Since New Zealand's first marine reserve was created in 1975 at Cape Rodney-Ōkakari Point (also known as Goat Island Marine Reserve), we've seen proof of the profound transformation that can result from protecting sea life.
In the absence of fishing and diving for shellfish, populations of fish have increased significantly and even seafloors have changed from barren to thriving macro-algae communities.
But while marine reserves are sustainable by their very nature, they don't operate in a silo. They also need to have the support of local communities — including tour operators — to be successful. Done right, a visit to one of these marine sanctuaries will grant insight into the life below and even serve to inspire a new generation of ocean advocates.
The Poor Knights Island Marine Reserve
Arguably the country's top dive location, the 1900 hectare Poor Knights Island Marine Reserve was protected in 1981, after being identified for its unusually high numbers of endemic and tropical fish. Among the underwater arches and caves, today you'll find snapper in greater abundance and size than in non-reserve areas, and more species diversity than in the nearby Bay of Islands.
Kaitiakitanga for this area is one of the core values guiding Dive! Tutukaka (diving.co.nz), the country's largest dive charter company. In addition to partnering with DoC and other government stakeholders on key issues, every year they take 12,000 visitors to the islands on world-class diving trips.
Kāpiti Marine Reserve
Kāpiti Island is a predator-free nature reserve surrounded by the Kāpiti Marine Reserve, which links to the Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve on the adjacent mainland shore. The result is a rare continuum of protected land and sea, where fish and birds alike can be found in abundance. Two major sea currents converge here — one cold current from Southland and a warmed current from the d'Urville zone. It's a place where seals and penguins collide with sub-tropical fish and sharks.
The best way to get a glimpse of them is on a Kāpiti Island Eco sea kayaking tour (kapitiislandeco.co.nz). Though the emphasis tends to be on what's on land, keep an eye out for what's below to see fur seals at play, massive eagle rays gliding and if the season is right, orcas looking for food.
Ulva Island – Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve
Rakiura Stewart Island
Ulva Island is considered the "jewel in the crown" in Rakiura Stewart Island area, but the surrounding waters should be just as treasured. An ancient river valley (or "ria") that's been submerged, the 1075ha marine reserve is an important nursery for 50 species of fish and home to brachiopods, penguins, sharks and octopus.
Rakiura Charters' tours (rakiuracharters.co.nz travel through the area, with commentary on the role the ancient river plays in providing a habitat for its residents. But to explore the underwater world, you'll need to book with Stewart Island Adventures, who are the snorkelling and freediving experts. stewartislandadventures.co.nz
Long Island-Kokomohua Marine Reserve
Sitting in the middle of the entrance to the Queen Charlotte Sounds, it takes a bit of commitment to get to the Long Island-Kokomohua Marine Reserve, the South Island's first marine reserve. Since being protected, populations have exploded — there's reported to be three times more blue cod, and 11.5 times more rock lobster.
To get to the submerged reef, you'll need a boat, with operators such as the family-owned Beachcomber Water Taxis (beachcombercruises.co.nz) offering private charters for scuba divers keen to investigate the reef systems.
Piopiotahi Marine Reserve
Fiordland may be one of the country's most difficult-to-access corners, but it's also one of the most-visited, which means it's even more susceptible to the dangers of over-tourism. That's part of the reason why seeking out sustainable tour operators is critical.
Local legend Rosco — who runs Milford Kayaks — is leading the way with his "Green with Envy" package. The emissions-free experience starts in Te Anau with pick-up in a Tesla Model X. After arriving in Milford, you'll paddle across the waters of the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve, where Fiordland crested penguins, fur seals and bottlenose dolphins may make an appearance. roscosmilfordkayaks.com/Our-Adventures.
Tūhua (Mayor Island) Marine Reserve
About 35km from the Tauranga Harbour entrance, Tūhua (Mayor Island) is a collapsed volcano on the edge of the continental shelf. The resulting atmosphere is a dive destination, with a mixture of shallow reef and deep-water environments.
One of the tour operators that visit the island and its waters (along with exploring the new Motiti Protection Area) is Dolphin Seafaris (nzdolphin.com). For every ticket sold, a portion of the proceeds is donated to Project Jonah, the volunteer-run organisation that responds to whale and dolphin marine strandings all over the country —proof of the company's passion for protecting marine life.
Te Whanganui-a-Hei Marine Reserve
Arguably one of the country's most picturesque marine sanctuaries, Te Whanganui-a-Hei protects 9sq km of water in Mercury Bay. You can get there by walking the track from Hahei to Cathedral Cove. First, though, hire a snorkel kit from Cathedral Cove Dive and Snorkel (cathedralcovedive.co.nz/diving), then once you're in the water, simply follow all the signed underwater trails to gain a better understanding of what's below.
If scuba diving is more your speed, take a tour with Dive Zone Whitianga (divezonewhitianga.co.nz). In addition to working with local school groups, the tour operator is committed to preserving this incredible environment with its regular seafloor and roadside clean-ups.
Ngā Motu/Sugar Loaf Islands Marine Protected Area
The ancient remains of an enormous volcano even older than Maunga Taranaki, the Sugar Loaf Islands are a semi-sheltered marine environment boasting 89 species of fish and at least 19 species of sea birds. But this is just a small part of the larger protected marine area — it adjoins with the 1404-hectare Tapuae Marine Reserve.
Local tour operator Chaddy's Charters (chaddyscharters.co.nz) takes visitors out to explore the islands, including the northernmost colony of fur seals. In everything they do, they make an effort to minimise their impact, including through organising regular community beach clean-ups. These typically take place on Saturdays and Sundays, with visitors welcome to join.
Tonga Island Marine Reserve
Abel Tasman National Park
Since its creation in 1993, populations of fish have grown exponentially in the Tonga Island Marine Reserve, just off the shores of Abel Tasman National Park. There are more than seven times as many crayfish and 40 times as many blue cod over 30cm — making this an ideal feeding ground for dolphins, orcas, penguins, birds and seals.
On a guided tour with Marahau Sea Kayaks (msk.co.nz), you can rest assured that your trip is having a minimal effect on the environment, as the tour operator has been certified as carbon neutral. Likewise, Abel Tasman Eco Tours (abeltasmanecotours.co.nz) isn't just climate positive (last year it offset 134 per cent of its carbon footprint) — with every tour booked, it also gives back to local charities working to protect the environment, such as the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust.
Akaroa Marine Reserve
Akaroa's Marine Reserve is probably best known for its population of Hector's dolphins, which are the rarest marine dolphins in the world. Booking with a responsible tour operator to see them is a must — and in the case of Black Cat Cruises (blackcat.co.nz), it's clear from the get-go what they're doing to protect this vulnerable species.
Black Cat is actively involved in organising advocacy campaigns; for example, in 2019, it worked with partners to send 13,000 postcards to the Prime Minister and encourage its customers to send their own. This is a tour operator that is doing far more than just donating dollars—they're also ensuring a future for these special marine mammals.
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