Little Barrier – Hauturu

Little Barrier – Hauturu

text and photos by Jenny and Tony Enderby

Like  a perfectly choreographed ballet, the scene in front of us flowed. First one way then the other, led by the fronds of the ecklonia kelp swirling gently in the surge. Above them the fish moved with the surge, not wasting any energy. Some, like the marblefish, used the movement to advantage, flowing close to the rocks, grabbing a mouthful of weed and letting the surge rip it clear.

Below them at 15 metres the rocks and kelp met the sand. From some of the recesses a few feelers protruded, their owners unaware of the ballet happening above them. On the sand a huge long-tailed stingray rested, not showing interest in the movement above. In an almost contemptuous movement it wriggled its wings, throwing a layer of sand over itself, and settled further in to ignore its surroundings.

Like most dives in the shadow of Little Barrier Island ours was without a thought of what lay beyond the boulder beaches and steep cliffs. The latter made the island impregnable from almost every side, a benefit for the island, as access is restricted to those with a permit from the Department of Conservation.

Above water there is a different sort of forest. The beech forest is more typical of those further south and is the only remaining large New Zealand forest that has not been grazed by animals. Most of the island is unlogged leaving a piece of virgin primeval forest on the approaches to Auckland city.

The island’s Maori name is Hauturu – ‘the resting place of the winds, perhaps a reference to the cloud that often hangs over it. The island is a taonga – a treasure – and has special significance to the Ngati Wai, the tangata whenua of the island.

Many species of birds, plants, insects and animals that have become extinct on mainland New Zealand still exist on the island. We landed, with our permits, as volunteers to help with some weeding and the gathering of plant samples for scientific study.

The jokes about Little Barrier having the largest grains of beach sand in New Zealand were true. Boulders with a diameter between 10cm and two metres lined the foreshore, making any trip across the beach hazardous, especially when wet.

The island’s primeval appearance was enhanced by the first bird calls, the unworldly rasping sound of the long-tailed cuckoos. Their calls echoed all around yet the birds remained hidden high in the trees. Cuckoos migrate from the Pacific Islands each summer. They lay their eggs in the nests of whiteheads, leaving the smaller birds to foster their young. Whiteheads have vanished from the North Island mainland, perhaps the reason the cuckoos’ calls are no longer heard. Other bird calls echoed around, the musical call of tui, bellbirds and saddlebacks contrasting with the raucous squawk of the kaka.

Little Barrier’s Department of Conservation ranger, Will Scarlet, met us and explained the procedure for opening all bags. Everything was checked inside the bunkhouse with doors shut to avoid any unwanted travellers getting loose. Little Barrier’s only remaining introduced predator is the Polynesian rat or kiore. The strict luggage checking procedure will ensure it stays that way and the kiore’s days are numbered.

Will also explained the problems the kaka create around the bunkhouse and over the next few days we got to know some of those kaka. One looked for newcomers, diving down to perch on a shoulder as we ate lunch. It didn’t take long for the appreciation of the bird’s skills to wane. Even resorting to changing hands with sandwiches was easily overcome as the kaka launched from a shoulder, grabbed a bite and flew off with its ill-gotten prize. That was no challenge for a bird that also knew how to open an unlocked ranchslider. It didn’t take long to learn that our food was safer consumed inside.

In true diver fashion we had no problem dealing with spiky, antennaed creatures under the water, but on land it was different when we came across one of the largest wetas of all. Few divers would care to handle one of these animals whose body spanned the palm of a hand.

High in the island’s rainforest, usually covered in cloud, we found one sitting on a mountain flax leaf just a few centimetres away from us. It raised its rear legs that looked like organic barbed wire, then settled down as we photographed it – with a 20mm lens.

The island’s tracks all have one thing in common, a steep climb, pristine bush and birds that move in close and investigate you. At around 600 metres above sea level the mist and dampness seemed to carry the bird sounds. The haunting call of the kokako, another of the endangered birds sounded like a flute drifting from the valley below us.

Amongst the tree roots were numerous holes in the ground. Shearwaters and petrels fly far inland, even to the highest parts of the island to their nests. How they find their own nests in the dense rainforest is another mystery. At night their haunting cries echoed around us as they flew unseen back from a day’s fishing. Closer to the coast, they shared their nests with a creature from the dinosaur age – the tuatara. The numbers of tuatara are dropping but a recovery programme should save them from extinction, even though they are no longer found on the mainland.

Long ago we learned that the best way to see fish was to sit and wait. That philosophy also had merit with their terrestrial feathered counterparts. Birds were all around us – the stitchbird or hihi fluttered from branch to branch. Not long ago these relatives of tui and bellbird were only found on Little Barrier, being wiped out by introduced predators everywhere else. Today thanks to the efforts of DoC staff they have been transferred to other predator-free islands but are still classed as endangered.

That sit and wait philosophy worked at night too. Kiwi calls echoed around in the dark and on the grassy area not far from the bunkhouse we had a special visitor – a North Island brown kiwi. This is our national emblem, rapidly vanishing from the mainland and unseen in the wild by the majority of New Zealanders. The thought of our national emblem becoming extinct doesn’t bear thinking about.

From the Thumb, another of the high peaks we looked down on the diving areas below. It looked magic from our vantage point – below water it was a different story. The scallop bed off the western side of the island had succumbed to a team of commercial scallop dredgers.

The other marine life that lived in harmony with the scallops has gone – leaving another marine desert for the invasive chaetopterus (see page 33) or parchment worms to colonise. The thought of a bulldozer ripping through the forests of Little Barrier, wiping out everything in its path is unthinkable. No such qualms about the underwater world – a habitat totally destroyed to gain just one species. Where the scallop bed was is now just empty shells and little else.

The rocky reefs around Little Barrier have abundant fish and invertebrate life among the kelp forests. The holes and cracks housed many crayfish, perhaps the overflow from Tawharanui Marine Park and Goat Island Marine Reserve on the adjacent coast. Many large red moki often shared their holes or swam through the weed above them. Their rarer cousins, the painted moki, are also found there. Add the swarms of demoiselle and blue maomao schools over the sponge gardens and Little Barrier offers some of the best diving close to Auckland.

Little Barrier is one of New Zealand’s national treasures and our next dive trip out there will be different – maybe just enough crayfish for a meal and the same with the snapper. Forget the scallops they’ve already gone. There’s got to be a case to protect the habitat out there – maybe banning scallop dredging and netting would be a start.


Most boats depart from Leigh or Sandspit for the approx. 60-minute trip.

Dive Charters

Divercity Charters, phone 09-444-7698

Goat Island Dive, phone 09-422-6925 or toll-free 0800-348-369

Goat Island Scuba Safaris, phone 09-422-6708

Permits to Land

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