Hauraki Gulf – One of Auckland’s great backyards

Department of Conservation —  23/05/2019
Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland from the harbour.
📷: Myron Manickum

It’s hard to believe that Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland, our largest, busiest and most densely populated city in New Zealand hosts one of the most abundant and diverse marine parks in the world.

Our treasured Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, New Zealand’s only national park of the sea, is 1.2 million hectares and includes more than 200 islands and islets, including 47 pest-free islands where numerous endangered species can survive and thrive. On top of this, there are five marine reserves and the Gulf is considered the seabird capital of the world, boasting 26 species who call it home.

As a new DOC staff member, in an office role, it’s been fantastic to get out-and-about in some of our natural spaces, seeing the work we do on the front-line as well as the relationships we hold with key partners. With help from conservation partners, Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari, my colleague Bridgette, one of our summer marine rangers, and I accompanied Kelly Tarlton’s Ocean Youth group, a programme engaging tomorrow’s leaders in marine conservation, for a day out exploring one of Tāmaki Makaurau’s greatest backyards.

Hauraki Gulf Marine Park map.
📷: DOC

Our day began at Kelly Tarltons, Auckland’s only marine aquarium, where our excited and apprehensive Ocean Youth group had a meet, greet and question-time session with Bridgette. She talked about what the group might encounter on their trip in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park and touched on what conservation threats and efforts our marine parks and reserves undergo.

Bridgette, our summer marine ranger talking through some species in our marine parks.
📷: Myron Manickum

From there it was onto Auckland’s Viaduct to jump on board with Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari for our marine park tour.

It was a cracker of a day, for a Saturday in early May, and after a short journey out of the harbour and into the gulf, the energy and anticipation levels of our Ocean Youth friends began to rise, with most of them taking various positions on the boat for spotting duties.

The boys, intensely on look-out duties for marine species.
📷: Myron Manickum

The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park is visited by 1/3 of the total marine species in the world, with over 25 of the 37 southern hemisphere marine mammals seen in the Marine Park! How cool is that!?

It wasn’t too long before we spotted something amazing. An incredibly large, black fin was spotted in the distance by one of the Ocean Youth adventurers and immediately a rush of excitement and joy flooded the boat as he announced it. The skipper addressed us over the speaker and informed us that we were looking at a pod of orca, six strong, with one small calf! We edged a bit closer to get a better look while maintaining a safe distance from these staggering wild animals and without disturbing their natural behaviours. We were privileged to be in their world and although we wanted to get even closer, it was paramount that we respected them and gave them the space they needed.

Orca pod briskly swimming past.
📷: Myron Manickum

All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1978) meaning that it is an offence to kill, injure, harass or disturb them. If you are in a vessel out at sea, follow these guidelines to help keep both you and our marine mammals safe.

How good was that?! The Ocean Youth attendees were jaw-dropped and in total shock. I mean why wouldn’t you be. That was amazing! Not long after seeing the pod, the dolphin giants look one deep breath, arched their backs and plummeted 25 metres down to the seabed, out of sight. The skipper of the boat thought it would wise to move on and so we did.

Going… going… going… gone, out of sight.
📷: Myron Manickum

With excitement rightfully nearing peak, leaving us in wonder of what we would see next, ‘playing-it-cool’ was proving a hard thing to do. Questions came bellowing left, right and centre… How big are they? How much do they weigh? What do they eat? And the classic… Have they ever attacked people?  9.7m long. 6,000kgs. Seabirds, squid, octopuses, sea turtles, sharks, rays and fish. There have been no documented attacks of orca in the wild, only in captivity.

The questions stopped abruptly when the skipper announced there was a large pod of dolphins ahead of us. What?! Dolphins! Soon after spotting orca we run into dolphins! In little time we were surrounded by a large pod of curious common dolphin, checking in to see what this big boat of people were doing.

Surrounded by dolphins.
📷: Myron Manickum

They elegantly moved around the boat, catching the bow wave for an easy ride. Common dolphin are the only tricolour dolphin species in the world and being so close to them, we could see the three distinct colour markings on each individual very clearly.

Standing so close to the dolphins!
📷: Myron Manickum

The Ocean Youth team were wrapped to be standing less than two metres away from these beautiful creatures. Excitement was at an all-time high. As their name suggests, these short-beaked common dolphins are customary to the Hauraki Gulf and can be spotted just a few kilometres from the coast. Again, how cool is that!?

Adult common dolphin weigh between 100-140kgs, feeding on a variety of prey, including various species of schooling fish and squids. The fact that they are surprisingly large and so frequently seen in the Hauraki Gulf is a testament to the overall abundance of marine life thriving within Auckland’s seas. Luckily, for these guys the orca pod was nowhere to be seen, because yes, you guessed it, orca are the principal predators of the common dolphin.    

Caught in mid-flight.
📷: Myron Manickum

After interacting with the dolphins, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. Like our encounter with the orca, we didn’t want to disturb and disrupt the natural behaviours of these wild animals. As we took-off back to Auckland city, a few dolphins seemed like they hadn’t had enough of us, that or they fancied themselves as wake boarders, riding the wake left behind the boat.

Torpedo dolphin hadn’t had enough.
📷: Myron Manickum

It was time for the Ocean youth to reflect on their day out in The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. Reflections were quiet, after-all it was a long day but a day of fulfilled expectations. Everyone looked very content.

As well as seeing common dolphins and two pods of orca on our Marine Park tour, we also spotted a lively shoal of skipjack tuna, tākapu / Australasian gannet, pakahā / shearwaters, takahikare-moana / petrels and even kororā/ little blue penguins. It’s amazing and almost unbelievable that the Hauraki Gulf is teeming with an array of marine life, right at our backdoor.

Ocean Youth celebrating their amazing day out in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
📷: Myron Manickum

I had an incredible time, met some amazing future conservationists and got to witness the ‘WHY’ to the conservation work we do. I feel totally invigorated and passionate and can’t wait for the next experience (even if it’s from the office).

To find out more about the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park visit here.