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Mussel in on this Marlborough seafood cruise

NZ Herald
By: Elen Turner
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Enjoy a day on a farm, a Marlborough Sounds mussel farm, writes Elen Turner

Whichever way you come into Havelock, you'll be welcomed by a sign proudly declaring that this small town on Pelorus Sound is the Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World. It would also be a contender for the City of Sails title, if Auckland hadn't already taken that one. Plus, Havelock's population is barely 500.

Most jobs in town are connected to the mussel industry in some way, and you don't need to spend long at Havelock Marina to see the flat mussel-harvesting boats go in and out. Also running twice a week from the marina is the Greenshell Mussel Cruise. The sightseeing trip combines some of the highlights of the Marlborough Sounds in an easy afternoon: seafood straight from the sea, local sav, and spectacular views of three of the four sounds: Pelorus, Mahau, and Kenepuru.

Mahau and Kenepuru Sounds are much smaller than Queen Charlotte, to the east, and Pelorus, from which they branch. Despite being referred to as one geographic area, the Marlborough Sounds are historically and culturally quite distinct from one another. Captain James Cook was the first European to sail to Queen Charlotte Sound, in 1770, but didn't even know Pelorus Sound was there. Europeans didn't make it to Pelorus Sound until 1838, when Lieutenant Chetwode sailed in on the HMS Pelorus.

Skipper and tour leader Ryan Godsiff is a sixth-generation European settler in the Marlborough Sounds on one side of his family, and Māori on the other. His childhood in Elaine Bay, on the way out to French Pass, was remote, but he says he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He hopes to instill this love of the land and the sea in the seventh generation, his young daughter.

Godsiff's parents were one of the first four families who started the mussel industry in the Marlborough Sounds, in the 1970s. It's fitting that on this cruise, like elsewhere across Marlborough, greenshell mussels are paired with sauvignon blanc wine, as the two industries took off at almost the same time. The first mussel lines were seeded in 1971, and the first grapevines planted in 1973. Now, three-quarters of New Zealand's wine is produced in the Marlborough region. The environment of the sounds is ideal for mussel aquaculture, too: the sheltered waters are just the right temperature, at around 13C in winter.

The tidal range here is enormous, as can be seen from the mudflats around Havelock. Godsiff carefully navigates through the shallow waters, no more than a couple of metres deep. But before anyone gets too worried that we might run aground, he consoles us that if we do get stuck, it's "company policy" to crack open the wine and pour freely until we're unstuck again. It's only happened twice, he says, thanks to his lifetime of navigation skills.

On a Greenshell Mussel Cruise in the Marlborough Sounds, you'll get to taste local produce, paired with sauvignon blanc. Photo / Supplied
On a Greenshell Mussel Cruise in the Marlborough Sounds, you'll get to taste local produce, paired with sauvignon blanc. Photo / Supplied

After cruising along Pelorus Sound, past the entrance to Mahau Sound, and into Kenepuru Sound for about an hour, we sail up to a mussel farm, not too far from land. Hundreds of black floats are strung together, suspending strings of growing mussels beneath them on biodegradable hemp and linseed stockings. Godsiff tells us that each float can produce one tonne of mussels. I cast my eye over the farm and estimate about 400 floats. There are 611 mussel farms in the Marlborough Sounds, each with several hundred floats. That's a lot of mussels.

As the passengers gather on the back deck to listen to Godsiff talk, the smell of mussels cooking inside drifts out to us. We hope we might taste a mussel plucked fresh from the sea, but those we're served are fresh from the processing factory, as a health-and-safety precaution. They were harvested just the day before, so are as fresh as they come. They're steamed in nothing but their own juices, as this cooks them to perfection; no added water, no condiments, no garlic. There's no need.

Served with a generous pour of Framingham Sauvignon Blanc from Blenheim, we passengers tuck in to two enormous trays of mussels. Well, most of us do. My dad isn't big on seafood and tries just a couple, admitting they're good. My partner hails from landlocked Nepal, and won't touch mussels. My 3-year-old daughter is surprisingly game, and the crew comment on her sophisticated tastes.

You don't need to be a seafood fanatic, however, to enjoy an afternoon on the Greenshell Mussel Cruise. Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds are delightfully quiet, with a couple of mussel-harvesting boats the only water traffic we see all afternoon. Isolated holiday homes with no road access dot the hillsides in some places, but much of the land is uninhabited. Plus, this is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand, so you needn't wait until the summer holidays to get out on to the water.

The Greenshell Mussel Cruise currently operates on Thursdays and Sundays, at 1pm, and lasts for three hours. Adult tickets are $135, kids $45, and under-5s free. Tickets include one glass of wine and a generous serve of mussels and bread.