Whangārei's "rubbish wrangler" Nicolas Connop is used to turning up random items during his organised monthly clean-ups around the district - but the discovery of a dolphin skeleton was a first.
The remains were found during a Love Whangārei Monthly Clean Up of Pohe Island by a member from G.J. Gardner, who were sponsoring the event in conjunction with Keep New Zealand Beautiful Week.
Connop said the skull was found first sitting atop rocks on the eastern side of Pohe Island, followed by most of the remaining bones.
"The bones were completely clean and I'm estimating they had been there for up to a year. It was well-preserved," he said.
While the larger bones were still sitting on top of the rocks, most of the smaller ones, including multiple spine discs, had slipped down into crevices. After much searching, Connop estimates they retrieved around 80-90 per cent of the skeleton.
"There are still some of the tail bones missing and we couldn't find the flippers and jaw and teeth. They've possibly washed away."
While Connop said it was obvious the skull was that of a dolphin because of its unique, long and bulbous shape, the type of dolphin is yet to be confirmed and the remains have been sent to the Department of Conservation for further identification.
"I'm hoping it got washed up already dead as I'd hate to think of a dolphin getting stuck up on the rocks not being able to get down. I'd imagine it just got washed up and slowly decomposed," he said, adding that he would like to see the remains eventually go to the Hihiaua Cultural Centre.
Saturday's Love Whangārei Monthly Clean Up event, focused on the mangroves bordering Pohe Island and involved 53 volunteers who collected approximately 600kg of trash, recycling and salvaged items.
Among it were seven car tyres, with all but one removed due to a mangrove tree growing through the middle.
Also collected were 25 plastic parking tickets and some of the most prolific items found were polystyrene, plastic lollipop sticks, drink top seals, and soft plastics.
"Most of these found within the kikuyu edge and it looks clean and green... until you lift up the edge of the grass. Plenty had to be left, but we will be back at some stage. This has been our third time here over the years," Connop said.
Connop and partner Karen Lee are behind F.O.R.C.E. (For Our Real Clean Environment) which sets out each month to clean up a selected area around the district. Since its inception over two and a half years ago, around 340 volunteers have collected 15,770kg of rubbish from 26 locations.
"It's really disappointing to see so much rubbish out there. It is bad enough as it is with the issues regarding recycling and waste, let alone people just throwing it into the environment. It affects so many animals and, in turn, affects us too. Somebody has to do something. We're not just complaining about it, we're doing something about it."
The pair began the Love Whangārei Monthly Clean Ups in February 2018, which steadily accrued volunteers and sponsorship, before forming F.O.R.C.E. - a charitable trust which aims to empower the Whangārei district community to protect the natural environment through environmental and waste minimisation projects.
The targeted areas are often neglected and hidden and have included repeated visits to areas such as Ōtangarei, Onerahi Beach and Lookout, Waipū Walkabout, Mackesy Rd, Dragonfly Springs and Ngunguru Snell Point mangroves.
In certain locations, it's not unusual for the team to fill the back of a truck with half a tonne of rubbish – which gets weighed at ReSort with the disposal paid for by Whangārei District Council - during the two hours of their event.
Common items found include car tyres and car parts, furniture and appliances, road cones, bikes, a myriad of dead animals and food packaging, including a faded salt and vinegar chip packet still intact 24 years after its contents expired.
The more unusual discoveries have comprised a full wallet, bags of undersized paua, used needles, disposed bundles of papers and pamphlets and a number 36 letter box. And now, of course, a dolphin skeleton.