Our favourite beaches: Whangamata

As New Zealanders head to the sand and surf this summer, Isaac Davison investigates the environmental issues at our most popular North Island beaches. Today, he visits Whangamata.

Whangamata Beach. Photo / Supplied.
Whangamata Beach. Photo / Supplied.

In the 1950s, high-profile American surfers and their camera crews broadened their search for the perfect wave beyond their home beaches.

Grainy footage of New Zealand surf beaches - Raglan, Piha, Karekare - started popping up in classic surfing movies such as The Endless Summer series.

Gerry Lopez, a legendary Hawaiian known for his tube-riding and his "discovery" of Indonesia's surf breaks, once spent a few days at Whangamata Bar, two hours southeast of Auckland.

The surf break left such an impression on Lopez that he crowned it the "jewel of the Pacific', confirming what locals had always believed was a premier surfing location.

A sandy buffer at the mouth of the Whangamata Harbour creates a peeling, barrelling left-hander which is graded 10 out of 10 by guidebook WaveTrack, New Zealand's surfing encyclopedia.

But in the past year, rumblings of discontent have emerged from the local surfing community. The perfect cylinder of water has been disrupted, surfers say.

Former New Zealand surfing champion Paul Shanks has surfed the bar since 1965. He believes it is "broken".

"The peel angle has changed, and the breaker intensity angle has changed. Over the last 18 months, the wave has not been the same."

He is laying the blame on the Whangamata marina, which opened last year and requires regular dredging of the channel which feeds into the surf break.

Fears that the marina would disturb the break were raised as early as 2000, when the marina was defending its resource consent in the Environment Court. The concern was dismissed by a judge as exaggerated.

After a 17-year legal and political battle which cost the developers $2 million, the marina was given resource consent, with the condition that it monitored the effects of dredging the harbour.

A 1.5km canal was cut through sand flats to allow boats access to the channel which leads to the open sea.

The Whangamata Marina Society has made bathometric surveys to measure the consequences of digging sand from the harbour.

Experts who have seen the results could not confirm that the dredging was having an effect on the bar, but believed there was a strong correlation between the digging and the bar's performance.

Mr Shanks, who heads the surf conservation group that challenged the developers, says that moving 157,000 cu m of sand 1km from the break can only have a detrimental effect.

Marina society head Mick Kelly has said previously the surfers' concerns were genuine, but he believed that in time their fears would not be realised.

Unlike many nationally significant breaks, the Whangamata bar is not formed by a headland or rocky seabed. Its break is created on the sandy bar, which made it more vulnerable to developments on the beachfront.

If sediments are shifted nearby, it can affect the wave's shape.

In a submission on the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, environmental scientist Shaw Mead said no appropriate impact assessment of the effects of the new marina was done.

Dr Mead also said that the monitoring conditions which were included in the marina's resource consent focused too heavily on the surfing break, instead of the process which created the break - tidal currents and sediment shifts.

"Changes in sediment supply and current velocities at the mouth of the estuary, both due to land, coastal or estuarine activities, could negatively impact on this world-class break and would need to be taken into consideration in order to protect it from inappropriate use and development."

Support for the marina in the Whangamata township is split.

The marina's owners said a long waiting list for the sold-out, 205-berth development emphasised the need for it. Mr Kelly said the economic boost to the region was immense.

But at least 15 of the berths were for sale online when the Herald investigated.

Some local newspapers have written strongly worded editorials urging marina opponents to give up.

"[They] should have realised the battle was lost long ago," said one, which portrayed the opponents as a minority group who were clutching at straws.

But Mr Shanks dismisses the notion that he is part of a petulant minority, and says his argument is based on experience and robust science.

"I have been riding that wave for decades. I know when it's not right."

Last month, the bar was classed as a surf break of national significance and protected from potential harm by law.

While its defenders fear the protection is too late, the Surfbreak Protection Society has gained confidence from the recognition. It planned to approach the Thames Coromandel District Council, which is responsible for the dredging of the harbour.

Mr Shanks is awaiting a report from Dr Mead about the relationship between the dredging and the shape of the wave before he makes his next move.

While some of Whangamata has tired of the dispute, his society has an appetite for another challenge.

- NZ Herald

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