Every summer the Bay of Islands turns into a boating Mecca with every nook and inlet crowded with powerboats, yachts, dinghies and kayaks. On the roads leading north cops are out in force, checking speed and seatbelts — but who keeps an eye on the teeming waters of the Bay to make sure rules are followed and holiday-makers stay safe? Far North reporter Peter de Graaf hitches a ride with the police maritime unit to find out.
AFTER A lifetime on the water not much surprises sailor Stephen Western.
But he was surprised one sunny Saturday morning in the picture-postcard Bay of Islands when he was passed first by a 15-metre launch travelling at eye-popping speed, then by a police boat with lights flashing and siren howling.
With four hefty 300hp outboards the launch wasn't caught until it had travelled almost the length of the Bay.
''It was crazy to see a police chase in the Bay of Islands, it's not something I've seen before. They were honking,'' Western said.
The Auckland vessel's offence was travelling at 40 knots (74km/h) between dive flags. Northland maritime rules prohibit speeds of more than 5 knots (9km/h) within 200m of a dive flag or shore and 50m of any swimmer.
DESPITE its popularity as a boating destination Northland doesn't have a police boat of it own, so every summer a boat from the Auckland Police Maritime Unit is towed up to Ōpua for a minimum two-week deployment.
To see what happens in the Bay I was invited along for an afternoon. To be honest, I invited myself along. Who wouldn't rather be on the water than staring at a screen on a scorching summer's day?
The boat is a 12m rigid-hulled inflatable powered by twin 225hp outboards, one of 12 built for the 2000 America's Cup in Auckland. Most have long since been sold off but the police still have three, two based in Auckland and one in Wellington. Each of the two maritime units also has an 18.5m catamaran.
The skipper is the affable Peter Comer, a costal master from Auckland police, while his right-hand man is Jeff Cramp, Rawene's senior cop. Also tagging along as part of the multi-agency patrol is the Department of Conservation's Bay of Islands boss Rolien Elliot.
OUR FIRST stop is the lovely Motuarohia Island, the one you always see in the tourist brochures with a narrow strip of green flanked by beaches on either side and two improbably turquoise lagoons.
However, that prettiness comes at a price, which is an estimated 150,000 day-trippers a year — and there's no loo on shore. It's lunchtime so Lagoon Bay is heaving with boats disgorging their passengers on shore.
Elliot is a fan of the joint police-DoC patrols and says a ranger has been on board almost every day since the boat arrived on December 29.
She points out two commercial vessels — one a sailing catamaran which follows the rules to a T and welcomes the police boat's presence with a cheer, the other from a company which drops tourists on the island without a concession (a fee paid to DoC for operating a business on conservation land).
There's some eyeballing at a distance as the other boat unloads its passengers, then reverses off the beach to wait offshore.
DoC's main reason for being on the water, however, is to educate boaties about the rules around interacting with marine mammals.
Dolphins are a big drawcard, and hence big business, in the Bay of Islands but its bottlenose dolphin population is plummeting.
A study published in 2016 by marine scientist Cat Peters, now a DoC marine ranger, blamed too much human attention. She found the dolphins spent 86 per cent of daylight hours in the company of at least one boat, and as a result were spending less time feeding, nursing their young and sleeping.
''People get really keen over summer to get a bit close,'' Elliot says.
''We've got two new calves in the Bay this season so we're very keen to talk to people and make sure they understand the right ways of behaving around dolphins to give them the best chance of survival.''
Sure enough, a resident at one of the handful of homes on Motuarohia flags down the boat to tell Elliot a pod of orca with calves had come into Lagoon Bay the evening before to feed.
Everyone in the area jumped in their boats and followed the orca around until they gave up trying to catch dinner and left.
DoC can't stop every boat to spell out the rules but it is working with boating clubs and tourism operators to get the word out, Elliot says.
Rangers also hand out ''boatie bags'' which contain, along with children's games, tide charts and a shellfish measuring tool, information about kauri dieback, pest-free islands and marine mammal regulations.
SHORTLY afterwards we have our first chase of the day. Okay, it's not much of a chase, but enough to make me hang on tight while the siren wails briefly.
Up ahead Comer has spotted a small runabout with a skipper who isn't wearing a lifejacket. Awkwardly, and not for the only time today, it turns out I know the errant boatie. He is convinced the lifejacket rule applies only to passengers, not the skipper.
However, Comer's mission is education rather enforcement, so after a brief lesson on Northland boating rules — everyone in a boat under 6m must wear a lifejacket any time the boat is underway — he's sent on his way to continue chasing waves and fish.
In Comer's eight days in the Bay he stopped 60 boats and gave 46 warnings, mostly about lifejackets and speeding past dive flags. In the same period he issued a grand total of zero fines.
''It's all about education,'' he says.
''I've spoken to a lot of boaties about lifejackets and a lot of them claim to be unaware of the bylaw. Bylaws are region-specific so you get Aucklanders coming up here and they don't take the time to research the local bylaws ... but at the end of the day, bylaw or not, it's a safety thing, keep your lifejacket on.''
''We attend too many tragedies where people die and had they been wearing lifejackets they would not have died, it's as simple as that,'' Comer says.
OUR NEXT stop is Urupukapuka Island. At just over 200ha it's the biggest island in the Bay, a haven for re-introduced birdlife and home to the only DoC campgrounds in the area.
