The last time I stepped ashore at Moutohora Island, its flanks were almost bare of vegetation, other than a few hardy pohutukawa and small stands of bush, and its most abundant wildlife was hundreds, if not thousands, of rabbits.
Thirty-seven years later the 143-hectare island off Whakatane’s coast is cloaked in lush native bush, its canopy filled with native birds – and, there’s not a rabbit in sight.
The difference three-plus decades and thousands of hours of pest eradication and replanting have made is truly impressive.
Back in the late-1970s while working at the Whakatane Beacon I spent a couple of weekends on Moutohora – commonly called Whale Island – with dolphin researchers Des Crosland and Ramari Stewart who, with the permission of the then island owner Mick Orchard and the wildlife division of Internal Affairs, had erected a small hut near Boulder Bay.
From there they made trips in their five-metre catamaran Interlock Two to record and observe the activities of a resident population of dolphins as part of a research project coordinated by Wade and Jan Doak of Tutukaka, Northland.
Aboard Interlock Two, I was fortunate to enjoy a very close encounter with the dolphins and their young; and on another occasion an up-close inspection from a bull orca, which swam to the small craft before diving beneath its hull, causing not a ripple but demonstrating he was far longer than the yacht.
He may or may not have been attracted by the music of Pink Floyd, which Des was playing through the yacht’s hull. But whatever the cause of his deviation to check us out – he soon rejoined the two females he was accompanying.
In October this year I made the trip back to Moutohora on a much larger vessel The Moutohora Cat – operated by White Island Tours and skippered that day by David Plews with guide Fiona Coulter.
It’s just a short 10 to 15-minute trip, first across the Whakatane’s bar, then to the island where we stopped to view seals resting on rocks on the island’s western side.
A few minutes later Dave nosed Moutohora Cat onto the beach at Boulder Bay, and we alighted by way of a ladder over the bow.
Fiona took our small party on a guided walk of the island, so radically changed from that I had known, it was impossible to identify where Des and Ramari’s hut had been.
There is, however, a Department of Conservation hut close to the bay where staff and volunteers stay to carry out work or research. Fiona has stayed there as part of a fire watch team in the past.
She explained the island’s original native vegetation and wildlife had been largely destroyed by human activity and by feral animals including goats, rabbits, rats and cats. The island, a remnant volcanic cone that has eroded away to leave its two distinct peaks, has a number of significant archaeological sites including an extensive pa.
In the 1830s a shore-based whaling station was established but the venture failed without a single whale being captured. Forty years later sulphur was extracted from the island’s still active geothermal area but was of such poor quality the venture was abandoned in 1895.
The next phase of industrial activity came in 1915, when quarrying provided rock for the construction of the Whakatane Harbour wall. A total of 26,000 tonnes of rock was removed during five years.
In 1965 Moutohora was declared a wildlife refuge and the island was bought by the Crown in 1984.
A picnic on Moutohora Island early last century.
The most significant feature of Moutohora’s current fauna is the breeding colony of grey-faced petrels. Sooty shearwaters, little blue penguins, the threatened New Zealand dotterel and variable oystercatcher also breed on the island.
Threatened species that are occasional visitors are the Caspian tern, the North Island kaka and New Zealand falcon.
Almost as soon as we entered the regenerating bush we saw kakariki – known as red crowned parakeets– tui and fantail. Shortly after I heard, then caught my first ever glimpse of a tieke – North Island saddleback – it was so quick it was almost impossible to photograph.
That these vocal and attractive birds are on the island is a result of local Ngati Awa and the Department of Conservation joining forces in March 1999 to transfer 40 tieke from Repanga (Cuvier Island), off the coast of Coromandel, to Moutohora. Bellbirds and grey warblers also call the island home.
Guide Fiona Coulter checks for signals from kiwi transmitters during a tour of Moutohora Island.
The island also has a population of little brown kiwi, which we didn’t see. We know they are there because Fiona located some of the males with an antenna, which picked up the signal from their transmitters.
Fiona also lifted the lid of a gecko ‘motel’ to reveal a number of the lizards in the specially made shelter. “There are tuatara on the island too and sometimes we see them resting by the track,” she said – but not that day.
One part of the island I did recognise was the saddle on the ocean side from where I had joined Ramari to watch for dolphins – the view is still as spectacular and the drop to the rocks below, just as steep as I remembered.
From there we walked back to the landward shore and round to Sulphur Bay, where hot pools that once existed were used by early pioneers as therapy for invalids.
After lunch on the beach it was back to Boulder Bay, where Dave brought the cat to shore for us to board, and took us on a circumnavigation of the island to view its rugged ocean face.
Landing on the island requires a permit, and White Island Tours is one of the tour operators that has DOC permission to take parties ashore. Strict biosecurity protocols are in place to ensure the decades of restoration and pest eradication work aren’t undone.
Moutohora/Whale Island tours operate daily but are subject to weather and demand. To find out more, visit: www.whiteisland.co.nz