Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

The Sunday EssayApril 7, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Piercing the living waters

Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

I watch the surface of the Hauraki Gulf swarm with signs of life, but a struggle for survival is taking place underneath.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

The sunroom at the front of my boyfriend’s house, perched near a coastal cliff, overlooked a series of bays and peninsulas. There in Leigh, the sea was crisp and clear, and my boyfriend counted and measured fish and seaweed in the marine reserve.

It is a sea unlike the sea near my house, which is full of motorboats and sediment, and requires a website to check if it is safe to swim. Yet it’s part of the same gulf which stretches south from Mangawhai through Auckland’s east coast and down to the firth of Thames, then up and around the Coromandel peninsula and northwards to Aotea. On the surface, it is a sea which swarms sometimes, then birds come in their droves to pierce their beaks into the living waters and eat. 

My boyfriend had a habit of going to the sunroom in the mornings while the coffee was brewing and looking at the sea. It was a surfers habit, a sailors habit, and also a marine ecologist’s habit. It became a moment of quiet I allowed him before he came back to the table in the kitchen. The first few times I was there, I followed him to the sunroom, but I cannot read the sea. I looked at the view for a few moments, thought, “Yes, very lovely,” then wandered back to the kitchen to press the coffee plunger down. When he returned from the room of windows, he told me things like “there’s swell at Daniels Reef” and “the wind is onshore today,” or he would call out to me from the sunroom to “come look at this.” Usually, I’d arrive to see birds, grey and white against the dark sea below them, flinging themselves down onto disturbed waters. “Fish,” he would say.

On these days, we might go to the garage, pick up the rods and pry some bait from a hunk of old fish frames in the freezer. I would follow him down the single-lane track to the sharp, volcanic rocks where we cast our lines into the water. The only times I caught fish there they were undersized, and I guiltily threw them back, their little mouths maimed by my hook. 

I am a little suspicious of fishing. My boyfriend says not to underestimate a fish’s ability to heal, survive, and fight. And to always throw them back. Sometimes I kiss them before I do so, for good luck. I watch them swim back into invisibility in the water. “I’m sorry,” I tell them, regretting everything. In my life, it is rare to touch a wild animal. 

It was usually tāmure (snapper) we caught off these rocks and which people saw through their snorkels in the marine reserve the next bay over. Although they seemed plentiful, swimming in the reserve and nibbling on our hooks, their numbers have dropped dramatically across the Hauraki Gulf. Kōura (crayfish) numbers have dropped so low that they’re now considered functionally extinct in the gulf. It is not a complete extinction: a few stragglers remain in the water, but there are so few of them they cannot play their part in the ecosystem. In our waters, only tāmure and kōura can get past kina’s spikes to eat the gritty, orange roe. Without their natural predators, kina numbers explode, and eat so much kelp that vast expanses of the seafloor resemble desserts. The rock glows pale, interrupted only by dark splotches of kina. If you crush these kina open, the roe are thin and shrivelled. They’re starving.  

In this gulf, linked to humans mostly through the ugly expanse of Auckland city, the catch of recreational fishing – Kiwi blokes on boats with their Lion Browns, or me on the rocks in the wind with my rod – outnumbers that of commercial fishing. A recreational fishing group spoke out against proposed marine reserves in the area, arguing that they wouldn’t protect fish because if you banned fishing in these squares, they said, people would just fish more somewhere else. There was a simple logic to their argument that my boyfriend called a stupid, simplistic assumption. “If you let fish thrive in these tactically chosen spots, they will breed,” he said, “and so there will be more fish.” His work involves mapping data to the gulf to prove this is true, but whether science will inform political decisions or public opinion is yet to be seen. 

