Outstanding volunteer Chris Gee
Recipient of the 2016 Faye Shaef Volunteer Award
Chris Gee was awarded the Faye Schaef award at ZEALANDIA’s annual volunteer dinner and award night in December. Faye Schaef was a volunteer with a real passion for ZEALANDIA who sadly passed away in 2014. This annual award is given in memory of Faye to a volunteer who exhibits the qualities and characteristics that Faye embodied: kindness, generosity, modesty, dedication, friendliness and approachability.
I met up with Chris to talk about the work he does at ZEALANDIA , which he describes as ‘skippering and guiding’ – taking visitors up and down the lake in the boat, and leading guided tours around ZEALANDIA . However, as the conversation progressed, I found out he does a huge range of other activities – among other things, he assists with kākāriki, pāteke, and kākā conservation tasks, he has taken part in research programmes, and helps with the annual mouse bait-out (a task reserved for only the hardiest off-track experts). “If it sounds like fun, I’ll have a go at it”, he told me.
It’s the boat that initially attracted him to volunteer at ZEALANDIA , back in 2008 when he had just arrived in New Zealand from the UK and was looking for something that would keep him busy and help him meet new people. He saw that ZEALANDIA , or Karori Wildlife Sanctuary as it was called then, was advertising for skippers. Chris had spent the last ten years working as a yacht charter skipper, mostly around the English Channel and the French coast, and he jumped at the chance to do some “simply messing about in boats”, as he puts it. As skipper, he gets the boat ready in the mornings, and takes visitors up and down the lake, pointing out things along the way. The shags are the main attraction, but there are other things that can only be seen from the water like the huge kiekie flowers, with stamens as big as fingers, that appear in spring. On busy days in the summer, he can do as many as thirty trips up and down the lake in a single day. Chris is currently looking into the history of the boat - one of only a handful of battery- powered boats in New Zealand, brought over from the US in 2002 and used during the America's Cup.
Chris “gets a buzz from introducing people to something new” – whether it’s the experience of being on a boat, or encountering ZEALANDIA’s native flora and fauna. He loves interacting with people on the guided tours and answering their questions, even if these can sometimes be challenging. On one occasion, he was explaining to a tour group from the US that kiwi have characteristics of both birds and of mammals. “And do they have nucleated red blood cells?” one of the tour group members asked. Initially stumped, Chris rushed off to do some quick research while the tour group was visiting the exhibition (the answer is yes).
Among Chris’s many highlights at ZEALANDIA was getting to hold two kiwi-pukupuku (little-spotted kiwi) at once – something he reckons very few others have had the opportunity to do. He was involved in a research project looking at the genetic diversity of the kiwi and the research team had followed a male kiwi to his burrow to change the battery on his tracker. The research team initially pulled out the female kiwi so Chris got to hold them both while the battery was changed. Taking part in research projects has given him insights into particular species – he showed me a photograph of a group of five pāteke on the Upper Lake - something that you might not pay much attention to - but in fact these normally solitary ducks only flock together like this very rarely as part of pairing off during the mating season.
Assisting with banding kākā chicks has introduced him to the varied personalities of the kākā – there are the birds that wait happily in a nearby tree while their chicks are banded, and the ones that skrark abuse, sometimes mustering a rowdy support crew to join in. He tells me about the time a parent kākā calmed her chick down while it was being banded by ruffling its head with her beak and gently muttering to it and shows me a scar on his finger from a few days ago, the result of helping to band a chick who was a little older than usual and had already developed a strong fighting beak.
But it’s the plants that Chris particularly loves. As a keen gardener, ZEALANDIA is a “playground” where he can keep on learning about all the different native species. His favourite are the “exquisite, delicate and unobtrusive” flowers of the native clematis that appear in late spring – there is a clump of them opposite the top of the pontoon. He’s also learning about orchids and all the places that they can be found.
As you might have guessed, Chris loves the diversity of all the things he does at ZEALANDIA. It is “sheer enjoyment” that keeps him coming back and the fact that he feels his time and efforts are all worthwhile.
I asked him what advice he would give to new volunteers, such as myself. “Don’t ever come in without learning something,” he says, “like what’s in flower, how are the takahē behaving, where are the tuatara? And be excited – particularly from a guiding point of view – if you are excited, that will convey excitement to the people you are talking to.”
Chris Gee was interviewed by volunteer Storyteller Louise Slocombe in January, 2017.
See the photo gallery below featuring some of Chris's favourite photos.