He Tāngata: Dr Derek Ball of Wild Mob

Malaysia is one of Derek Ball's favourite places. Photos / Getty Images; Supplied
Malaysia is one of Derek Ball's favourite places. Photos / Getty Images; Supplied

Elisabeth Easther talks to the CEO of Wild Mob.

During the big mining boom of the1960s, when I was about four, my parents moved to Mt Isa in outback Queensland then, when I was 12 we moved to the coast. Growing up we were always camping, fishing, surfing and diving. My brother tells me I was seven when I found my calling. We'd been staying at a caravan park and we'd been snorkelling at the beach when I declared I was going to be a marine biologist — so there was no adolescent agonising over what career path I'd take.

During my first year of university, I didn't pass a single assessment but I had a great time. I ended up working in the coalmines. It was dusty, dirty work in 40C heat. That was very motivating for me to try harder second time round. When I work with young people, I often suggest, when they finish high school, they take time to travel rather than going straight to university.

All my holidays revolve around diving or wildlife. During my first trip to Africa, I went to Parc des Volcans in Rwanda to visit mountain gorillas.

We took a bus to about 3000m then walked to about 4200m. It was on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and we came across a troop of silverbacks. After about 30 seconds, the big silverback charged me down. Bearing his canines and beating his chest, he charged across the forest floor.

Fortunately the guides are incredible and they'd given us a thorough briefing so we knew what to do. I started coughing like a heavy smoker, it's a vocalisation significant to mountain gorillas, then I had to get down low and expose the back of my neck to let him know he was in charge. The guide came across and did it with me, then the big guy was happy, but he kept an eye on us. There were a couple of subdominant males climbing trees and getting under our feet, they're very social. You're not supposed to get within 10 metres of the gorillas but they have different ideas, some of them even wanted to sit in our laps.

I've always had a passion for sharks. They're the apex predator of the ocean, and their grace and beauty underwater is unsurpassed. There's a little island off the coast of Malaysia called Sipadan, and it's Jacques Cousteau's favourite dive site. The coral reef will take your breath away. There's a vertical wall that goes straight down for 600m and the biomass is absolutely off the planet.

Another dive spot I love is in the central Philippines on Malapascua Island. There's a seamount called Monad Shoal and it's the only place in the world where you can dive with thresher sharks on an almost daily basis. Head out just on dawn, when it's still dark, and at first light thresher sharks visit the cleaning stations. On coral reefs, this is where you'll find cleaner wrasse. They're about three to four inches long, and they go inside the mouths of bigger fish to pick the parasites out from between the gills and teeth. If you can find a cleaner station, you can see everything on a reef without going very far.

I work for a conservation organisation called Wild Mob. We believe, to do good sustainable conservation work you need to get your host community engaged and to respect the culture of that community. We also need to provide economic gains if a project is going to work long term. The vast majority of conservation measures don't work because people come, they do a few years work then they leave and the thing breaks down whereas we take a more holistic approach.

Many people are concerned about the environment but they don't have a pathway to involving themselves, so we take volunteers to amazing places and they do conservation work for us. We work hard in the morning, and in the afternoon the volunteers have the opportunity to explore the destination and engage with the local people. It's a hybrid of tourism and conservation.

We currently work on Great Barrier Reef, Norfolk Island and last year we moved into the Hauraki Gulf, on the Noises, Rakino and Motutapu. I spend about three months of each year on Norfolk Island. It's a speck in the ocean that locals call The Rock, and at just three and a half thousand hectares, it's a biodiversity hotspot. There are more endemic species and ecosystems than you can poke a stick at and there's the most amazing culture.

Pitcairn people are descended from the mutiny of the Bounty, a mixture of English and Tahitian with a distinct language and the people are gorgeous.

I want to continue to explore and develop new models for conservation, to engage with people and explain that conservation is incredibly worthwhile.

Further information: see wildmob.org

- NZ Herald

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