The Hauraki Gulf was established as a marine park in the year 2000, that shiny turn of the millennium which promised the end of the planet and low-slung jeans paired with jewelled bellybuttons. The park status was meant to protect the area by managing the sea, its contents, and the surrounding land. Since then, fishing has pushed kōura and tāmure populations to collapse. Well-to-do Aucklanders bought motor boats and shiny wobbling lures to cast off the back in thousands. Who knows what made its way through our wastewater pipes and into the sea. The fishing industry dragged weighted nets along the seafloor and collected billions of dollars. Live kōura were exported to China for $130 per kilo. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising if we consider that word, “park”. If I close my eyes and say it three times, I am transported to an old English estate, where the trees have been trimmed into perfect spheres or rectangular boxes. There are flowers planted in rows and a neat, square pond full of exotic fish. It’s a perverted manicurisation of nature, designed and maintained for humans to enjoy their leisure activities. A park is a tamed place, where humans have power over nature. It’s not a place to care for the wild.

At the edge of the gulf, under tonnes of concrete at Okahu Bay, old sewer tanks were converted into a tunnel aquarium in 1985. Inside are the kingfish coveted by so many fishers, sharks feared by swimmers, and many colourful fish usually out of sight. But on school trips to Kelly Tarltons, we’d be impatient as they flicked above us. We were anticipating the true horror near the end of the snowcat ride, which was talked about in the playground for weeks after, along with rumours that an octopus had escaped through a drainpipe and returned to the sea.

First, the snowcat would take you through a blizzard, which was a spinning tunnel painted to look like snow, and also a portal to another world. You’d emerge into the underground penguin enclosure. King penguins would stand in a cluster, seemingly without much to do. Through the glass wall of an artificial sea, you’d see the gentoo penguins dart after the fish thrown in for them. They were surprisingly little and slippery in the water.

The penguins had never been outside their smelly, artificial environment. There was a lot of poo slathered over the snow and the place smelled like dirty animals. I liked seeing the penguins, especially as they arced through the water.

I still don’t know if the water is salted or chlorinated. In that closed environment, it could only be sterile or rancid, lacking the connection to ecosystems which balance and sustain. Now, what stands out more to me than the cuteness of the penguins is the low ceiling they live under. It is run through with vents and bright floodlights, like a carpark. That is their sky. 

Anyway, the snowcat left the penguins and headed into a dark cave, where it paused. The grotto was bathed in a neon-blue light. In its centre was a dark pool of still water, and on its edge were two fibreglass penguins with a seal at their feet. Suddenly, a spotlight would illuminate the water and an orca would rise up; a seal frozen in mid-scream between its open jaws. When it stopped its lunge, water gushed out of its mouth through its pointed teeth, and then it slid back down into the darkness.

There were rumours that the orca had a full body, complete with a tail. I find it more terrifying to think of the orca as an incomplete monster, made for the singular purpose of lifting up its fibreglass prey. The final display of the snowcat ride was a hall of flags and copies of the Antarctic treaty (boring, but your heart was still pounding). The whole experience took about eight minutes.

The orca was removed in 2012 when the aquarium received a $5 million makeover. Twelve years later, Kelly Tarltons is widely considered a rundown rip-off and the parents I know would rather take their kids to the zoo than a converted sewage pipe. The conveyor belt which runs through the aquarium is no longer novel. People say you can slip in the back door, and that the orca is still there somewhere, waiting behind a temporary wall. 

Outside the aquarium, penguins are more and more often washing up starved and lost. Korora, the smallest penguins in the world and the only penguins in the gulf, eat anchovies, the same little fish that I carefully dole out of jars to add to pizzas or pasta. This has recently become my favourite fun fact: I eat korora food, or, korora might like my pizzas. When they’re alive, anchovies are green with a reflective silver stripe running along their little bodies. In their snout, there’s a gel-filled cavity which has three pairs of canals leading to the outside of their bodies. We do not know what the cavity is for.

It’s thought that the anchovies in the gulf are heading further offshore and into deeper, cooler waters, where they’re harder for korora to catch.

