The race to save the world’s rarest penguin

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An East Coast science teacher’s fieldwork in the remote Sub-Antarctic is helping in the desperate quest to save the world’s rarest penguin, Suzanne McFadden discovers

Richard Tuhaka’s dive down into the Sub-Antarctic, in search of the charming but vulnerable yellow-eyed penguin, has given him a “kete full of knowledge” to pass on to the children of Tolaga Bay.

The small town on the East Coast is 1600km from the Auckland Islands deep in the south Pacific Ocean, but science teacher Tuhaka has discovered connections which draw the two secluded spots closer together.

Tuhaka teaches at Tolaga Bay Area School, a Year 1-to-13 school with a roll of around 250 students. Almost all are of Māori descent.

In his 17 years in Tolaga Bay, Tuhaka has always believed in educating kids in a “hands-on” fashion – taking them down to the creeks to study eel and whitebait, or out to the beach to count the endangered New Zealand dotterel.

So when he was invited to sail to the Auckland Islands and take part in the annual yellow-eyed penguin count, his answer was a resounding “Hell yeah!”

Tuhaka saw the two-week adventure, as a representative of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, as a chance to experience one of the most ruggedly beautiful and untouched places on the planet. And an opportunity to better understand the plight of the hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, which, like the dotterel, is nationally endangered and in decline.

The knowledge he gathered from the United Nations World Heritage site could then be shared with his students and his community, who have a special focus on sustainability, conservation and restoring their natural environment.

“It gave me a greater awareness of the whole environment, and exposure to a whole lot of like-minded people,” he says. “I enjoy the interactions with the people as much as I do the environment. So to be able to listen to stories, and to share stories and experiences, gives me more knowledge for my kete, my bag of tricks, to pass on.”

The hoiho, considered the world’s rarest penguin, is in trouble. Endemic to the South Island and the Sub-Antarctic islands, there are believed to be just 3200 to 3600 left in the wild, down from nearly 7000 birds at the start of the millennium.

More than half of the remaining yellow-eyed penguin population breeds on the uninhabited Campbell and Auckland Islands.

The Department of Conservation, which carries out an annual hoiho census to monitor populations, has found the number of birds on the mainland is at its lowest point in 27 years. But the regular counts on the Auckland Islands show the population there appears to be relatively stable.

Tuhaka joined a team of DOC staff and volunteers on board the 25m steel sailing vessel, Evohe, for the testing journey from Bluff to the Auckland Islands last month. Those who had made the trip before described this crossing as the roughest in the six-year history of the expedition.

“I was clinging on for dear life in 36 hours of unrelenting seas,” says Tuhaka. “But even that rocky boat cruise, that shook the life out of me, was an amazing experience.”

Stepping on to land was not only a relief for the school teacher, but an overwhelming experience. “Every step I took I was thinking how fortunate I was to be one of the lucky few to have actually walked these lands. It’s a great feeling, like someone discovering a new world,” he says. “Some places there are completely untouched. It was incredible to see how we could have been in New Zealand if the mainland was free of pests.”

Tuhaka had little knowledge of the hoiho before arriving at their Auckland Islands stronghold. “It’s one thing to research in a book, but if you get to see it and live it, you get a better understanding and appreciation for it,” he says.

Getting up close and personal with the penguins meant rising before 4am on board Evohe each day, to be ferried to land and positioned in a quiet vantage point before sunrise. “You can hear them calling out, cackling, before you can see them,” Tuhaka says.

Richard Tuhaka is a big believer in "hands-on" teaching. Photo: Supplied by Richard Tuhaka

Armed with binoculars and a clipboard, the surveyors endure the cold and more than often damp for 3-4 hours at a time, silently watching the little birds shuffle their way down to the sea.

“They were a lot bigger than I anticipated and a lot more inquisitive,” Tuhaka says. “They were very tentative and took their time approaching the water - maybe because they were aware a sea lion may come and eat them!”

Tuhaka noted down the time each bird entered the water, and whether it was an adult or juvenile. The most birds he witnessed in a morning was 28, on Enderby Island – predator-free since 2001 when the resident cattle and rabbits were removed. “I thought I had the record, until someone else spotted 31,” he says.

After his “magnificent experience”, Tuhaka returned to Tolaga Bay Area School to teach science and lead the education experiences in the Uawanui Sustainability Project. It’s a community-wide project with the long-term vision of restoring the Uawa River catchment and coastline, which includes Tolaga Bay.

“It’s about exposing people to the plight of the endangered species that are out there. We can be oblivious to it, so busy with our own lives, that sometimes we don’t realise the incredible nature on our own doorstep,” says Tuhaka, who has a diploma in environmental management.

“We are lucky here at Tolaga Bay, with such beautiful resources right on our doorstep that host the birdlife, flounder and eels, with gannets and seal colonies down the road. There’s a lot to be seen.” Which is not unlike the Auckland Islands.

Originally, Tuhaka was asked by his school’s principaI to develop a class around environmental awareness and sustainability. He began by engaging his students in pest control, working with DOC to build traps before laying them around the area - mostly to help protect the New Zealand dotterel nesting on the local beaches (there are now only 1700 birds left in the world). Then it grew to waterway studies, planting natives, habitat restoration, monitoring eels and fish in the local waterways.

“It’s very hands-on – 80 percent of our work is out in the field, being in the waterways with the kids,” he says.

Tuhaka then became involved with the Sir Peter Blake Trust, first as a chaperone at the Youth EnviroLeaders Forum, and then helping the environmental educator with kaitiakitanga – the Māori system of guardianship and protection of the environment.

Jacob Anderson, environmental programme manager for the Sir Peter Blake Trust, describes Tuhaka as a fantastic role model for the students he teaches. “Richard leads hands-on environmental education experiences that lift student engagement and kaitiakitanga in the immediate environment that they live in,” he says.

Influenced by his own “real-life education” growing up in Wanganui and Wellington, Tuhaka is proud of his school’s embracing of hands-on teaching. “For years there’s been talk about localising the curriculum in our schools, but here in Tolaga Bay, we’re already doing it.”

*The Sir Peter Blake Trust inspires and mobilises the next generation of Kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists, by delivering programmes and experiences that continue Sir Peter’s legacy of leadership and environmental action.

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