We cruise slowly past each of the campsites but all is quiet. No one bounds out of their tents to wave down the boat with complaints of bad behaviour or noisy neighbours.
There is, however, a waterskier about to launch from shore. The skipper gets a reminder that he can't go faster than 5 knots within 200m of shore unless he's in a waterskiing lane.
''Everyone in New Zealand deserves to have a police presence, wherever they are ... It gives people reassurance, they like to know we're there. Quite often they'll wave us over and tell us what their issues are.''
Despite its isolation Urupukapuka can get unruly on New Year's Eve. This year three point bags used for the drug P or methamphetamine were found discarded at a campground for the first time, proving even this idyllic island is not immune from Northland's social ills.
''Sometimes over the New Year we have issues with people coming to have a party, creating disturbance for other campers,'' Elliot says.
''These are conservation camp sites, it's not a place to come and have a rave. We also keep an eye out for dogs and people bringing dogs ashore – we have protected wildlife which is trying to breed on the foreshore at the moment.''
URUPUKAPUKA Island was also the location of two of the more memorable incidents Comer encountered this summer.
The first was the launch speeding between dive flags at 40 knots. The flags were about 300m apart, putting the vessel within 150m of each.
''We gave chase to educate him but because of the four 300-horse outboards he had on the back it took us a long time to catch up. Eventually we caught him using our lights and siren and horn.''
''He said he was in a hurry because he was late for wakeboarding. He also said he saw the dive flags and the diver in the water, but he thought the rule was 100m not 200m — so we educated him on that, but we also pointed out just because he saw the diver in the water doesn't mean to say there's not more than one diver.''
The other incident occurred in the busy channel near Urupukapuka's Otehei Bay.
''There was a launch anchored on one side of the channel and we could a diver's head in the water on the other side. He'd obviously come from that launch though no flags were displayed. We could also see a runabout boat up on the plane going quite quickly heading straight for this diver,'' Comer says.
''It was a tragedy waiting to happen so our reaction was to get our boat between the diver and the other boat to give him some protection ... at the same time there was a ferry coming in as well, and here's this diver with his head poking out of the water. We took him back to his boat and gave him a bit of education on how close he'd come to death without being aware of it.''
CRAMP IS one of four Northland officers who take turns crewing the boat. The other three are usually highway patrol or scene of crime officers; as well as being Rawene's senior cop Cramp heads Hokianga's volunteer Coastguard unit.
All four had to do a week's training before allowed on the boat.
''We all like being on the water and we all have some boating experience. It's no good putting your hand up for a job like this if you haven't got any sea legs.''
Cramp says boaties' reaction to the police presence had been positive, especially once they realise they aren't there to dish out tickets, but he'd like to see the boat stay longer and come up more often, for example during Waitangi weekend.
''We haven't had anyone get upset because the boat's here, quite the opposite really. A guy came up while we were on Urupukapuka to say how pleased he was to see the police boat turn up every day. It has an effect on the campers because they know it can pop around the corner any time ... It's a lawless society without the boat here.''
IT'S ALMOST time to knock off for the day. Clouds are closing in over the Bay and a chop has come up.
As we're motoring back to the Waitangi jetty Comer spots a man standing in a tiny dinghy with an even tinier outboard, bobbing in the mounting swell while he casts for fish off Tapeka Pt. He greets the police boat warily with a eyebrow salute.
He is, surprise surprise, not wearing a lifejacket.
The boating safety code
■ Life Jackets: Take them and wear them. Boats can sink quickly, especially if they're less than 6m.
■ Skipper responsibility: The skipper is responsible for the safety of everyone on board. Stay within the limits of your boat and experience.
■ Communications: Take two separate means of communication, for example a VHF radio and a cellphone in a waterproof bag.
■ Weather: Check the local marine weather forecast before you go.
■ Avoid alcohol: Safe boating and alcohol don't mix.
Go to www.coastguard.nz/boating-safely/boating-safety-code for more.
Northland maritime rules
■ Reduce speed to 5 knots within 200m of shore or a boat displaying a dive flag and 50m of any swimmer.
■ All boats must display a dive flag when divers are in the water. The skipper must keep the vessel within 200m of the diver.
■ Life jackets of the correct size must be carried for every person on board.
■ Lifejackets must be worn at all times on boats of 6m or less while under way, or on bigger boats at times of heightened risk (such as crossing a bar or bad weather).
■ Power boats must give way to boats under sail.
Go to www.nrc.govt.nz/maritime/safe-boating1 for the full rules.
Marine mammal rules
■ Stay below wake speed within 300m of marine mammals.
■ No more than three vessels (including jet skis and kayaks) within 300m of a group of dolphins.
■ Approach dolphins slowly, from behind and to the side. Never drive through, cut off or circle a group of dolphins.
■ Don't swim with dolphins when calves are present.
■ No boats within 50m of whales or 200m of female whales with calves.
■ In the Bay of Islands give dolphins and whales a ''lunch break'' from 11.30am-1pm so they can rest.
■ Designated rest areas for dolphins are Waikare Inlet, Kerikeri Inlet, Te Puna Inlet, Deep Water Cove and northeast of Waewaetorea Island.
Go to www.doc.govt.nz/boi-marine-mammals for more.