Gael Arnold

Founder of Island Care (New Zealand) Trust

Co-Founder of Sea Keepers

When I was four, my parents were visiting friends at Kaipara and I was playing in their back yard. I stood, scarily, on the edge of a bank high above the harbour. A beautiful rainbow appeared, like a gateway, an entrance into a mystical, magical scene. I squinted my eyes to catch the bright illuminating colours of the rainbow, hanging in a powder blue sky, and as if by magic, I saw the birds soar high through the rainbow and then dive low, into the sparkling, rippling, clear waters below.

I will always recall the smell of the fresh sea air, the delicate touch of the mist on my skin, the feeling of freedom as I watched the birds soar. I felt excited and exhilarated, thinking I too might one day fly free like a bird in such a clear mystical place. It was the first moment I really looked - really became aware - of the beauty and perfection of the world of nature.

Many years later, I joined some friends to visit an island in the Hauraki Gulf, just a short ferry ride from Auckland City. The island is called Tiritiri Matangi (or just Tiritiri for short). Tiritiri is a lovely little island, a Sanctuary for wildlife, 4 kilometres off the end of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. Farmers cleared the island's native trees more than a hundred years ago, but volunteers are working to rebuild the island's natural forests again. Over the years, thousands of people have gone to the island to replant native trees and the forest is now beginning to look like it did originally. Everyone hopes endangered plant and animal species will be able to survive in the restored sanctuary.

Planting trees is hard work, but really fun and rewarding. When I was done for the day, I walked along the island's shore, wondering to myself, "will this really be a safe sanctuary for birds?"

As I walked along, I began to notice the shore was strewn with plastic bags, bottles, broken glass, those plastic holders they use for 6 packs of drinks, all kinds of trash. The trash seemed so WRONG cluttering up all that beauty. It was also, I decided, potentially disastrous to wild life. I had read that Penguins have died from swallowing plastic bags. Maybe other birds did too. Researchers said that when the bird's body decomposed, the plastic bag would be freed to claim yet another victim. I knew that birds were sometimes ensnared by plastic strapping and fishing nets. I stood looking at the rubbish, thinking, "We might rebuild the forest, but we should clean up this mess too."

Shortly afterwards, a friend took me to visit someone who lived on the Kaipara Harbour. We were having a barbecue out in his yard when I looked up and felt that I knew this place. Then, in a flash, I remembered my childhood vision - I was in the house next door to where I stood as a four year old! The harbour looked different. I knew the vision was tarnished by all the litter that now can be found along its shores. It wasn't there when I was four. I decided to do something about it. I decided to get everyone to help clean up the mess. If enough people realised how their rubbish was getting into the sea and endangering the beauty and health of our oceans, surely they would take care to change their ways and keep the seas clean and beautiful.

In 1989, I worked alongside the Department of Conservation organising a huge clean-up and survey of marine debris on the shores of 47 Hauraki Gulf islands. What a success that was! Everyone was eager to help and we collected tons of rubbish. To make sure this would continue on a regular basis, I set up a non-profit volunteer organisation called Island Care NZ Trust (ICNZT).

Today, Island Care works with everyone in the community, and with national and international organisations, to do annual shoreline clean-ups and surveys. We also keep a database of information about marine debris and co-ordinate the Marine Debris Network of local and regional government departments, and conservation organisations. We do research to find out where the trash comes from and then try to work with the community to stop the littering.

Our results have been promising. Our data shows a reduction in litter coming through storm drains in communities where we have worked with people to prevent littering. Volunteers can make a difference and I hope you will join me in the coming years to make New Zealand Beaches the cleanest and safest in the world for ourselves, our visitors, and for the creatures of the sea.