News of taiko chicks brings back memories

By laurel.stowell@wanganuichronicle.co.nz

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MEN OF THE MOMENT: Pictured after their 1969-70 expedition to the Chatham Islands are (from left) an unknown man, David Crockett, an unknown Dominion Museum staff member, Fred Kinsky and Darrell Grace. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
MEN OF THE MOMENT: Pictured after their 1969-70 expedition to the Chatham Islands are (from left) an unknown man, David Crockett, an unknown Dominion Museum staff member, Fred Kinsky and Darrell Grace. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

A boy's own journey of scientific exploration from Whanganui to the Chatham Islands brings back wonderful memories for its members.

The memories of 1969-70 were prompted by news that endangered taiko seabirds, whose breeding spot was found by one of them, have added 22 chicks to their population this season.

That long-ago voyage to the islands was an initiative of what's now called the Whanganui Regional Museum. It took place soon after the building was extended to include an education room and lecture theatre. Several of the expedition members were on its board.

"We wanted to get the scientific side of the museum going. We wanted to be more than just a collection of stuffed animals and adzes," David Crockett said.

At the time he was a science adviser to the region's schools and the then Wanganui Museum board's deputy chairman.

The group's first target for exploration was New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands, but they were difficult to get to. Through his work Mr Crockett knew a Chatham Island teacher, and suggested the Chathams. There were few visitors and no tourists there at that time.

"We decided there and then to go to the Chatham Islands. We could make decisions like that in those days," Darrell Grace said.

The Whanganui public got behind the trip by making donations toward expenses, and each man paid half his plane fare. There were eight in the party, including two from the Dominion Museum. Fred Kinsky was a Polish count and ornithologist, and Irish botanist Lord Talbot de Malahide joined them by private plane from Tasmania.

The aim was to discover wonders of nature - plants, birds, animals and the tree carvings of Moriori people.

Some based themselves mainly at Tuku Valley, where they hoped to find the rare taiko (magenta petrel). The birds were nocturnal, and they rigged up some of the first radio transmitters to track them.

Mr Grace and amateur botanist Neill Simpson were trampers and roamed more widely, circulating large parts of three islands and collecting plant specimens. They camped, or stayed in old huts and houses.

While they were on Pitt Island Mr Grace, a dentist, had to do emergency dental surgery on a fisherman's wife.

"I had thought not to tell any islander I was a dentist. There were no dentists on the islands and we knew that if they found out they would be queuing up at Waitangi and we would never be able to get out," he said.

The woman was in a bad way and Mr Grace did the job with makeshift tools.

On South East Island, now a bird sanctuary with mature forest, the group was kept awake at night by little blue penguins under their tent.

"We could hardly find a place to pitch a tent because the soft ground was honeycombed with petrel burrows. At night time clouds of birds would come down through the forest. If you put your hand out you could catch a bird," Mr Simpson said.

They kept in touch with the museum by amateur radio, and the two slide lectures they gave on their return were packed.

The plant samples went to the Dominion Museum and some were grown on to make a living science exhibit around the Whanganui museum.

The expedition was never repeated in the same way. In 1971, Mr Crockett left Whanganui for a science job in Northland. He made another 109 visits to the Chathams. He finally discovered the taiko nesting area in 1978. That initial trip brought back glorious memories to those who talked to the Chronicle.

"It's given me a new lease of life just thinking about it, because it's such a wonderful memory," Mr Grace said.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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