As the sun rises over Tatapouri Bay (10 minutes drive from Gisborne CBD), we're standing on a reef in knee-deep water, wearing waist-high waders and holding large bamboo walking sticks. Half a dozen wild stingrays brush past our legs like puppies wanting a pat.
Around 15 of us line up so the stingrays won't swim between our legs and I notice one lady dipping her baby boy into the water. He delights at the slimy, soft touch of the stingray's back against his toes.
Tatapouri Dive's co-owner Chris Savage is pulling a blow-up banana boat with 10 children on board, taking the easy route out to the reef. She and husband Dean, a commercial diver and skipper, ran fishing charters in the area and the couple built the stingrays into their business when they noticed more and more coming into the bay.
There are two kinds here — the eagle ray and the short-tail stingray, the largest of the species. Neither are aggressive but the short-tailed stingrays are a bit more demanding and we're warned they may nibble our waders.
Tiny black wings flap like flags in the shallow water as our host, Hendrik, hands out pieces of fish. We hold the pieces with flat hands, knuckles skimming the reef until mouths on the bellies of the stingrays hoover up their meal. It's disconcerting feeding something when you can't see it's mouth and I lose my nerve a couple of times.
Hendrik, a kind of marine shepherd, leads a large docile stingray with his stick as the children on the boat point and smile. A stingray named Charlie clearly likes him, and we're told not to feed her because she gets too excited.
"She thinks she's a dolphin," explains Hendrik, as Charlie tries to climb up his back, jumping around in the water. The kids look in awe, as if watching a magic show.
Hendrik grew up far from the ocean, in Berlin, and came to New Zealand only a few years ago. He did the same stingray feeding tour we're doing, but afterwards he got talking to Chris and Dean and they offered him a job.
A super-sized stingray swims past and Hendrik tells us she's pregnant and "eating for 16". He shows us her bulging stomach (all 15 babies will be born fully-formed having a long gestation period up to 12 months) and hands out extra fish.
We're told the stingrays know we're here, just like sharks, because they can sense our heartbeats. They have a sixth sense known as electroreception. Knowing this makes me feel uneasy as the wind picks up, blowing off hats.
The kids jump back on the banana boat chanting, "go super-fast, go super-fast," but it's not that kind of banana boat tourism operation. The experience is solemn and always respectful of the environment. It's an eco-experiential tour and wildlife experience where the animals, thankfully, aren't locked up afterwards.
Back in town, we line up for hot chips at Captain Morgan's on the beach and bike ride to see the statue of "Young Nick" (Captain Cook's cabin boy who first spotted New Zealand), before heading out on the water again — this time with surf teacher Frank Russell.
Frank moved to New Zealand from California in 1974 because his favourite surf spots were becoming overcrowded, and in some popular spots parking meters were being introduced. In the off-months, he travels to Mexico where he runs surf tours.
"Frank is the most enthusiastic person I have ever met," says Ben Hutchings, who is helping Frank out and takes my husband for a separate lesson.
"Benny" is a veteran of eight Olympic Games as a trainer for kayakers and swimmers. Of the lesson, my husband Gavin says: "You go out to surf with a 69-year-old legend, you come back knowing a few tricks. He's negotiating the waves on knowledge and skill, not on brute strength. I learnt more in 10 minutes with him than a year on my own. Plus, he's a good laugh."
Frank reminds me he's not like other surf schools with low teacher-to-pupil ratios. He's also enlisted 13-year-old local girl Maddy to be on sandcastle-building duty with my daughter and another local boy, Mike, to help my son navigate the waves. Mike wins over my 8-year-old instantly with his ability to backflip over the white foam.
As I'm waiting for a wave, I watch Frank and Ben explaining their craft in the ocean.
They're having as much fun teaching us tricks as Ben's grandkids are bodyboarding nearby — age is irrelevant in the ocean.
Both the stingray feeding and the surfing were the perfect replacement for deadlines and school drop-off. Unlike those mornings during term when the alarm rings, in Gisborne, we couldn't wait for the sun to rise again.
BUSY IN GIZZY
Stop at the Gisborne Botanical Gardens for a bike ride through the established maples, oaks and Moreton Bay fig trees. There's a playground on the river and an aviary with colourful budgies — bring bread for the ducks.
Stop for healthy juices and smoothies (large enough to share), decadent crepes and Russian delicacies from owners Alona and Boris at Renie's Petite Cafe, 48 Peel St.
The beachfront Waikanae Beach Top 10 Holiday Park was friendly with a great location. Our motel unit, thankfully, had a large television: a full day in the ocean wore the parents out, but not the kids, gisborneholidaypark.co.nz
Danielle Wright was assisted by Tourism Eastland.