When Alyce Charlesworth goes rock pool netting for shrimps several times a week, it's more a stressful mission than leisurely pastime.
Some days she drives up to 1.5 hours, only to return empty-handed. Other times she returns with around 80 shrimps, vital in keeping her sea horses alive.
The granddaughter of the curator of the former Whangārei Museum of Fishes is carrying on her granddad's legacy, a pursuit he embarked on in the 1990s when he opened a small fish taxidermy museum in Ruakākā. That evolved into the Whangārei Fish Museum with the establishment of the Town Basin in 1995 and became one of the largest fish museums in the country.
George Campbell, now 87, was a fibreglass boat builder before directing his talent with fibreglass and passion for marine life to become a taxidermist. Over the years his collection evolved to include a wide variety of species – both taxidermied and alive – which attracted visitors from far and wide. When looking after the fish 24/7 became too much in 2001, he offered the collection to Whangārei District Council, which declined.
A Nelson-based organisation was interested so Campbell helped hand-deliver and set up some of his collection there. However, according to his granddaughter, most of his collection never saw the light of day.
"It was a bit heartbreaking for him," she said. "His collection was his life's work and super-precious. He wanted it to be used for education. His 10kg packhorse crayfish ended up in a tank in the window of a restaurant, which wasn't ideal."
While Campbell held on to the majority of the live fish, including the sea horses and famous eel, Eel McPherson which, after 25 years as part of the family, is believed to have washed out to sea in last year's one-in-500-year storm, Charlesworth, 29, has decided to carry on his legacy with the sea horses.
"I'm very close to him and pretty much grew up at the museum," she said. "It was very much a family thing, all the family would work there and I would spend most of my weekends there with him, probably being quite annoying.
"Live fish are a lot of hard work. Granddad offered his six adult sea horses to me which, at 10 years old, had already outlived their three- to six-year lifespan. He made me think about it for several months. In the end we did a trial and, it turns out, I'm very much interested in them."
Armed with her granddad's old-school knowledge and through online forums, she learnt to keep the sea horses and they thrived to the point that, one year on, they multiplied. Charlesworth described the day in February last year when she discovered her tank was swarming with around 200 baby sea horses, measuring 3mm each, in among the six adults.
"One morning I went out before work and was whistling away and realised that there were hundreds of sea horses."
One sea horse can deliver more than 1000 babies at a time, although only about five in every thousand survive to adulthood and it is the male (the only species in the world) that becomes pregnant. Because they are the pot-bellied variety - in which the male puffs his belly out to impress the females - the pregnancy hadn't been noticeable to Charlesworth, who keeps daily notes on water temperature and behaviour. The discovery sent her into a spin.
"I texted Granddad, who said straight away that the adults will start eating them. I saw them take a few then they spat them out as they realised it wasn't as yummy as shrimp."
Her education on sea horse-rearing was fast-tracked after that and, within a month, half had died and now, 11 months later, two are left.
"I could have released them into the marine reserve but thought it too good an opportunity to learn and, to be honest, their survival rate in the wild wouldn't have been great anyway. The freedom thing is all very well, but you also get predators, temperatures rising and falling, pollution and habitat destruction," said Charlesworth, whose friends have told her that her experience with sea horses having babies was more full-on than having kids.
"I don't remember 2020 as being about Covid – I remember it being about sea horses."
As well as her full-time hobby, Charlesworth has been helping with her dad's taxidermy work after he became ill. This involves making a fibreglass cast from people's catches. They now have moulds of various sizes from most species to the point that, if someone lands an impressive catch, they almost certainly have a replica on-hand so the fisher can keep their original.
Today the two sea horse survivors are "out of the woods" and measure 100mm compared to their adult counterparts which are around 250mm. But it's almost a 24/7 job keeping them alive.
"I have chillers going keeping the water temperature a certain level but if we have a power cut, it sends me into a tizz and I go straight to the Northpower site to check where the fault is."
There's the changing of the water every fortnight, which involves manually gathering six bucketloads of clean ocean water from various locations along the coast and driving it back to her Kauri home. Then there's the live shrimp-gathering.
"At certain times of the year they aren't anywhere and it really stresses me out. I could train [the sea horses] on to frozen shrimps but it's not the best diet and I see it as cheating, especially after Granddad went out yesterday and got me live shrimps."
Yes, Campbell is still actively fishing in his boat at 87. And it is these strong values that Charlesworth follows.
"The way that Granddad's taught me would be just as good as a degree, I would imagine, and you can't learn a lot of it online. He's old-school, for example, instead of water testing kits, he says to use your nose. But I'm also getting tempted by fancy techniques. I've been to public aquariums in Auckland and sometimes wonder if I should stray away from what Granddad's done but the quality of life needs to be more important than making the tank look pretty."
She says this was apparent in her granddad's museum when the live snapper, which he'd kept for over five years, would light up blue when he fed them - "they didn't lose their lustre for life".
Likewise, her own seahorses are alert 24/7.
"To be able to have them in captivity to that standard where they look like they've just come out of the harbour, is quite a feat.
"Granddad is such a wealth of knowledge and to be able to learn from him is such an honour. As Granddad said, there's probably not a lot of money in it. But it's more to carry on with Granddad's legacy."
Like her grandfather, Charlesworth hopes to use her collection for education purposes and eventually breed and release seahorses in a similar way carried out for kiwi.
"You can't track a seahorse and the reality is, there's not that many out there anymore. Out in the wild isn't an easy ride for any animal at the moment and you'd be hard-pressed to find a sea horse.
"Seahorses have almost completely disappeared from the Whangārei Harbour. Granddad's been living on Beach Rd for over 60 years and the changes he's seen are incredible. He could walk to the waterline in his slippers. There used to be sea horses right there on the shoreline in the sea grass and now there's none."
Charlesworth is interested to hear from anyone with sightings of sea horses and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org