Celebrating wetlands at Ōkārito Lagoon

Department of Conservation —  21/03/2014
DOC's Lizzy Sutcliffe.

Lizzy Sutcliffe

By DOC’s Lizzy Sutcliffe.

On the morning of World Wetlands Day this year, I was lucky enough to be in one of the world’s most beautiful wetland habitats, Ōkārito Lagoon on the West Coast.

At 7.30 am on  a perfect West Coast morning, I took a boat trip, courtesy of Ōkārito Boat Tours, to explore New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland.

Ōkārito wharf.

Ōkārito wharf

Despite being drawn back to Ōkārito time and time again I had never ventured out on to the lagoon. I knew the trip was going to be pretty special and it certainly didn’t disappoint, with an absolute blue sky allowing views of New Zealand’s highest peaks beyond glassy, reflective water and lush rainforest. We were all in awe of this insanely picturesque place and grateful to our guide, Swade, for opening this hidden world, inaccessible by land, up to us.

Swade the guide through the Ōkārito guide.

Swade, our guide

World Wetlands Day

International World Wetlands Day is celebrated on 2 February around the world—a day set in recognition by the Ramsar Convention for the worldwide protection of wetlands—and this year’s theme was Wetlands & Agriculture: Partners for Growth.

In order to mark the day locally, DOC’s Franz Josef Field Base partnered with Ōkārito Boat Tours to offer seven, free boat trips for people living in the vicinity of Ōkārito Lagoon over the weekend of 1-2 February. The offer attracted 75 people (appropriately, many from rural/farming communities) from Fox, Franz, Hokitika and Haast all keen to get a glimpse of this nearby wonderland.

lizzy-sutcliffe-okarito-vegetation

Ōkārito Lagoon vegetation

A precarious balance

Since 2008, when Paula Sheridan and ‘Swade’ Finch began operating their boat tours, they have noticed how even small changes in weather, wind and water levels can cause dramatic changes in the behaviour and sightings of various birds.

On this day Swade noted that wading bird numbers had been low this year due to unusually high water levels in the lagoon. We still managed to spot a good variety of birds including godwits, spoonbills, Caspian terns and several of the area’s, iconic kotuku/white heron whose only NZ breeding colony is located just up river near Whataroa. I was particularly excited by the very real possibility of seeing an Australasian bittern—but, sadly, no such luck.

lizzy-sutcliffe-okarito-kotuku

Kotuku/white heron

Glaciers to Wetlands restoration partnership

Things are looking up for the huge diversity of species that rely on this precious fragment of the Coast. As part of its work to conserve the lagoon’s outstanding natural wealth, DOC has partnered with Air New Zealand Environment Trust (ANZET) on the four-year Glaciers to Wetlands project to restore the Ōkārito Wetland System.

Part of the project has been the creation of a community nursery in Ōkārito. The nursery will generate all the native plant species required to replant the areas at Ōkārito and Lake Wahapo. To date, thousands of seeds and seedlings have been collected, and will be grown at the nursery with the help of the community and volunteers.

View of the Southern Alps from Ōkārito Lagoon.

The Southern Alps

Already planning for next year!

As the sun rose higher in the sky and our boat returned to Ōkārito wharf, I struggled to think of a better way to celebrate the world’s vital and threatened wetlands. Paula tells me that plans for next year include land-based activities as well as the boat trips and sausage sizzle “so people can learn even more about the balance of this ecosystem and what it provides for all of us”.

If you can’t wait that long, you might have to just get yourself to Ōkārito and check out the boat trips, kayaking, walks and kiwi tours available from this humble township for yourself.