Lost biologist drawn to NZ

LOST: Department of Conservation volunteer Mihai Muncus-Nagy.
LOST: Department of Conservation volunteer Mihai Muncus-Nagy.

Romanian biologist Mihai Muncus-Nagy's dream of working on far-flung Raoul Island ended in tragedy last week when he went missing. Charles Anderson reports.

The scene seemed familiar to Mihai Muncus-Nagy as he flew into Auckland airport last year. He felt at home as he saw green trees, rounded hills and feeding cattle beneath him. Though he knew little about reincarnation, the 33-year-old Romanian biologist was confident that if he had lived before, it would have been here.

Muncus-Nagy was fulfilling a lifelong dream spurred by the Jules Verne adventure novels he read as a child.

"Perhaps these events are imprinted deeply on my unconscious mind," he wrote in his online journal. "Every time I look at a map my eyes stop somewhere down and on the right."

He had always felt that the life he and his wife Kinga were living as conservationists in central Romania was not the one they were supposed to lead. There were moments in everyone's life, he said, that were always about whether to continue on or to change. It seemed crazy to spend thousands and travel 18,000km by eight different modes of transport to get from Alba Iulia in Transylvania to Raoul Island – 1000km off New Zealand's northeast coast. But Kinga supported the idea, even though they both knew the separation would be difficult.

When Muncus-Nagy arrived in Auckland he felt a pain in his chest. "My heart ached ... literally."

The Department of Conservation's website had pulled no punches, warning of the many challenges to working on Raoul, including the steep and rugged terrain, and the repetitive and exhausting nature of the work. "Remote location stressed," it warned.

But that was part of the charm for the young man.

People who had visited spoke of the island "getting its hooks into you", of its sheer cliffs, sulphurous air and the sound of whale song in the night.

"It's a unique place and anyone who goes is affected for life," DOC spokeswoman Liz Maire said.

Muncus-Nagy knew it could be dangerous. It was volcanic, exposed and prone to seismic activity. In 2006 a DOC worker died taking water samples at a crater lake, his body never recovered.

But Muncus-Nagy applied, had an interview via Skype and was accepted for a six-month volunteer programme. "Adventure begins," he wrote in his journal.

Fishing Rock, a jagged shelf jutting into the Pacific. It was where DOC ranger Jess Clark was dropped in 2010, and where the notion of isolation dawned – a feeling that soon turned to euphoria. "It was the beginning of summer and warm. There are whales around and birds everywhere."

Life was slow on Raoul, she said. The work was slow and tough, weeding out invasive species that could threaten the native bush. But when it was time to leave, the emotions were mixed.

"You are ready to leave but sad to go," she said, a feeling heightened by studying the faces of the new recruits stepping off the boat as they looked at the ocean views framed by pohutukawa. One of those recruits was Muncus-Nagy. "He was really on to it and knew his stuff," Clark said. "Such a nice guy."

Pilot Mark Funnell got the call on Monday. He'd been to Raoul five times, a job many others declined, the distance a turn-off. It took four-and-a-half hours to fly in and by the time he reached the island there was only 50 minutes before light closed in. There was no sign of a body in the water.

Funnell flew back to Auckland, dropped off one search and rescue officer and the next day picked up another. This time they went back by helicopter and searched the shoreline and outlying islands. "There was no point in looking out to sea," he said. "The probability of survival in the water had expired."

On the Monday morning Muncus-Nagy had made the 15-minute drive from the island's hostel to Fishing Rock, walking down a steep bank to the ocean to take water temperature samples. By 10am his fellow workers knew something was wrong because he had failed to check in.

He knew about the dangerous swell in the area. When he landed, strong currents made the jump to shore more difficult than usual.

"This was a very dangerous thing ... if the boat moved when you decided to jump, you would be unbalanced and fall into the water," he wrote.

But soon after landing, Muncus-Nagy found himself in the midst of a pod of 15 whales gathered so close to his boat that they sprayed water on him. It was his first time seeing a whale, let alone being close enough to touch one. The island, he wrote, had welcomed him with "open arms".

Sunday Star Times