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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.


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.


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.

The Ōkārito Lagoon Kayak Trail on the West Coast was officially opened by Norm Thompson, deputy CEO of Air New Zealand, on Friday 5 October, in defiance of some of the worst weather to hit the West Coast this spring.

Norm Thompson opens the trail with the help of Luuka Jones and Holly Robinson.

Norm Thompson opens the trail with the help of Luuka Jones and Holly Robinson

Approximately 30 hardy souls, warmed by sausages and kumara patties at a pre-event barbeque, fought their way through the driving rain and 40 knot winds to the shelter of the shed on the historic Ōkārito Wharf, near Westland National Park.

While the weather put paid to plans for an inaugural mass kayak flotilla, led by Olympians Luuka Jones and Holly Robinson, these two champion athletes cheerfully assisted with the other important rituals of the day, including arranging the official ribbon for cutting, and planting soil-stabilising carex grasses on the lagoon shore.

In the comparative calm of the wharf shed, Norm Thompson cut the ribbon to declare the South Island’s first kayak trail officially open to the public. Norm spoke about the range of projects that have been sponsored by the Air New Zealand Environment Trust so far, and the great relationship that the Trust and Air New Zealand as a whole have built with DOC in their restoration and sponsorship activities.

Norm Thompson and Wayne Costello braving the weather to open the trail.

Norm Thompson and Wayne Costello braving the weather to open the trail

Highlighting the successful partnership that has seen the creation of this trail Norm Thompson said “DOC manages one of the most important tourism assets in New Zealand—its incredible natural environment, so as the company that brings more visitors to this country than any other, Air New Zealand values being able to work with DOC on projects such as this to protect and enhance that environment”.

The opening of the trail is a highlight of the Glaciers to Wetlands Restoration Project, funded by the Air New Zealand Environment Trust, which as well as restoring the wetland complex to its former glory is also making it easier for visitors to the area to enjoy what wetlands have to offer to people and the other inhabitants of the complex ecosystem.

White heron sculpture stands along the kayak trail to mark the route.

White herons mark the route

It’s intended that, through the provision of good information and a well-thought-out guide to the kayaking possibilities on the lagoon, New Zealanders and overseas visitors will develop an appreciation of the importance of healthy wetlands, and that the region will be a winner economically with increased tourist numbers and longer stays in the region.

Clare Backes, chair of the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board said, “There is a real need for this kind of eco-sensitive development which showcases our unique environment and its flora and fauna. Both New Zealanders and international tourists will appreciate this new development by DOC”.

The kayak trail winds through seven kilometres of New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland system—the Ōkārito Lagoon. The kayakers follow cleverly designed numbered kotuku (white heron) markers that correspond to information in a waterproof trail guide that has been designed to fit on the deck of a kayak.

As the rain beat heavily on the region, river levels rose quickly, but out at the lagoon, water levels were affected mainly by the tide, thanks to the flooding mitigation that is one of the essential services wetlands like Ōkārito lagoon provide.

A kayak on the trail on a sunny day in the Okarito lagoon.

On a sunny day it looks like this!