Archive for October, 2007

GPS Tracking Gannets at Cape Kidnappers

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Cape Kidnappers, only a few kilometers from Havelock North, is home to the largest mainland breeding colony of Australasian Gannets, sula serrator. The colony is within the Ocean Beach Wildlife Preserve and this organisation are interested in knowing more about the ecology of the gannets. They will buy µGPS GPS trackers, but this is a new product and to give them confidence Sirtrack provided two trial units to prove there effectiveness. I headed out to assist a PhD student, Steffi, from Auckland University who is studying the foraging ecology of this species at the Cape and another colony on an island off Auckland. I was there to share the users experience with the technology and, where necessary assist in the setup, deployment and recovery of the devices. This provides invaluable feedback to improve this and all products and specifically address any deficiencies in the manual for the µGPS. It was convenient for Steffi as she was alone this week and it takes two people to handle the gannets, one person has to hold the head with one hand to control the potentially lethal beak and the wings with the other hand to avoid any damage, especially in the almost constant blustery conditions conditions at the Cape.

Looking across the Plateau colony at Cape Kidnappers.
The plateau colony at Cape Kidnappers.

Flying gannet against a typical Hawkes Bay sky.
A gannet flying above Cape Kidnappers.

A gannet on final approach. Can be beautifully controlled, or not…
Final approach, committed, could be perfect, or head over heals.

A pair of gannets in courting display when one partner returns.
A courting display as one partner returns.

A close-up shows the striking markings and colours of the head and shows one of the large and incredibly effective eyes.

A gannet preening.
A gannet preening shows some more of the stunning coloration.

A gannet collecting grass for nest lining.
The gannet won and scored some grass to line its nest.

Holding a gannet with a newly attached µGPS taped to a couple of tail feathers.
A gannet with a µGPS taped to a couple of its dozen tail feathers. The bird will carry the device for just a day and then give us a new window into where these beautiful birds forage.

Gannets feeding next to the Black Reef
A load of gannets feeding next to the Black Reef.

Hideaway Island, Vanuatu

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I had originally intended a break in New Caledonia. Beautiful, huge lagoon which is reasonably sheltered for water sports, good food with the French influence and it’s named after the old country. However, after some consultation with the travel agent it became clear that New Caledonia was expensive for no obvious reason and that there was an attractive option in nearby Vanuatu – still linked to the old country as it’s part of the New Hebrides. Hideaway Island ticked most of the boxes and came in at least 30% cheaper than New Caledonia for a secluded resort rather than a hotel in town – done deal!

Hideaway Island
Hideaway Island from the main island, Efate.

I arrived two weeks ago Sunday. Even at 8.30 in the morning it was hot and humid. It is about ten minutes from the airport to Mele Beach. From there, five minutes on a little ferry. The island is as small as it looks with only about a dozen bungalows and a couple of backpacker dorm houses. then there is the bar and restaurant, dive shop and activity hut and gift shop. My waterside bungalow was simply furnished, but very comfortable. It was East facing, so morning sun and shade in the heat of the afternoon – perfect.

The view from the patio doors of my bungalow – not too shabby!

It had been a hellish six weeks running up to my well-deserved break with my fellow manager away for nearly five of those six weeks. Throw a delayed product release and a couple of major problems blocking production into an already hectic schedule and you end up with some crazy hours just to stay on top of the seriously urgent, never mind anything else. So, I did a fair bit of sleeping and dozing in the sun in the hammock for the first day and a bit. But, then I got bored. I’m not one to lay on a beach for a week, I need to do things. I explored and found that the catamaran (singular) was in pretty poor nick as were the kayaks. Two of my intended pastimes immediately less attractive. I went snorkeling and the reefs and fish were awesome. I decide to do the introductory scuba dive and see how it went – an option I was aware of, but not set on. I inquired about the open water dive course and doing the introductory first to see how I enjoyed it. Momentum gathered quickly and I was suddenly enrolled in the open water course and doing the introductory dive in an hour – wow! Well, what the hell. The first dive involved a quite a few drills and definitely took me out of my comfort zone. Having completed that I was given a textbook and a bunch of questions to answer – homework. Still, not a bad place to have to do it! It was good timing on my part as the island was pretty empty, so I had an instructor to myself.

On Tuesday afternoon a group of us went to the local village, ‘Mele’. We were shown round by a staff member from the island who lives there. The houses are primitive, but when the temperature probably never drops below 20 Celcius, who needs windows.

Mele village house.
A typical house in Mele village.

Mele village child
The kids are so innocent.

