"Watching nature catch her breath" is how Laura Neureuter describes spending the lockdown on an island in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf.

The state of Auckland's big blue backyard has been under the environmental microscope as of late, after a report in February highlighted the damage of decades of overfishing and pollution.

But the six weeks of Covid-19 restrictions have provided perhaps the only time in modern history without the constant whine of motor boats and fish hooks and nets dangling over their edges - and nature appears to be responding.

"I've been coming here since I was 2 months old, and I cannot recall a calm day here without that multi-pitched whine," Neureuter, 23, said.

Advertisement

"Normally you wake up to the sound of a boat, and it doesn't end until sunrise as they head back to Auckland. But lately the quiet has been incredible."

A pod of orca passing by Ōtata Island during the lockdown. Photo / Supplied
A pod of orca passing by Ōtata Island during the lockdown. Photo / Supplied

Ōtata Island is part of the Noises island chain, which have been in the Neureuter family for generations.

Neureuter and her partner Oliver De Silva had quit their jobs and were about to head off to Costa Rica when coronavirus began to ramp up, and they had to cancel their plans.

So, jobless, they decided to spend lockdown on Ōtata Island where, over five weeks, they've seen nature put on quite the show.

They've seen blue penguins coming ashore and "partying" under their bach, while watching petrels, shearwaters, terns and shags chase bountiful bait fish just offshore.

Rays have been coming to the shallows numbers like they've never seen, and even a pod of six adult orca and a baby come past spending a couple of hours swimming around.

"We're aware of how fortunate we are to be here, to be able to watch nature catch her breath and experience the positives coming from these times."

READ MORE:
State of the Hauraki Gulf: Crayfish in peril, snapper just hanging in there - report
State of the Hauraki Gulf: Lack of action slammed, call for 30 per cent protected by 2030
Hauraki Gulf: Calls for action after report shows crayfish in peril, increasing development pressures
Mystery solved: MPI reveals probable source of thousands of dead fish around Hauraki Gulf

Advertisement

As soon as the lockdown ended she traded places with aunty Sue Neureuter, "eager" to see the changes to the area she's visited since she was a little girl.

The first four days snorkelling she was met by crystal clear water, witnessing all the fish species she'd expect to find in the area.

"Normally you would only get a few. It is hard to say if it was due to the lockdown, but they seemed really relaxed, and it was the same four days in a row."

Sunday Island (near), Scott Island (middle) and Motuhoropapa Island in distance, viewed from Ōtata Island. Photo / File
Sunday Island (near), Scott Island (middle) and Motuhoropapa Island in distance, viewed from Ōtata Island. Photo / File

Sue Neureuter, 58, has seen the marine space around the islands change dramatically over her lifetime.

She and her siblings learned to snorkel and freedive among vast kelp forests, which provided nurseries to myriad fish and shellfish species.

But these expanses are now bare, except for deserts of kina barrens.

The nearly two-month "break" for nature in the Hauraki Gulf came hot on the heels of the latest State of Our Gulf report, released in February, which showed a dramatic decline in many fish species, and crayfish classed as "functionally extinct".

During alert levels 4 and 3 recreational boating and fishing have been banned. Commercial fishing has continued as an essential service, although that is largely restricted in the inner Gulf.

A healthy Hauraki Gulf means plenty of kaimoana to go around, says Laura Neureuter pictured with her partner Oliver De Silva. Photo / Supplied
A healthy Hauraki Gulf means plenty of kaimoana to go around, says Laura Neureuter pictured with her partner Oliver De Silva. Photo / Supplied

"Recreational fishing has a huge impact in the Hauraki Gulf - Auckland has some of the highest rates of boat ownership per capita in the world," University of Auckland marine scientist Dr Andrew Jeffs said.

As seen on land with wildlife shifting into areas where people have moved out, such as goats into a Welsh town and native birds seen all around New Zealand, similar things were likely happening underwater.

"Marine animals are incredibly in tune with the environment, so they are likely now going to areas they might have avoided before due to the noise.

"Anything that reduces pressure on the Gulf is a good thing, but really it is going to need something much bigger than this."

He implored the Covid-19 economic recovery to also focus on the marine space.

"When they are thinking about 'shovel-ready projects' I hope some will be shovelling mussels into the Hauraki Gulf to help restore shellfish beds. Not only will that help the environment but it will boost fish stocks, and in turn the economy too."

Along with giving nature a much-needed break, the pause in boating activity had also given scientists a unique chance to measure underwater sound.

Sue Neureuter (left) with siblings Rod and Zoe. The Neureuter family are the title holders for the group of islands in the Hauraki Gulf known as the Noises. Photo / File
Sue Neureuter (left) with siblings Rod and Zoe. The Neureuter family are the title holders for the group of islands in the Hauraki Gulf known as the Noises. Photo / File

University of Auckland marine scientist Dr Craig Radford and a fellow researcher had placed hydrophones throughout the Gulf before the lockdown, and these would provide them with as close to a baseline of "natural sound" as possible.

"We are pretty excited to see what kinds of noises and animals have been picked up without human influence."

The readings would help with understanding how sound impacts marine life in the Gulf, and potentially for creating acoustic barriers that could be established around busy areas or marine reserves.

Hauraki Gulf Forum co-chair Nicola Macdonald said it was exciting hearing the changes people were seeing in the Gulf since the lockdown.

"We've heard reports of large flocks of seabirds, birds coming much closer to urban areas, even juvenile fish in the now clear waters of Ōkahu Bay - kuia and kaumātua there speak of not seeing that since their childhoods.

"It shows as the pressures are taken off, nature responds."

Macdonald, who was appointed co-chair this year, said it also served as renewed inspiration for continuing work to improve the state of the Gulf.

"We have taken on the feedback since the latest Gulf report, and are committed to addressing the crisis."