Numerous paradise islands dot the coast - some public, some private, others havens for our wildlife. This week, the Herald looks at five and the efforts to preserve their habitats

On Motiti Island, lazing 10km across the horizon beyond Mt Maunganui, locals cherish their independence as much as the stunning beauty at their doorstep.

As you approach from the air, the island gradually unfolds upon the ocean, one half peppered with a small cluster of houses, the other largely covered by a grid of avocado orchards.

Save for the odd valley, the island is pancake-flat.

Just north of Motiti is a black speck on the sparkling sea. This is the Rena, the stricken container ship that has leaked pools of thick, toxic fuel oil on to the island's shores, and also one of the darkest chapters in Motiti's long history.

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The ship's grounding on the Astrolabe Reef on October 5 shook up island life like never before, as crews were suddenly busy around Motiti recovering birdlife and smashed-open containers, and cleaning splotches of black ooze from the rocks.

Only last week, a leg of rotten mutton washed up in what is Motiti's port, a tiny bay boasting an eroded wharf and a few boats.

But islander Nepia Ranapia says the crisis could have been worse.

"Put it this way: we got away with it lightly. The fishing is still good, the shellfish are still good and so far, nature is tidying up the rubbish and the oil."

That is, he added, if there's nothing worse to come.

Mr Ranapia lives on the northern half of Motiti, home to two marae and about eight families.

The 2006 Census lists 27 people living on the island, but the present population is thought to be around 40.

Islanders bring gas bottles to the airfield, a long, flat runway flanked by long grass, to be flown back to the mainland and filled. Mr Ranapia is more reliant on solar power.

"Our breadmaker, fridge-freezer, everything is powered by solar - it's very good technology."

With a large garden and his own animals, Mr Ranapia leads a lifestyle that is largely self-sufficient. It's the way islanders have lived for centuries, even millenniums, he said.

Now, residents are cautiously awaiting the impacts of a district plan being developed by the Department of Internal Affairs.

"If they're going to force the Resource Management Act on us, then the challenge is for us to make the best of it, and try to retain the status quo," Mr Ranapia said.

"The very thing we are scared of is becoming another Waiheke."

The Wills family, who own some of the southern end of Motiti, certainly aren't in any hurry to sell up. The family arrived 33 years ago after a long-time landowner sold a large chunk of the island.

Don and Gail Wills spent four years developing an avocado orchard while running 500 head of stock, before eventually selling 150ha to a company now operating its own large avocado operation.

"I found I was making more out of 20 acres of avocados than I was out of 300 acres of grass for cows, so I sold it," Mr Wills said.

The land he still owns grows avocados, while his son David runs another orchard on an equal-sized portion. Don's brother, Vernon, is the third Wills family member living permanently on Motiti.

Don is proud of his produce - he claims his avocados are the best in the country, but you'd be lucky to find them anywhere on the domestic market.

Running an orchard on an island has its pros and cons - the surrounding ocean removes the threat of frost, but tall shelter belts had to be grown to protect the crops from the salty air - and the same can be said of island life in general.

"Probably one of the worst things I've had to do is empty my septic tank with the bucket of a front-end loader," he said.

"There's a lot of learning involved in it all ... You have to think it all through and usually it all comes to you in the middle of the night. After a while, you don't need a mechanic to bleed a diesel engine."

It's all worth it, he said, if only for the magnificent view of a beautiful, sheltered cove below his self-built home. It's named Home Bay, and he's spent many an evening admiring it at sunset, beer in hand.

"Around here, you can catch kina, paua and sometimes, unless it's beautifully calm, you can get big snapper off the rocks in the shallow water."

What you won't find, it's said, are possums, rabbits or hedgehogs.

Relations with the residents of the island's northern end have generally been positive, largely because "we all tend to respect each other's privacy".

"Thinking about it, I've only been up the north end once in the last 10 or 15 years, and that was to take a Herald reporter to a boat that struck the island."

Don Mills would like to think his land will always be there to be enjoyed by his family, whether they live on the island or not.

"I'm 73 and not going to last much longer," he said, watching his grandchildren set off for a morning's fishing.

"We've tried to make it so the property will be available for many generations to come ... and I'd like to think what they're doing now will be there for many generations to come."

He has decided his own ashes will be spread in the water around Motiti.

"I've never had any regrets about coming here.

"If I was to imagine my life without being involved in Motiti, the fact is it would've been an empty life."