For close to two decades Marny Bonner has rescued marine animals and taught others to respect and protect the natural environment. But now she wants a little more time to devote to the one thing she loves more than aquatic creatures - her husband.
Marny, the co-founder of Australian Seabird Rescue (ASR), has resigned from her three-year role as ASR president and senior trainer, but leaves an incredible legacy that has seen legislation changed to preserve marine habitats and thousands of people educated in how to care for coastal wildlife.
Marny explained that education has always been an important aspect of ASR's objectives, from raising awareness amongst recreational fisherfolk right down to primary school age children and training adults in rescue and rehabilitation techniques.
"After 19 years it's time for ASR to make its own way in the world - and for me to do the same," Marny said. "I am content that I have made the difference I set out to make. The thing I have loved most is the absolute joy of seeing the light go on in other people - I used to think of it as their moment of conversion, although that sounds a bit biblical," Marny laughed. "It's when they realise they can make a real and tangible difference and then blossom from that and create their own team and be captivated by ASR's mission statement, which is about being able to live together with animals in the coastal environment."
Marny said the great thing about teaching people how to rescue pelicans and seabirds is they are often instantly rewarded for the effort they have put in.
"Many of us want to do things to make a difference for the environment, but being able to look after coastal birds is a really proactive way of helping… There are birds out there needing help all the time," Marny explained. "Pelicans for instance are quite easy to capture and to fix, usually their injuries are very superficial - they might be hooked or caught in fishing line - so you can often rescue and release them fairly quickly and there's this wonderful sense of being able to help an animal on the spot."
Marny founded ASR with her former partner Lance Ferris in 1993 after they recognised that the problem of pelicans and other coastal birds getting injured by fishing hooks and line was far more widespread than just around Ballina. Together they set out to raise awareness about the risks of unsafe recreational fishing practices and other issues that directly affected pelicans, other seabirds and marine turtles.
Together they conducted workshops right around Australia, resulting in other organisations forming in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland to spread the message.
Lance and Marny were also instrumental in persuading the NSW Government to amend the State's litter laws in November 2000 to prohibit the mass release of helium balloons, a significant source of ocean pollution.
Lance, who was fondly known throughout the North Coast as The Pelican Man, passed away in October 2007. Marny continued to conduct training workshops and the pair were jointly recognised for their outstanding contribution to wildlife rescue with the International Fund for Animal Welfare 'Action Award' in 2009.
"Pelicans are just the most wonderful vehicle for promoting care of our coastal environment. If we were a black snake rescue unit it might be a different story," Marny laughed, "but people have such fond memories of pelicans on holidays or camping trips, so they are great for promoting awareness. When we started in Ballina we found 38 injured pelicans and rubbish everywhere; now we get a call if a pelican sneezes and we rarely find litter on the beaches - that's a direct result of ASR engaging with the community and helping people to see that if we all look after it a little bit we get a great end result.
"The coastal environment is under so much pressure from increasing population, loss of habitat, recreational use… but we can all live together and it's about awareness and engaging people in conversation about coastal stewardship.
"With ASR branches now working on the North Coast, Central Coast and South Coast of NSW plus groups established in four other states, literally thousands of pelicans and seabirds have been saved."
Two years ago Marny met Gordon Fraser-Quick and they quickly fell in love, in part due to their shared passion for saving the environment.
They had admired each other's work for years and after getting married in June last year - at the ASR headquarters, of course - Marny fulfilled a long-held dream when her new beau whisked her off on a surprise honeymoon to swim with whale sharks in Western Australia.
Marny now feels it's time she gave her heart and soul to the marriage and take some time to enjoy her newfound happiness. A founder of the Lismore Car Boot Market, Marny also plans to throw herself into organising the 25th anniversary celebrations next year and do some travelling around Australia.
"I'm often mindful of something a friend said to me many years ago after I couldn't meet her for lunch for the umpteenth time: 'If you spent as much time on your own life as ASR you'd be a millionaire by now.' It's a bit late for that now," Marny laughed, "but I feel like it's my time to live in a more relaxed way.
"I can re-arrange how I spend my time, money and energy but I can't divorce myself from my passion for the marine environment, so I'm still happy to do public speaking and the occasional training workshop if requested - this is just a change of priorities. I've always been active and fully engaged in whatever I do, so I'm looking forward to being fully engaged in my own life. I guess I have something more important than ASR now and that's a wonderful marriage."
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