Rat Hunters in Paradise: The Movie

by Nick Hayward

Cameraman Nick Hayward calls wildlife filmmaking a ‘series of madcap schemes’. His latest adventure to one of the farthest flung atolls on the planet, the tiny pacific atoll of Suwarrow, was no less eventful. 

The necklace of remote Cook Islands landforms is a renowned safe haven for yachties and a sanctuary for 100,000 seabirds birds. But today the islets are overrun by unwanted guests.

Across Polynesia, Pacific, brown and black rats brought in by vessels over the past 200 years have driven more bird species to extinction than in any other region in the world.

Suwarrow has become a slaughter site for tens of thousands of chicks.  

Introduced mammals are responsible for 90 per cent of extinctions in the Pacific since 1800 and remain the key cause of decline for 90 percent of the region’s 200 threatened birds.

Nick was invited to film an expedition led by BirdLife International and their partner Te Ipukarea Society to eradicate Suwarrow’s rats forever.

The success of the mission won’t be known until a ranger returns to the atoll next year. He’ll assess if rats have survived the strategic baiting system deployed by the rat hunters.

But for Nick, success is a film capturing the challenges of remote island eradication and the beauty of Suwarrow’s natural assets. 

It wasn’t it all plain sailing.

Their geriatric vessel the Southern Cross is best described as rickety, the deck timbers groaning constantly with the weight of fuel. The first mate had a penchant for hanging around in his underpants. 

Sleeping below decks on hot nights was akin to being a TV dinner. 

The crew was, according to Nick, like a family. Everyone got on very well, particularly living in such close quarters for six weeks. 

Suwarrow’s accommodation seemed a four star improvement from the Southern Cross' cramped conditions with a little house and lots of freshwater for bucket showers and sanitation. 

The atoll’s beauty was stunningly apparent but harsh. A debilitating heat and white glare were challenges for the cameraman and the rat hunters. The motus (islets) were surrounded by very jagged hard coral. Every cut required immediate attention lest you develop a “bloody huge tropical sore”.

Victuals were simple – canned corned beef, tins of spaghetti, rice - but barbequed fresh yellowfin tuna was a culinary delight. 

The vaka (a traditional voyaging vessel) was beautifully built, extremely seaworthy and navigated by the stars. But it was rough going for someone unused to sleeping in a wooden hull above the hard slapping waves of nighttime Pacific sailing. 

Then the much-awaited five day journey homeward turned into seven. The vaka can only sail with the direction of the wind which meant they found themselves 40 nautical miles from Rarotonga but unable to sail home. The next time they tacked they were 170 nautical miles from their destination. 

Nick recalls a profound reverse cultural shock upon returning to privacy, modern amenities and autumnal Melbourne. 

 

“It was an extraordinary journey. To be involved directly in something that has a clear and immediate conservation benefit – a result – was a great experience,” he says.