Canterbury’s best kept secret Pohatu Marine Reserve

By Tony and Jenny Enderby

As the sun dropped, we hid behind the bushes watching the penguins in the bay below us where several hundred cruised a hundred metres from shore. A dozen or so broke away and dived under the water, zooming closer to the rocks before they popped up again. They were the white-flippered variant of the little blue penguin, found only around the Banks Peninsula and adjacent Canterbury coast. They floated for another minute or two then dived down again, swimming rapidly just below the water surface. Once they reached the rocks they shot from the water with the jump that penguins are famous for, then stood and called.

We moved back along the track to some larger trees when a movement distracted us as a larger penguin moved up the slope. This was the much rarer yellow-eyed penguin and two of them stood just below us. We waited quietly and watched for a few minutes before moving away, not wanting to disturb them. To have seen two of New Zealand’s penguin species as they came ashore was a real bonus.

We were at the edge of the Pohatu Marine Reserve at Flea Bay on the south-eastern tip of Banks Peninsula, one of Canterbury’s best-kept secrets. The information centre at Akaroa had advised that the road was suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles only, so we joined a four-wheel-drive penguin tour at dusk.

The little bay in the centre of the reserve is known as Flea Bay and the owners of the surrounding farm have worked hard getting rid of introduced predators. In addition they have planted coastal shrubs, providing homes for the penguins. There are now 6-700 pairs of white-flippered penguins that return to the bay each evening and numerous yellow-eyed penguins. The eradication of the stoats and the lack of set nets in the bay is largely responsible for that increased population.

But what about scuba diving in the reserve? Flea Bay can be accessed either by boat, from Lyttelton or Akaroa or by just swimming out from the beach. High cliffs surround the bay, rising several hundred metres and giving shelter, except in a southerly. Reef fish around the Bank’s Peninsula have been seriously depleted, mainly due to set netting. Since the establishment of the Pohatu Marine Reserve in 1998, the numbers of fish there have increased.

Flea Bay is in a direct line with the southerly current that runs up the Canterbury coast. This current brings nutrient-rich water into the bay, often giving better visibility than the surrounding coast.

We entered the reserve from the shore, swimming over a sandy bottom that changed to rocky reefs at around six metres. Amongst the rocks were paua and colourful anemones. Triplefins were common, darting around amongst the kelp holdfasts as we passed. The occasional butterfish and banded wrasse moved out from the weed, darting back into its safety as we approached. Further away from the beach, the terrain changed to deep volcanic cracks where large crayfish made their homes, protected in the reserve. Sponges became more prolific, and amongst their colourful encrustations were anemones, sea tulips and sea squirts. Leatherjackets fed on the encrusting life, and the occasional octopus peered from the safety of the kelp forest. Jock Stewarts or sea perch sat and glared at us near the kelp holdfasts.

Schools of blue moki, tarakihi and spotties moved through behind us, the latter watching what our fins may have disturbed. Blue cod were friendliest and came in close, threatening their own reflections in our masks.

Visibility wasn’t great, at around five metres, but there was plenty to see, especially if you are used to diving much further north.

A large brown shape suddenly zoomed in close, quickening our heart rates considerably. It was one of the NZ fur seals that visit the bay, coming in to inspect us.

We had been hoping for a visit from the Hector’s dolphins that visit the bay. The previous day we had snorkelled with them in Akaroa Harbour. They are the smallest marine dolphin, only 1.4 m long, and NZ’s most endangered dolphin. The Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary was created to help protect them from being caught in set nets.*

(*See issue 67 page 26)

They were playful and seemed to enjoy the company of snorkellers, zooming in close and then quickly away. With green water, and two metre visibility, it made taking photographs difficult. The dolphins’ habit of sneaking up from behind compounded the problem.

But that was yesterday and they weren’t around so we settled for the seal as an underwater companion.

On one pass it stopped about two metres away as if imploring us to play. Our ungainly attempts at a somersault while wearing scuba gear and carrying a camera must have impressed it, as it proceeded to race back and forth with even more agility. Our efforts to match it eventually faded and with a flick of its tail it vanished.

In places the kelps and seaweeds formed a forest over the rocks with reds, greens and browns all present. The dominant masses of Ecklonia and Lessonia kelps swirled back and forth in the gentle surge.

Near the entrance to the bay the reefs drop onto sand and shingle at around 30 metres. Our dive was planned to around half that depth, remembering the road back over the hill climbed to nearly 800m above sea level.

On the journey back we stopped near the end of the tar-sealed section for the spectacular view over Akaroa and its harbour. Travelling through Akaroa village gave the feeling of being somewhere else. The French names on the street signs and the rustic style of the buildings just added to it.

The trip off the beaten track was worthwhile. The Hector’s dolphins, white-flippered and yellow-eyed penguins just added to the diving in the bay. It’s probably not everyone’s ultimate dive site but definitely somewhere worth visiting next time you are in Canterbury.

Getting There: From Christchurch take Highway 75 to Akaroa. Follow the Lighthouse Road to the Flea Bay turnoff. The gravel road is steep and 4WD is recommended only.

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