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A month in the life of a TIS intern

Saturday February 09, 2019 Written by Published in Environment
Jessie and Liam Kokaua up a Takitumu Conservation Area with Dr Arthur Whistler. 19020802 Jessie and Liam Kokaua up a Takitumu Conservation Area with Dr Arthur Whistler. 19020802

Jessie Nicholson has been with Te Ipukarea Society for a month and tells us about her experiences.


The first day on the job, I had just sat down at my new desk and it wasn’t long before I was standing in front of a cameraman introducing myself to the whole of the Cook Islands to appear on the local television news later that night. What a way to kick-start my internship!

Before working with Te Ipukarea Society, I didn’t know much about what they do and exactly how much they do for our country. All I really knew was that they are an environmental NGO that played a core role in the purse seine fishing protest some years ago and often appeared on television for environment-related matters.

After working with TIS for nearly a month, I have learned so much more. I didn’t realise how proactive TIS was in working with various organisations. I saw how they expressed their opinions with regards to the environmental impacts that could occur based on poor decision-making for some developments. They would suggest alternative ways to improve, mitigate or negate these effects wherever prevention is not possible.

Throughout my time here, I have tagged along to several meetings. Through this, I’ve learned how the importance of a strong network between businesses, organisations and accommodations is necessary for the successful balanced management of our economy and environment. When one is stressed, the other suffers and this is evident around us today. Hence, why I have been researching wetland in-filling and learned that this is often done for land reclamation.  I was surprised to learn that most of Muri is a wetland. This explains why most of the area gets flooded after heavy rainfall – because there no longer remains a natural buffer system i.e. wetland, to retain most of that excess water.

My other office work included keeping a record of relevant news stories that relate to environmental issues both locally and regionally.  This was balanced by lots of field work, where I have taken part in work in various marine and terrestrial environments around Rarotonga.

I joined the TIS team to hike up Maungatea Bluff in a bid to deploy bird call audio recorders as a part of a petrel and shearwater study we are currently undertaking. It had been nearly two years since I had hiked up a mountain and I was beyond exhausted, especially as there was a lot of crawling involved to follow the track under the invasive vines and au branches. We didn’t make it to the top because we weren’t able to find the last track marker due to a late start and heavily overgrown vegetation. It was such a bummer because we were roughly five minutes from the top but from what I saw, the views were definitely worth it!

I also followed the TIS team up to the Takitumu Conservation Area where we were guided by Dr Arthur Whistler, a passionate botanist who is very knowledgeable about flora and has previously conducted research on Cook Islands plants. Though having learned about kakerori in school, it was my first time up to the TCA and it was great to actually hear the kakerori singing out.

One afternoon, I mentioned to Tuhe Piho, a former school teacher of mine, that I was interning at TIS. He asked me to join in on one of his snorkelling tours, as he said it would be good for me to see more of the marine environment, as it would be useful for my work and my degree in Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of Waikato. I was so grateful, and saw approximately 10 turtles!

I had never seen a turtle before, so the experience was mind-blowing! It was amazing to see some of the turtles come up to the water surface to breathe before returning to deeper water. Turtles that were perched atop of coral blended in so well with their surroundings that I never would have noticed them if it weren’t for the guides pointing them out, they were so easy to miss that you could have snorkelled right past them. Which, really, is a great survival mechanism.

However, the highlight of my summer internship, and most definitely the highlight of my year so far, was that I was able to tag a silky shark!

I have gone out on a boat several times with Jess Cramp, who founded Sharks Pacific and is conducting shark research here in the Cooks. She is working to build a team of passionate Cook Islands marine scientists to assist in conducting shark research in Cook Islands waters.

The project I assisted on was to deploy satellite and identification tags on pelagic sharks, so we can track their movements in the Cook Islands’ waters. During tagging, we always keep the shark in the water to reduce stress on the animal. It is also safer this way. Once we catch the shark on one of our baited hooks, we pull the shark over to the side of the boat. We use ropes that are placed below the jaw (in front of the gills) and around the tail of the shark, we secure the shark by tying these ropes to the side of the boat.

We identify the species and sex of the shark first and then if it is a silky shark or an oceanic whitetip shark, we will place a satellite tag on it, below the dorsal fin.  Then, we measure the shark, place an ID tag in its dorsal fin and take a small piece of its fin for DNA work. Once this is finished, we release the shark. There is a clip on the rope that allows for easy release of the shark once tagged; then it swims away!

For the shark tagging, we needed to work at such ungodly hours!  From a 5am start to 10am finish or from 6pm to 1:30am finish, for example. I was left exhausted by the end of each trip, and I would often fall asleep on the boat because I fell sea sick many, many times. However, I was getting sick less and less the more I went out, so that was a win! Shark tagging was such an amazing experience. The sky always provided an awe inspiring show, from being littered with so many stars that lit the heavens in the dead of night and in the early hours of the morning; I saw several shooting stars whizzing past.  There was even a smiley face of stars and a shooting star flew out from one of its teeth! 

Then there was a stunning sunrise that painted the sky a brilliant orange and a striking sunset of pink and orange streaked against a small blue backdrop, peeking out behind dark thunderous clouds that hid the island from sight. To be able to see our beautiful Rarotonga from beyond the reef was such a gift; to see green mountainous peaks standing tall and strong against a rough blue sea, hundreds of seabirds flocking together as they dive for baitfish, lightning in the sky above the island, tuna jumping out of the water and of course, to see and touch an actual shark!

This internship has provided me with a lot of opportunities, I have experienced a lot of new things while working with TIS; participating in important meetings, hiking up Maungatea Bluff, trekking up the TCA, snorkelling with turtles, tagging a shark and even driving an electric vehicle. Many of these are my lifetime firsts, and I am sure they won’t be the last. I highly recommend this internship for anyone that is interested in helping look after our Ipukarea, our heritage.

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