Operation Million Dollar Mouse

Veronica and Greg Syman of Norfolk Island Shipping.

They lay in bed in Tauranga angsting and losing sleep while their ship, the Norfolk Guardian, was being battered by 170km/h winds in treacherous sub-antarctic waters 800km south of New Zealand.

“We had faith in our ability,” says Veronica Syman. “But there was a nagging doubt. There's always something that can go wrong.” And if it's not the rolling oceans and heavy swells around the remote and hostile Antipodes Islands it's the wind, the big wind. “There was a lot of waking at 1am and wondering, worrying and hoping,” says Greg Syman.

And all because of some mice. A plague of mice – 200,000 mice which have infested the Antipodes Islands –and this country's effort to exterminate those mice and reclaim the ecology of the island.

Veronica and Greg are the Tauranga-based husband-and-wife team behind the one-ship seaborne assault on those mice. Greg representing the Norfolk Guardian's owners, Norfolk Island Shipping; and Veronica, the shipping services agency Quandrant Pacific.

Another significant player from Tauranga is philanthropist Gareth Morgan – his foundation dropped a few hundred thousand dollars into the war chest as did the Department of Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund – and, you and I, the New Zealand public.

And another Tauranga company ISO stevedoring donated the cost of loading the Norfolk Guardian.

The operation's called ‘Million Dollar Mouse' which is a bit of a misnomer considering the total cost is more like $3.9 million during three years. But the intent is the same. Get rid of the mouse.

“This whole operation is brought clearly into focus if you go to the DOC website and see an image of an albatross chick being eaten alive by mice on another sub-antarctic island,” says Veronica. Mice are small but voracious.

Accidentally introduced by a shipwreck or sealers in the 1880s, the mice impact directly on the ecology by eating huge numbers of seeds and invertebrates which are critical to the health of the islands. To supplement their diet the mice also eat the eggs and chicks of birds like the pipit, the storm petrel and two species of parakeet that live nowhere else. This is a critical $3.9 million rescue mission.

The Government was intending to send the frigate Canterbury but it was diverted to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Winston. “We could commit to a timeframe,” says Veronica. And while not the biggest ship, the Norfolk Guardian was probably the most available; the most cost-effective and safest.

But there were a lot of regulatory requirements.

“We were headed into a pristine marine reserve so the ship had to be scraped down. It had to be re-classified to carry extra passengers. It meant extra life rafts and survival suits. Hiabs had to be removed to allow the choppers to land and take-off,” says Greg. Lots to be done.

Then they let the sniffer dogs loose to check for anything untoward. They found an ant. In the sugar.

Then recently in Timaru they loaded and stowed three helicopters aboard the Norfolk Guardian, 65,500kg of 20R rodent bait in 94 purpose-built pods and 30 tonnes of jet fuel and went to war.

“The problem wasn't getting to the Antipodes. It was a roadstead operation at the other end – the ship lay exposed at anchor in a very hostile part of the southern ocean. And everything had to be airlifted ashore,” says Greg.

The Tongan crew of the Norfolk Guardian were familiar with those operations – they do it regularly at Norfolk Island and Pitcairn – but not in sub-antarctic weather and seas.

The weather gods did not disappoint. In the dead of night the big winds struck – 99 knots, or 183.348 km/h. The captain decided the safest place was at sea because there's no safe anchorage.

The Norfolk Guardian spent the next three days doing 200 laps of the northern end of the island. A total of 999km, back and forth, riding out the storm. “Rough seas, up and down, up and down,” says Greg. “Not pleasant sailing.”

It took a couple of weeks before the weather came right. “And just two days for the helicopters to dump the bait,” says Greg. Sixteen kilogrammes per hectare for an estimated 150 mice per hectare; then a second drop of eight kilogrammes per hectare. The work should be completed by the end of the month.

The Antipodes Islands are of the highest possible conservation importance. They are a National Nature Reserve and hold World Heritage status alongside the likes of the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest.

They're described as “wild and beautiful”, sheer cliffs and tussock strewn plateaus with some of the most abundant and unique wildlife in the world. That's why the mouse must go.

It's the most remote of New Zealand's sub-antarctic islands, right on the fringe of nowhere. At the end of this month the eradication team will be pulled from the island and returned to New Zealand aboard the Norfolk Guardian. The bait will be left to do it's good work.

DOC and the ship will return there in 2018 to see if that work has been done.

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