Lying three kilometres offshore from Titahi Bay, Mana Island is visible from many a home with a view across Porirua. Often contrasted against a sullen sky and protected by 100-metre-high, sheer cliffs, the island has an ethereal quality; it's easy to imagine it is a fortress, a lookout, an ark.
The legendary Maori voyager Kupe was here first - the island's full name Te Mana o Kupe roughly translates as the Prestige of Kupe. Maori - mainly Ngai Tara and Ngati Ira iwi (tribes) - settled on Mana Island around 1200 or 1300 A.D, burning its forest to create crop lands. This pastoral existence ended abruptly in 1823 when Ngati Toa swept down from the Waikato in the north, claiming Mana Island for its own. Warrior chief Te Rauparaha, built a whare (house) here, and master carver Te Rangihaeata made it his base.
Over the next decade, whalers and traders passed through, before a questionable land transfer from Ngati Toa to three European men for 24 pounds (Ngati Toa said it was rent, the Europeans said it was a sale) saw the island become one of the first working farms in the colony. For the next 150 years, mostly under the stewardship of the Vella family, the island was a 217-hectare sheep farm.
But this era would also end suddenly. In 1978 an outbreak of the fatal disease scrapie (dubbed mad sheep disease) forced the slaughter of the island's flock. Cattle were briefly introduced, before the Department of Conservation (DOC) took over in 1987, declaring the island a scientific reserve. An ambitious ecological restoration plan began to return Mana Island to its former glory.
The project was up against it: the removal of the cattle had seen grass madly seed, leading to a near-biblical plague of 15 million mice. The existing native forest covered just two hectares in a steep-sloped gully. Nevertheless, DOC - aided by stalwart volunteers - the Friends of Mana Island (FOMI) - got to work. Over the next 20 years, the population of mice was eradicated and 500,000 trees and shrubs were planted, all sourced from seed found inside a five-kilometre radius of the island. In 1998, the Waikoko wetland was restored and became a haven for the highly endangered brown teal.
And so Mana Island, one-ninth the size of nearby Kapiti Island, did become an ark. Thirty-nine bird species now live here, including robins, bellbirds, and kiwi. The island has witnessed the world's most advanced seabird "translocation" (intentional relocation); fledgling shore plovers and shearwaters from Marlborough are fed sardine smoothies by syringe, then encouraged to stay on by a sound system that plays their calls.
Ten reptile species, including the Duvaucel's gecko (the nation's largest) are found here, and there is talk of tuatara emigrating. The Cook Strait Giant Weta, reputedly the world's heaviest insect, is another resident. The notion of recreating a Cook Strait island ecosystem is faithful in all but one respect; Mana has 40 takahe (a once seriously threatened breed of flightless birds) , the largest population outside Fiordland. The island's grasslands are their perfect habitat.
Of course, there have been setbacks. A DOC worker mistakenly shot a takahe in 2008, and a rat was found in 2011. Mana's elaborate gannet colony - complete with fake birds to lure other gannets - has never taken off, and recently FOMI and DOC have not always seen eye to eye. But the restoration plan has been lauded by the Global Ecological Restoration Network as one of the world's finest - an extraordinary example of what's possible.
Mana Island remains a work-in-progress. FOMI, who are still planting, weeding, installing nest boxes and so on, sometimes runs daytime excursions with a guided tour of the island and its walking tracks.