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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Life in the Shallows: The wetlands of Aotearoa New Zealand by Karen Denyer and Monica Peters

Wetlands are amazing! They play an important part in improving water quality, flood control, negating sea level rises and absorbing and storing carbon. And they also house many of our unique native plants and animals including many rare and endangered species. But more than 90% of New Zealand’s wetlands have been drained or filled.

Many New Zealanders think of wetlands as just bogs and have no idea of how vital it is to maintain and restore those that are left for future generations.

To raise public awareness, and realizing that stories can be a powerful tool to win hearts and minds, Karen Denyer and Monica Peters have co-authored Life in the Shallows. Their book is also a way to celebrate the huge achievements of seventeen passionate wetland scientists working in very diverse wetlands: swamps, fens, lakes, estuaries and bogs.

They have also included a chapter about Mātauranga Māori o ngā Repo (Māori knowledge about wetlands). I found this overview of how Māori have valued, managed and monitored wetlands for many centuries guided by Mātauranga Māori really interesting and insightful. When there is a collaboration between Mātauranga Māori and Western Science it leads to a deeper understanding and better outcomes.

Life in the Shallows is packed full of scientific information but because the language is so accessible, and the narrative is interspersed with often humorous anecdotes, I soon became happily immersed in it and didn’t get bogged down at all.

All of the stories are impressive but some especially resonated with me. Dr Emma Williams has developed a variety of techniques to track down the elusive matuku. She uses automatic sound recording devices, trail cameras and thermal-image drone cameras, but for detecting matuku by smell, the superior snouts of dogs are unbeatable. There is a gorgeous photograph of Emma and her sniffer dog Kimi, outfitted with life jacket and camera, tracking these large birds together.

Dr Bruno David has invented fish ladders, made from recycled materials. What an ingenuous low tech solution to help migratory fish such as the banded kokopu, who were struggling to get past perched culverts! After solving the fish traffic problem, he went on to design and build fish hotels to help solve what he dubs ‘The great Hamilton urban fish-housing crisis’. These tiny homes, made out of recycled timber pallets are proving very popular.

Marinus Boon deploys drones to explore wetlands in 3 dimensions to determine their values and needs. His story shows how modern technology is changing the face of wetland research although it will still take humans to analyse and interpret the images and field notes.

Each wetland scientist was also asked what got them into wetlands in the first place: what ignited their passion , who mentored and encouraged them, but also who tried to dissuade them so creating obstacles they had to overcome. For young people considering a career in science this book would be an invaluable window into many exciting wetlands research opportunities that they might well never have heard of otherwise.

Each story too, is accompanied by a beautiful photograph of a wetland that the public can visit, with interesting background information and how it can be accessed (without getting your feet wet!)

Reading this book and visiting some of these magical places is bound to increase your knowledge of wetlands and the need to care for these precious places. And it might well spur you on to join one of the many community groups who are helping to restore them.

I heartily recommend this book. An added bonus is that all the proceeds from its sale will go to the National Wetland Trust to further its wetland advocacy work.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press


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