Tackling Fiordland: DOC calls in apprentice backup

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  7. Tackling Fiordland: DOC calls in apprentice backup

In a daring expedition on the high seas, predator free apprentice duo Aidan Braid and Jamie Hickling tackled coastal trapping head-on. 

A man in life jacket on a small dinghy in Fiordland
Aidan Braid excited to be in Doubtful Sound. Image credit: MCU

With the Department of Conservation’s Fiordland team away dealing with an emergency pest incursion elsewhere, the Mammalian Corrections Unit was tasked with heading to Secretary Island in the “Stoat Boat”. Joining Predator Free apprentices Aidan and Jamie onboard the small but sturdy dinghy were operations manager Jeff Kutz, and Mitchell Higginson, renowned as the fastest dinghy trap skipper in Te Anau.

Navigating new waters

Anticipation began to build as soon as we arrived at the Te Anau MCU office, or ‘Stoat HQ’. It grew over the following day, spent dutifully packing and preparing for various biosecurity protocols: laboriously picking seeds out of socks and cleaning packs to prevent any pesky stowaways. We couldn’t wait to delve into the far-flung forests and waters of Fiordland.

Neither rodents nor possums have ever invaded Secretary Island in Fiordland, and it has been deer free since 2014. 

All that remains now are the trap shy stoats and those that manage to swim across the 1km wide gap of Patea (Doubtful Sound) from the mainland. Secretary is already home to many significant native species, such as kākā and kiwi, but the total eradication of stoats could mean the reintroduction of others, such as the Sinbad skink or the kākāpō. 

Whilst heading out from Doubtful Sound, dreaming of this future, we were bestowed with acrobatic dusky and bottlenose dolphins – an auspicious welcoming! 

The rocky coastline of the uninhabited Secretary is a wild place: tempest but steadfast.

A dingy pulled up to rocks in Doubtful Sound
The Stoat Boat. Image credit: MCU

So, how do you service stoat traps on steep coastal terrain?

Each day one of three trappers would be dropped off to walk a trapline up the steep sides of the island while the others remained on the boat, zipping around and scrambling up the jagged outcrops to check the coastal traps. 

A map showing Secretary Island on the east coast of New Zealand, in Fiordland.
Secretary Island with Gut Hut in bottom corner. Image credit: DOC

The boat would pull as close to the rocks as it could while we stood at the prow, ready to jump, after which Mitchell would quickly reverse to avoid hitting the rocks. 

Some landings were on wave-beaten rocky cliff sides, while others slid gently under overhanging mossy totara trees. Watching the more adept Jamie spring from the boat up onto the shore, I soon got the hang of timing the leap.

By checking, baiting and cleaning the trap before the boat returned from dropping off the second trapper, we quickly got into a steady rhythm, bunny-hopping our way along the coast.

Sandflies and stunning scenery – that’s Secretary

Initially, the sandflies made time speed up, as we never got a chance to stop and think until we were home, fed and in bed. 

Even then, our home for the week, the ageing Gut Hut, has surrendered to many holes and cracks, meaning we were never truly safe. But after a couple of days – like the scenery – the sandflies just blended into the atmosphere of the place.

Morning kai was made of leftover dinner, berry muesli, and strong coffee – all the while figuring out our instructions and planning what work to do and when to avoid rough seas. These were followed by cherished evenings full of candlelight storytelling and communal cooking. 

Overall the weather was kind to us, and we managed to avoid strong winds and swell with a bit of good luck and management. 

A stoat trap with a misty view into Doubtful Sound.
Secretary Island stoat trap. Image credit: MCU

Finishing without needing our standby bad weather day, we checked a couple more traps on Bauza and the Shelter Islands and then went for a well-deserved fish and snorkel. 

Two men in lifejackets smiling on a dinghy.
Jamie Hickling on the Stoat Boat in Doubtful Sound. Image credit: MCU

On the boat ride back to Deep Cove, we were again thinking about the big picture. Coming from trapping in Ōtepoti (Dunedin), removing pests from this steep country can be intimidating, but working back home is only the beginning. 

With that thought came our favourite whakataukī: 

Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe, me he maunga teitei 

Seek the treasure that you value most dearly and if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.