At the end of the trip we went to one of the village ‘kava’ bars to try the kava. This is a drink made form the kava plant root which is pounded with water to make a muddy beverage. During the years of joint British and French rule, kava was banned, but the locals had ready access to alcohol. This resulted in the usual drunken brawls. Since independence, kava is again allowed and there is no more brawling as kava is a sedative rather than antagonist. It makes your mouth numb and gives a slight, relaxed high similar to marijuana – I’m told.

Kava bar.
Supping on the kava.

Homework all good, followed by some theory on dive tables and then more practical just off the beach. Not easy, but I was a lot more relaxed and breezed through it. Both instructors were off the island the next day and one of the girls I was hanging out with was heading to the ‘Cascade Waterfalls’, above Mele village, so I joined her tour.

Paradise, and it only gets better.

The main waterfall.

Karli has a ‘Priscilla’ moment by the main Cascade Waterfall.

Cool tropical rainforest.

That evening was the, so called, Melanesian Feast – buffet dinner would suffice. Compulsory headgear, more kava and some more good food, so no complaints. Oh, and some singing and dancing around the fire.

Me and my beautiful companions from the week after the feast – all sporting de-rigeur headgear.

On my last full day I had three dives. The first started with surface drills which I’d pretty much mastered by now and then drills on the bottom at around six metres. The same as I’d done in three metres, but with some choppy waves. All good. Then a half hour cruising around the reef as deep as twelve metres. Having passed all my drills in the first open water dive, the next two were purely recreational, but necessary for the certificate. So, that was that, now a certified open water diver.

That afternoon I went for a snorkel and tried a bit harder with my new camera. I’d not taken it diving as I was going deeper than the maximum 10m and didn’t want, or need, the distraction. There was a lot of surge from the swell, so most of my initial pic’s were crap. Heres one that wasn’t too bad.

A Butterflyfish above Delicate Fire Coral.

A great holiday and met some cool new friends. Learning to dive was the cheap bit, now I need to buy the gear and keep doing it. I may very well go back to Hideaway Island as there are a whole bunch of dives beyond the twelve metres I was limited to which sound awesome.

The Kopuawhara Express

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

On the last Saturday of September I went on a train trip from Napier to just south of Gisborne and back, an all day trip. This line has been closed to passengers for many years and runs only a couple of freight trains a day during the week. It is one of the classic New Zealand rail routes with serious ascents and descents, many tunnels and big viaducts. It took a long time to build and a lot of people died in the process, mainly in one flash flood. With such little traffic it could close any time, so worth a day whilst the opportunity is still there. The trip was run by Steam Incorporated who maintain the only mainline certified, fully restored steam locomotives and rolling stock in New Zealand. This one wasn’t steam, but did use their restored steel and older wooden carriages. Whoa, sounding like a trainspotter there – I was in it for the scenery and a bit of history.

Photo-stop near Blacks Beach
Here’s the train near Blacks Beach, just short of our final destination of Beach Loop.

Leaving Napier the track skirts the residential back yards and out over the bridge across the lagoon at Pandora. Once out of Napier we pass the airport and through Bayview to the Esk Valley. From there it is a long, steep climb through a few tunnels and with vertigo-inducing drops alongside the Esk into the ranges to Waikoau. From here the line levels out and heads across the plateau across three huge viaducts, the Waikoau, Matahourua and Mohaka before dropping down to Wairoa.

Wairoa Station
Some people jumped off at Wairoa to watch rowing on the Wairoa River.

Onward to ‘Beach Loop’, the final passing loop just shy of Gisborne. We cut across the Mahia Peninsula, past the old fishing harbour of Waikokopu before climbing up and past the Kopuawhara Stream, the site of a disaster where 21 people died in 1938 during a flash flood whilst the railway was being built. Next through the 3km Tikiwhata Tunnel and a couple of shorter tunnels before we stopped for a picnic stop just short of Beach Loop.

The train heads off to Beach Loop to swap ends.

The Beach Loop beach.

On the return leg I secured a good vantage point on one of the open balconies at the end of one of the old carriages to take some photos.

Typical New Zealand bush from a little viaduct.

Tree Fern
A Tree Fern, or Ponga Tree with a bit of New Zealand behind.

Mohaka Gorge
The mighty Mohaka River and gorge.

Mohaka Viaduct
Approaching the Mohaka Viaduct, the biggest in New Zealand at nearly 300m long and 97m above the Mohaka River.

All in all, a great day out. Perfect Hawkes Bay weather with not a cloud in the sky, fantastic scenery and a bit of history to boot.