“I speak for the sea”: research at Long Bay-Okura Marine Reserve

Department of Conservation —  12/12/2019

Lured to the ocean by the mystery of life under the waves, Sara Kulins says its power still draws her in. A longing to stay close to the sea and be an advocate for the marine environment was behind her move four years ago from New York to New Zealand.

Now, thanks to a partnership with Air New Zealand, we’re supporting Sara in a Masters research project at the University of Auckland to study Long Bay-Okura Marine Reserve. Guided by questions raised by local iwi and the community, the partnership is enabling us to carry out new research on marine ecosystems.

Sara Kulins at New Zealand’s first marine reserve in Leigh, north of Auckland.

“This marine reserve is beside a very popular beach that’s really close to the city,” Sara says. It’s also right next to land that has seen rapid urban development in the last 10 years. We want to find out how healthy the marine reserve is and how it’s being affected by these factors.”

Sara already knows the area well. She started working as a marine educator at the Sir Peter Blake Marine Education and Recreation Centre in Long Bay three years ago and loves helping children explore the coast and learn more about the ocean.

Catching a wave at sunrise in Long Bay-Okura.
Catching a wave at sunrise in Long Bay-Okura where she enjoys observing the rocky reefs, fish and eagle rays from the deck of her paddleboard.

“The students absolutely love the rock pools – especially finding things that they’ve never seen before. I tell them stories, like when two orca came to visit (probably hunting rays), to help them see how important it is to protect the ocean with places like marine reserves.”

Two dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf, with Takapuna in the background.

Like many parts of the Hauraki Gulf, Long Bay-Okura is affected by pollution and sedimentation – much of it coming from nearby urban areas and housing developments.  

“We are massively impacted here. Rain washes sediment and pollution directly into the marine reserve, and there are sewage problems if its heavy. Because of all the impervious surfaces (roofs and roads), that runoff comes straight into the ocean rather than soaking into the soil.”

Sediment makes the water cloudy and prevents light reaching deeper areas. It can also suffocate bottom-dwelling organisms.

Not often is there great snorkelling visibility in Long Bay but by paddle-boarding over the reef on clear days, Sara says she feels pretty familiar with the reef and knows the best areas to see beautiful lush kelp, spot eagle rays, catch a glimpse of a snapper and hang out with white fronted terns.

“I can see a lot from my board when the water’s clear, so I already have a pretty good idea about what’s out there.”

Teaching kids about creatures in the rock pools along the reserve. To Sara, an important part of being an advocate for the oceans is getting out and experiencing them first-hand.

Her scientific research is in the development stage, but she is planning to carry out snorkel kina counts, surveys of the intertidal area and baited underwater video (a remote fish counting method) inside and outside the marine reserve area.

Surveys of what fishers are catching outside the marine reserve (and what poachers have taken illegally) are also planned to help identify the sought-after species in the bay.

Sara says that because of all the stressors on the marine reserve, it’s hard to know how much of a difference its no-take status is making for the ecosystems or the species.

“What we find out here will be relevant for other marine reserves in urban areas around New Zealand. Also, despite the historical information, there hasn’t been much research done here. We don’t really know what fish we have or how many snapper there are, so this work will be a new baseline for some species.”

Dr Nick Shears, who is based at Leigh Marine Laboratory next to Cape Rodney–Okakari Point Marine Reserve (Goat Island), is supervising Sara’s research. He has spent many years studying kelp forests and long-term changes in marine reserves.

Sara says she’s really grateful for DOC’s support through their partnership with Air New Zealand. “I’ve wanted to study at postgrad level really badly but couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. It’s happened because of a network of passionate people in the science world, including Nick.”

Passing on her knowledge and helping young people explore the marine environment are huge motivations for Sara, who also promotes care for the ocean through a thought-provoking blog and social media channels.

“Because of what I’m learning, I can add a little bit more to their experience and help them think of the bigger picture. It’s important to consider our actions and how we can make a positive contribution to the health of our oceans for future generations.”

The sunset from Long Bay-Okura.

This project is part of the Marine Sentinel Sites Programme, which is also supporting research at Kapiti Marine Reserve. DOC would like to hear from other researchers with an interest in the programme or Long Bay-Okura. View DOC’s marine sentinel sites page for more information.

Sara Kulins has a bachelor of science in biology from Adelphi University in New York, and her blog is I speak for the sea.