Elisabeth Easther finds ways you can get up close and personal with our underwater friends, just in time for Seaweek.
If you're after an easy option, Kelly Tarlton's is the perfect place to spy on undersea marvels, especially if you like to stay dry. Sharks are a big deal under Tamaki Drive right now. Kids can enjoy the new Shark Mission Zone and interact with virtual sharks on New Zealand's largest touchscreen installation, or simply goggle at the real thing in the aquarium tunnel. Be amazed by the enormous stingrays, humongous hapuka and glowing jellyfish while imagining the crayfish in a mornay sauce. And if you're fond of fact-finding, there are so many neat snippets.
You can spend hours here gazing at sea life and enjoying the daily encounters - the stingray feeding, with the lovely, graceful Ophelia, is our favourite. Adrenalin junkies can sign up for a shark dive in a cage, either with scuba gear or a mask and snorkel, while more gentle types can encounter the penguins in their snowy enclosure.
Goat Island and Leigh Marine Reserve
The sea life at Goat Island Marine Reserve is famous for its abundance. Just an hour's drive north of Auckland, this is New Zealand's first marine reserve - protected from fishing since 1975, the fish have had a long time to become enormous and unafraid of people. See snappers the size of trucks, stingrays and plenty of other marine life, even dolphins, whales and seals that like to winter on the rocks. Don your mask and snorkel to get among it all.
The glass-bottom boat trip gives you a glimpse of what lies beneath with a fascinating, fact-filled commentary on fish species. And you must visit the Marine Discovery Centre: the interactive displays are brilliant (open daily, 10am to 4pm, until March 31). Or for something a bit different, try snorkelling in the mangroves off Whangateau Harbour where you're likely to spot flounder, crabs, mantis shrimps and cockles (only at high tide).
Oh yes, it may be called Sheep World but there's more to this farm, 4km north of Warkworth, than wool and four legs. After you've watched the dogs muster the sheep, seen the sheep shorn, perhaps even fed a lamb - and when you've patted the calves, pigs, lambs, goats, donkeys, alpacas, mini horses and parakeets - take yourself down to the pond at 1pm to see eels being hand-fed by staff. Some of these eels can be up to 1m long and up to 30 years old.
For more eel patting, head to Western Springs where the lake is teeming with eels. But please don't feed those eels because the lake can't cope with the vast quantities of bread thrown into it. Those eels don't need to be coaxed into view anyway as they wriggle and writhe in such vast quantities; you can reach out and have a feel if you're that way inclined. Koi carp lurk in these waters, too, but don't encourage them as they're a threat to local species.
Ngongotaha Trout Hatchery
Ten minutes from Rotorua and 45 minutes from Tauranga, Eastern Fish and Game teams up with the Rotorua Anglers Association to host regular kids' fishing days for children aged 6 to 14. For a modest donation ($3 is the suggestion) youngsters get expert tips and tuition from experienced anglers and the chance to fish for trout in the Ngongotaha hatchery's ponds. Plus they get a guaranteed catch and certificate of achievement. It is an amazing opportunity for young fisher people to learn a few fishing basics and experience all the thrills of catching a trout.
The Ngongotaha Trout Hatchery dates back to the 1920s when it was established to stock the Rotorua lakes with trout. More than 100,000 rainbow trout are released every year. Visitors are free to visit the hatchery to check out the educational panels and view the display ponds where some seriously big beasts swim about.
Fishing dates for 2014 are: July 6, August 10, September 14 and October 5. Bookings are essential by calling (07) 357 5501. See eastern.fishandgame.org.nz for more information.
Further south you can also angle in a pond, this time at the Tongariro National Trout Centre. Right beside the Tongariro River, 4km from Turangi, this place is a trout lovers' paradise. And there's not just trout - all the fish who call the region home are represented here. Set in among the prettiest bush, the museum and aquariums will keep you occupied for hours, as will strolling the trails along the river bank. Best of all, on certain days during school holidays between 10am to 3pm, school-aged kids can buy a fishing licence for $5 and have a crack at fly-fishing in the trout hatcheries.
Or on special open days, pay just $10 and not only do you get the licence and gear to borrow, you can also have your fish filleted and smoked on-site. Veteran anglers are around to share their knowledge and time, which means a fish is guaranteed. Go to the website to find out more and make sure you book as these events are understandably popular. Some events are free for kids.
The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park is an extraordinary patch of ocean, covering over a million hectares. It's is a great place to see marine mammals up close, as well as some smashing birds. Setting off from downtown Auckland, this family-friendly cruise takes landlubbers out on the water for about four-and-a-half hours. The crew estimate they have about a 90 per cent success rate for spotting dolphins and a 75 per cent hit rate of seeing whales - impressive given these are wild creatures that can't be controlled or relied on. Winter is a bit better for spotting than summer, apparently. Up in the air, the sight of gannets torpedoing into the sea at about 150km/h is utterly mind-blowing.
BE IN TO WIN
To celebrate Sea Week, Kelly Tarlton's and Weekend Life have a wonderful experience to give away.
Join the Kelly Tarlton's Marine Wildlife Trust and Auckland Zoo's vets in releasing a rehabilitated green sea turtle to the wild on Wednesday, March 5. Spend the day on the beautiful Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve and snorkel after the turtle's release.
Dates may change in the event of bad weather, so please make sure you are able to attend if you are the lucky winner.
The prize, worth more than $1000, includes two nights' accommodation for four at Tutukaka, $100 petrol credit for travel and four passes on the charter boat with the team, lunch included.
To enter, go to nzherald.co.nz/weekend, enter your details and the keywords "Kelly Tarlton Turtles" by midnight on Wednesday, February 26.