This summer, my boyfriend and I spent eight days sailing (and motoring) around the gulf. We borrowed a boat, 11 metres long and built from native timber in 1966 in Devonport, and filled it with food and sunscreen. I was promised dolphins, whales, and maybe even manta rays, but the surface of the sea was broken only by wind and the occasional gannet trying its luck. Pairs of korora would bob on the surface and quietly watch the boat go by, and tara (white-fronted terns) danced over the chop with their webbed feet. Just once we saw a fin, under which a brown blob hinted at the presence of a shark. It passed by uninterested and unbothered. Later in the trip, we hung lamb chops off the end of the boat that had got stinky in the depths of the fridge. Their rankness attracted another shark, which passed by with only a quick sniff. 

On the second evening, there were strong winds and a rolling sea, so we headed to Elephant Cove on Motukahaua Island to anchor for the night in its bay, protected by the crescent shape of the island. It wasn’t clear to me which of the rock formations inspired the Pākehā name, since none of them bore a striking resemblance. I entertained myself thinking that perhaps sailors had once left an elephant there to come back for later, as is the case with the thousands of Goat Islands around the world. 

It’s corny to say, but the water in the bay was an emerald green, like a 90s movie set in Thailand. After two days of feeling nauseous and not seeing any marine mammals, I finally understood why sailing is cool. You have to reject the shores of the mainland and go places which are otherwise inaccessible. Elephant Cove has a 4.9 star rating from eight Google reviews, so it’s officially pretty close to perfect. 

We rowed to shore in the little blow-up dingy, and as we approached the green gave way to completely transparent shallows. The bottom was rough, mottled sand, oyster-covered rocks, and sticks and leaves which must have washed off the island and become waterlogged. We dragged the dingy up the beach. Dozens of small fish had been washed up and dried by the sun on the rocks, pulling their pale skin taut over their decomposing frames. They were about the size of my foot, but flat and silvery, like a silk slipper. Their dorsal fins ran almost the whole length of their bodies, their eye sockets were empty and round, and their thick lipped mouths were downturned. All of them were undersized tāmure

In the gulf, the size limit for tāmure is 30cm, which they reach when they’re about four years old. They can live for more than 60 years and grow longer than a metre, but I’ve never seen one anywhere close to that size. 

Fish get their own version of the bends. They control their buoyancy with a swim bladder, which expands and contracts according to changes in pressure. The gas is taken from or absorbed by the bloodstream. Some species, like kingfish and tuna, can do this quickly, but tāmure are less agile. When tāmure are pulled up from the deep by fishers, often their swim bladders can’t keep up. The bladder stretches, crushes other organs and can rupture. Fishers might release these fish to abide by the size restrictions, but it doesn’t mean the fish will live. 

The washed-up tāmure could have been caught by accident in a net, or by hook by commercial or recreational fishers. There were so many of them that they must have been pulled up and discarded over and over and over in the hopes of reeling in a bigger fish. On the other side of the bay by the rock cliffs, a small white launch bobbed around, a family out for a day of fishing.

My boyfriend no longer lives in the house with the sunroom. Now, much of his work happens in a city office, with numbers and code and graphs and fluorescent tube lighting. From the break room where he drinks his coffee, he watches buses, trucks, and cars streaming down Symonds Street. Masses of students gather at the pedestrian crossings. He teaches about 20 of them about marine reserves each semester, clicking through slides and taking them on a field trip north to the reserve. Most of the time his fishing rods are draped over the car seats, their hooks catching on the upholstery and my jackets. 

One morning, not long before he moved, he called me to the sunroom. There were no birds out on the water. He pointed to the left, beyond the cabbage tree, towards the reserve. “I think it’s false killer whales,” he said. There were grey masses in the water, breaking the surface and slipping back in. I looked through the binoculars I got from the dump shop for ten bucks. They were hard to focus and disorientating because only the left lens was clear (mould had grown in the right).

I found the cabbage tree and pulled the blue-grey area behind it into focus. I could see fins and flippers and tails, almost the same cold, grey tone as the sea, heaving and smooth, shiny, and in their movements, seemingly disorganised. The pod moved north, around the headland, and soon it was out of sight. I lingered the binoculars on the water, but the last glimpse had passed.

Keep going!