the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic Marine studies courses were found, and also nests and eggs of penguins. These proved most difficult to justify capture - with regards to removing birds, eggs and nesting materials from the burrows. The likelihood of them becoming heavily oiled even if they currently only have one spot of oil on them is high. However, successful removal of all birds found in burrows was carried out. The eggs will be artifically incubated. Oil levels remain high on rocks around Mauao, with the added problem of jetsam from the busted containers - including deer skins by the hundred - washing over the rocky platforms and beaches. The night work finished at 1am. Am tired but satisfied we have done our best. Ready to go up again Friday.

Friday 14 October, Day Seven; more crews for Mauao turned up to help, and the night work was made easier with Kent and the Surf Club Quad, which ferried oiled penguins to the surf club to be picked up by drivers, who then went back to Te Maunga. My team was constantly finding oiled penguins, but our spirit was lifted as there were more non-oiled birds. A number of flipper-banded birds were retrieved tonight. One such bird had what appeared to be feather loss on its rump, so that was shipped off to the bet to determine which pathogens were present in its blood. Television crews followed some teams. A German TV station was covering the event.

Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 October; Day's Eight and Nine; Weekends are no weekends when there is an oil spill to respond to, and the teams were ramped up to deal with the increased numbers of birds expected to be arriving in the calm weather. Saturday and Sunday our 4 teams gathered 20+ penguins from Mauao and Moturiki.  One large concern we have is the prospect of another oil slick being released once the ship breaks up - this is a reality now that another storm is on the horizon for Monday night. We had TV1 filming us Saturday so every aspect of the night needed to run smoothly, and to expectation. As members of the Oiled Wildlife Recovery Team, and as Maritime NZ employees, we are only allowed to say what we are doing at that moment, not what we think about the ship, which is fair. Sunday we all gathered around the Surf Club's big screen TV, and cheered as our youngest member Bekki was interviewed on TV1 News. Her 100 texts arrived soon after! Our task will be made harder in the rain Monday night. The waterproof note books will come into their own...



Paul Cuming, OWR, OSNZ, Tauranga


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