Edin Whitehead: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Edin Whitehead is a seabird scientist, author and award-winning photographer whose work has taken her all over Aotearoa, from the Hauraki Gulf to the remote Kermadec, Chatham and Subantarctic Islands. As well as working closely with the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust as a field biologist and science communicator, Whitehead is soon to complete her PhD before getting to work on another book, a follow-on from the bestselling The Brilliance of Birds (co-authored with Skye Wishart).

My parents are from South Africa and they came to New Zealand in the 1980s for a one-year holiday and never left. My brother and I were born and brought up in Rotorua, but we were also able to visit South Africa regularly, to be close to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

My grandfather and father were both keen birdwatchers and I inherited their love of birds. It was never that I had to go with them, it was always optional, but whenever I was asked to go birdwatching I always said yes. This meant getting up at ridiculously early hours – even though I’m not a morning person – to sit in hides waiting for various species to show up, from tiny finches and sunbirds, to big things like cranes and ostriches. South Africa, like Aotearoa, has amazing birdlife.

After high school in Rotorua, I had to choose between studying art at Elam or zoology at Otago. I chose art and in the first year we did everything from sculpture to photography to printmaking. It was a lot of fun, but I was also frustrated because photography as art is very different to the natural history style I was used to, so I didn’t do super well in photography. That rankled a little, until I realised I didn’t need a degree in art to take good photographs and when I realised I wasn’t happy at Elam, I switched to biology at The University of Auckland.

After I finished my Bachelor of Science, I applied for a scholarship with Heritage Expeditions to visit the Subantarctic islands. Spending two weeks on a boat with a lot of time at sea, I got to know all the different seabirds. I learned things like how many different albatross species there are in Aotearoa, not just one, as many people seem to think. I also discovered that I get really seasick which is a terrible thing for a seabird biologist.

The ship would be rolling around in the roaring 40s and furious 50s, and I’d be looking through binoculars or a camera lens – a small narrowing field of vision – which didn’t help either, but it didn’t matter because, even though I get crook, I know I can go out and distract myself with birds.

One thing I love about the Subantarctic environment, even though it’s so hostile to human enjoyment and survival, you see all these birds out there. From the big albatrosses to the tiny storm petrels, they’re all cruising around finding food in all weathers, perfectly at home, and I fell in love with them. It was during that trip I decided to study seabirds.

Field biology has taken me to some really cool places. One of my first visits to Tawhiti Rahi in The Poor Knights Islands was in September 2018. September is never a great month to do field work and the weather was awful. It was rough as guts going over and it rained the entire time we were there.

My tent wasn’t particularly waterproof, plus it was on a slope which meant there was a swimming pool at the bottom. In terms of comfort, that was probably the worst field trip ever, but in terms of what we found, it was one of the best. To this day I’ve never seen so many birds in one place, because September is when all the breeding seabirds – like rako/Buller’s shearwater and tītī wainui/fairy prions – come back from their migration. Rako do a huge figure-eight migration around the north Pacific and Hawaii during their non-breeding season, but they all return to the Poor Knights, which is the only place in the world where they breed.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CbD7tT8vCbl/

A post shared by Edin Whitehead (@edinzphoto)

The working conditions weren’t pleasant, but being out in a horrifically stormy night and listening to tens of thousands of birds returning for their breeding season was amazing.

You never sleep well on a seabird island, because when the birds are meeting up from migration, they’re partying all night long. I also have a few scars from working with birds, which is fair enough. If someone grabbed me and tried to take my blood or pull out a feather, I’d bite them too. Of all the birds I work with, the angriest is definitely the Buller’s shearwater. Rako have very flexible necks, so no matter how you secure them they’ll always find somewhere to bite you with their very sharp, hooked beaks. But it’s good for birds to be angry, because it means they’ve got good survival instincts.

During the lockdowns I really missed being able to go to the coast, or to islands, to be surrounded by bush and birds. That took quite a toll on me. I’m really bad at sitting down and closing my eyes and just breathing, but when I’m out in nature, sitting quietly and waiting for birds to photograph, I find that really meditative. You have to slow your breathing and pay attention to what you’re seeing and hearing and smelling, which is definitely beneficial to mental health.

Aotearoa is the seabird capital of the world with more species here than anywhere else but it wasn’t until that Subantarctic trip that I really discovered our huge diversity of seabirds. I also realised I didn’t have to go to the Subantarctic islands, or The Chathams or The Kermadecs to study seabirds, because northern Aotearoa is home to 28 breeding species. That is on a par with those far-away island strongholds.

Most people will see some seabirds every day, like gulls, but they don’t know how special that is. Our red-billed and black-billed gulls are native and in decline, but people just know they don’t like seagulls stealing their fish and chips. There are also many more species out there that people don’t get to see every day like petrels and shearwaters, that spend their lives out at sea and only breed on remote islands. But getting to know our seabirds, and learning how important they are to the environment is vital, because everything we do on land impacts the marine systems. Knowing that is a really big first step, because before we can start to tackle the problems seabirds face, people need to know how crucial they are.

Seabirds are an essential link between our marine ecosystems and the land. They transfer marine nutrients to the land by pooping, which fertilises the forests and is great for invertebrate diversity and abundance. The nutrients then get washed back out into the coastal marine environment, helping grow phytoplankton and algae, boosting the start of the marine food chains. But this whole cycle is under threat because there’s such huge pressure from humans on these ecosystems.

We need better protection for seabirds at sea as well as on land. Many of our marine reserves are quite small and near land and not necessarily where seabirds go to feed. If people want to bring certain seabirds back to breed where they used to, via translocations or acoustic attraction but there isn’t any kai in the sea where the birds would need to feed, there’s not much point trying to restore those species if there’s nothing for them to eat which is why we need to be a lot more ambitious with our marine protected areas, and also look at places further offshore that are hotspots for seabird foraging.

My focus as a photographer and a scientist is on getting as many people as possible to know these birds exist, to understand the connectivity between ocean and land and how seabirds are a vital part of the ecosystem. I also want to keep doing research because I love it. I get to ask all these questions about seabirds and their lives, and I don’t really get answers, I just figure out more questions to ask.

www.edinz.com, https://www.instagram.com/edinzphoto/, https://gulfjournal.org.nz/?post_type=poster

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