New Zealand has erected statues and carried out elaborate tributes for a ragtag collection of fools and racists. Hayden Donnell asks why we haven’t we memorialised one of our greatest residents, Nigel the gannet.
To give and not expect return, that is what lies at the heart of love
– Oscar Wilde
Mana Island is ragged and windswept in winter. Tussocky outcrops slope down to rocky beaches. There are no roads. Few people. The only way to get around is on foot.
If you walk across the island and travel down a small path to its western cliffs, you’ll find a clearing filled with lifeless stone gannets. The site seems harsh and inhospitable, devoid of life. But five years ago, it became the setting for one of New Zealand’s greatest love stories when the fake birds were joined by one live gannet.
Nobody knows where Nigel the gannet came from. Nobody knows where he went when he wasn’t on Mana Island. There are no gannet colonies nearby. No places for him to travel to or from. All we know is that he arrived sometime in 2015, drawn by the clifftop location, the white-capped waves and, most importantly, by a piece of concrete painted to look like a real gannet.
Nigel landed and built a nest with that inanimate, decoy bird. It would’ve been a remarkable, if short, romance if he had left after a season. Instead, Nigel stayed with his stone companion. For three years he dwelt alongside it, doting and dutifully carrying out his role as its mate. Whenever he left Mana, he would eventually be drawn back by the tractor beam of love.
Nigel died in 2018, his body discovered alongside his concrete partner by Mana’s former ranger Chris Bell. By then, word of his lonely vigil had spread around the world. His passing was covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC. “Nigel the lonely gannet dies as he lived, surrounded by concrete birds,” The Guardian’s headline read.
Then the cameras went away. Reporters moved on to memorialise other lonely animals, including George the snail, Trevor the duck and Sudan the white rhino. Though Nigel is remembered fondly, little has been written on him since his death, outside of a DOC blog posted on Valentine’s Day.
This is what happened when the coverage cut off: Nigel’s body was packaged and transported across the channel between Mana Island and Titahi Bay. He was taken to a DOC facility in Porirua where he was placed in a freezer filled with the corpses of other birds. The lid slammed shut and Nigel remains there to this day, entombed in ice.
There were some early calls for a memorial. Nick Fisentzidis, Mana’s current ranger, says straight after his death, Mana Island’s iwi Ngāti Toa, DOC, and volunteer group Friends of Mana talked about how to honour the island’s most famous resident. The discussions faded as the bustle of regular life returned.
But Nigel’s memory still looms large for a lot of New Zealanders. NZ Geographic’s editor Rebekah White says even today, Nigel is never far from her mind. “Nigel stands for all of us who are incapable of facing reality,” she says. “In this regard, he’s somewhat of a patron saint.”
Fisentzidis feels the same. “It was just a universal story really. It was something that lots of people could connect with, that unrequited love,” he says. “If I wear my ecology hat … I think he probably wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and passing that genetic material on probably wasn’t entirely important. But that’s not all that we look at when we look at these sort of things and he did a heck of a lot more from an advocacy point of view than just any other gannet.”
Fisentzidis says he’d be keen to see talks of a memorial revived. “I think Nigel’s story obviously affected a lot of people, not just nationally but internationally,” he says. “There’s definitely some support for continuing the story but also wrapping up the story as well.”
At this point, I’d normally call for Nigel to be honoured in Te Papa. You can’t look at the parade of losers, racists, and fools New Zealand has fêted and tell me Nigel doesn’t deserve a place in our national museum. Captain John Hamilton is famous for landing in New Zealand, dumbly shouting “follow me, men”, and getting shot in the head. He has a whole city named after him.
I even contacted the taxidermist Peter Wells, who told me he could restore Nigel to an approximation of his former self. “If the bird has been in a freezer then there’s no reason why it can’t be mounted,” he says. “Providing the bird is kept indoors and out of direct sunlight it should last for many many years.”
Te Papa is indoors. Te Papa is out of direct sunlight. Te Papa would be perfect.
But Te Papa is not where Nigel belongs. Mana Island is his whenua. His kāinga is alongside the concrete bird he loved.
Getting him there requires the agreement of two parties: Friends of Mana and most importantly, Ngāti Toa. Friends of Mana have not returned my messages, of which there are several. However, a spokeswoman from Ngāti Toa has expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of Nigel’s return. “I have forwarded it to our board to seek their thoughts on this,” the spokeswoman says. “We have generally opposed burials on Mana Island but this situation is a bit different.”
If they do agree to return Nigel to Mana Island, Fisentzidis knows a good spot for a memorial. There are some clearings along that small path down to the island’s western cliffs. With permission, we could take Nigel down that path one last time. He could be laid to rest in the dirt, his story on a small stone above him. Fisentzidis has plenty of spare decoy birds. He would fetch Nigel’s partner from the stone colony, and move it up the path to the memorial. The two would be together again.
Nigel spent his whole life loving, never getting anything in return. Now finally in death, we should show him the affection and respect he surely craved. It’s time to get Nigel the Gannet to Mana Island.