Real Life

I’m a real-life castaway

Packing for her annual “summer” getaway, Dr Louise Chilvers throws in some unusually bulky items. Rather than flip-flops, togs and sarongs, her suitcase is jammed with polar fleeces, waterproofs and polypropylene thermals. But then, the 34-year-old has an unusual destination too.

For the next two months, her home away from home will be the uninhabited and bleak sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, 465km south of Bluff. It’s a place where the temperature rarely rises above 8°C and it often rains for 25 days a month.

But despite the harsh conditions, Department of Conservation (DoC) marine scientist Louise has spent up to four months a year on the desolate islands for the past six years. Living in the most basic conditions, she leads a small team who monitor the New Zealand sea lion – the rarest and most endangered of the species.

“oost New Zealanders don’t realise they exist,” says Louise. “Long ago, they used to live around our whole coastline. Now, there are only around 12,000 New Zealand sea lions in the world and 86% of them are on these islands.”

Her research has shown their numbers have declined by 30% over the past eight years due to drowning in trawl fisheries, low immunity to disease, and shark attacks. Louise has loved and worked with animals throughout her career, but sea lions are her obsession. She particularly admires the females who bring up their young on their own – the males leave after mating.

“They are the most incredible mums. They go to sea to feed for two days, then come back to shore to feed their pups. They do this for nine months,” says Louise.

The pups are particularly appealing – “Each one has its own personality. They can be very inquisitive and playful.”

Louise organises everything the team of six men and women need for their stay on the islands. Their only contact with the outside world is marine radio to Stewart Island more than 300km away. There is no electricity, a long-drop toilet, limited water and no hot-water shower. A diesel-powered generator is used to heat one room and fuel the erratic wetback stove the team use to cook their meals and bake the daily bread.

“The only luxuries we have are food and coffee. If we didn’t have decent coffee, there would be mutiny,” Louise laughs.

For up to two weeks, Louise and some of her team camp out on Dundas Island, where the facilities are even more basic. There is no running water.

“Thirteen days without a shower is bordering on my limit,” she admits, “but at least we all smell the same.”

But, Louise says, the basic living conditions are worth it when you see the view from her “office”.

“I look out from my hut and the view is sea lions and their pups. I get to see 400 pups being born.”

Although she’s a scientist, Louise admits she can be emotional over the sea lions.

“The hardest thing ever was watching a pup get sick and die when his mum was out at sea. The team took the pup for an autopsy and when the mum returned, she went to where she had left her pup and called for it for seven days, 24 hours a day.”

The only personal luxury Louise takes with her is her pillow and, in spite of the cramped bunks and long daylight hours, says she has “never slept better” than when roughing it on the Auckland Islands. Leaving for the islands early this year, Louise reveals that her annual summer getaway couldn’t come soon enough for her – and that she’s hoping for a miracle.

“I know sea lion numbers are decreasing but it would be wonderful if things were different this year.”

By Jennie Scotcher

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