We came to the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens in Manurewa to feed the ducks but we were really looking for eels. We had spied them on another visit, cruising around and popping their conical heads up and out of the water to see if there's a morsel of food for them. We were not disappointed. Within minutes, three or four appeared and came so close to the edge of one of the duck ponds that Miss Seven reached out and stroked their heads.
We've always liked eels - and I am not talking about eating them. But for many people they provoke a "yuck" reaction because they're long, slimy, likely to slop against your legs when you're swimming in a river or lake and they have teeth (actually more like bony plates with tiny hooks, but they look like teeth all the same). Then again, kids are often awestruck by things that make them go "yuck" which maybe explains why my daughters like watching eels.
There are other fascinating facts which may surprise the most eel averse among us. Did you know they start life in the Pacific Ocean and swim back to New Zealand to mature in our waterways? Or that the ancestors of long fin eels, one of two species found in New Zealand, have been around for at least 23 million years?
We discovered these "hidden depths" when Miss Seven, who is studying fish at school, asked to go to An Evening with Eels organised by water quality monitoring, education and action programme Wai Care.
Ecologist and Auckland Council senior regional advisor (freshwater) Matt Bloxham talked about the short fin and long fin eels that live in New Zealand and explained long fins, one of the world's largest eels and found only in our waterways, can live up to 100 years old, grow to 24kg and scale waterfalls of up to 20 metres.
But eels don't have to remain something to be talked about in the classroom or lecture theatre. Because they live in rivers, lakes, creeks and streams, and wetlands, there are a number of spots around Auckland, and beyond, where you can search for and observe eels.
If you're searching during the day, eels like to hang out around tree stumps and debris, under logs or boulders or under river banks. However, they are most active at night, which means going armed with torches and dressed in warm clothing and gumboots and, of course, being extra vigilant about safety.
As well as the lakes of the Botanic Gardens, where we usually see them, prime eel-spotting sites include Oakley Creek, Puhinui Stream, Western Springs, the streams of the Waitakere and Hunua Ranges and, on the North Shore, Oteha Stream and Kaipatiki Creek.
If you don't feel like heading out into the wet and wild, Auckland Zoo, Kelly Tarlton's and SheepWorld, near Warkworth, have eels on site.
Wetlands are also eel magnets. We drove to the Whangamarino Wetland, an expansive area covering some 7000 hectares around the Whangamarino and Maramarua Rivers. If you want to find eels here, ideally you'd want to explore the wetlands by boat or kayak and there are ramps at Island Block Rd at Meremere and Falls Rd at Te Kauwhata.
Further south, visitors to the Waihi Beach Top 10 Holiday Resort can enjoy daily (and nightly) up close and personal eel encounters. There are hundreds living in the creek that runs through the holiday park and they've become a popular attraction so much so that owners Ian and Vicki Smith have put up story/information boards about the creatures and encourage visitors to feed the eels.
Both long and short fins start life in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, migrate to New Zealand as larvae and turn into glass eels and then elvers, before making an arduous journey (aided initially by the incoming tide) to our inland swamps, streams and rivers.
They spend most of their lives maturing in our waterways until the journey to breed begins. Sometimes decades later, mature eels leave our rivers, enter the sea and return to the Tongan Trench - near Fiji and New Caledonia - to breed and die.
Save the eels
This Conservation Week is a good time to think about how we can help eels and other native fish species. Over-fishing and habitat loss, as well as rubbish and pollution, are a danger to them. Eels also face difficulties moving from the ocean into our waterways, and back again to complete their life cycles, because of obstructions like culverts and other barriers.
Number one is to look after our waterways by:
* Save storm drains for rain and ensure nothing else goes down these drains as they lead straight to our streams. Ring your local council for advice on how to dispose of household hazardous waste.
* Wash the car on the grass not on the road.
* Ring your local council and report it if you think you see pollution in a waterway.
* Join a beach or stream clean-up project in your neighbourhood .
* Visit the Wai Care website to find out more.
* A Forest & Bird South Auckland branch talk on the life and times of inanga (native freshwater fish) in Auckland streams by Auckland Council freshwater ecologist Matt Bloxham.
Details: Forest & Bird Haseler Hall, All Saints Church, Selwyn Rd, Howick. Monday, September 10, 7.30pm, $2.
* The film Long Fin, by Lindsey Davidson and Melissa Salpietra, elegantly illustrates eels in all their beauty, blending the mystical and mesmerising in the epic tale of an 84-year-old long fin eel and a look at our relationship with the environment. Specialists from the Institute, DOC and Auckland Council staff will talk about eels, their habitats and breeding research. Call Sue Cameron on (09) 425 0978 or email: email@example.com to book.
Details: Long Fin film Mahurangi Technical Institute in Warkworth, Wednesday, September 12, 7pm.
* Further south, eels are centre stage at the We Love Eels exhibition, which to teach us more about long fins as well as promote greater environmental awareness.
Details: We Love Eels exhibition: Te Awamutu Museum, until November 16.