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Scenes from Miramar beaches: clockwise from top left Scorching Bay, Claude’s Cove, Claude’s Cove, Kau Bay, Scorching Bay, Seatoun Beach (Photos: Supplied)
Scenes from Miramar beaches: clockwise from top left Scorching Bay, Claude’s Cove, Claude’s Cove, Kau Bay, Scorching Bay, Seatoun Beach (Photos: Supplied)

WellingtonJanuary 10, 2024

Different strokes: Wellington’s best and worst beaches revisited

Scenes from Miramar beaches: clockwise from top left Scorching Bay, Claude’s Cove, Claude’s Cove, Kau Bay, Scorching Bay, Seatoun Beach (Photos: Supplied)
Scenes from Miramar beaches: clockwise from top left Scorching Bay, Claude’s Cove, Claude’s Cove, Kau Bay, Scorching Bay, Seatoun Beach (Photos: Supplied)

In response to a recent ‘definitive’ ranking of the capital’s beaches, dedicated outdoor swimmer Shona Riddell defends her favourite spots along the Miramar Peninsula.

Related: One day, 25 swims: A definitive ranking of Wellington’s best and worst beaches

“One day, 25 swims” read the headline, and as an avid sea swimmer I was excited to see the ranking of which dips writer Sara Elgoran enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) on her whirlwind tour of Wellington beaches. I clicked, I read it … and then I felt a little disappointed.

I understand that it’s impossible to intimately know a place when you’re visiting 25 beaches in a single day. Favourite beaches are also a matter of opinion, so I’m not disputing the ranking order either. I just want to champion and celebrate my local beaches, which are all special in their own ways.

I grew up on te Motu Kairangi – the Miramar peninsula – first dipping my toddler toes in the bracing water at Scorching Bay in the early 1980s, and over the past few years my swimming has really taken off: I’ve swum through all seasons and weather, from short gasping winter dips to long summer freestyle swims out to Point Jerningham Lighthouse, a 2.5km round trip from Freyberg Beach. I know my local beaches pretty well, and I’ve met some wonderful and inspiring people on my swim journey.

In the past few years much of the peninsula’s native flora and fauna has been restored thanks to the dedication of community groups such as Predator Free Miramar and Te Motu Kairangi (Miramar Ecological Restoration), as well as Places for Penguins protecting and monitoring the kororā and their nesting spots along the coast. En route to my swims I see signs cautioning drivers to mind the penguins, spot tūī in the pohutukawa trees and curvy kererū perched on powerlines, and even hear kārearea calling in the distance.

The peninsula’s position, jutting out into the harbour on the southeastern side of Wellington, means we also get a prime view of visiting pods of orca, dolphins, southern right whales in winter if we’re lucky, and leopard seals from Antarctica.

Karaka Bays

While swimming in Karaka Bays, Elgoran noticed some litter. “There was a lot of rubbish floating around, which is probably a more accurate reflection of the locals (rich tossers),” she wrote.

The pollution of waterways is a widespread issue and not one specific to Karaka Bays or its residents. If, like Elgoran, you’re concerned about the growing issue of coastal pollution (and who isn’t?), consider supporting Sustainable Coastlines, an initiative to not only clean up local beaches but to analyse litter (called ‘Litter Intelligence’) and trace it back to its source. They have regular events and you can also train to run your own cleanups and audits.

The author prior to a full moon swim at Seatoun Beach (Photo: Supplied)

Seatoun Beach

Seatoun Beach was a well-deserved Number 5 in the rankings. I would also add that its wharf is great for jumping off before or after your swim. The beach lacks changing facilities although toilets are located in Churchill Park, which has a good playground (when it’s not too windy) and the Wāhine Memorial, as well as access to Oruaiti Reserve.

Worser Bay

Worser Bay made it to number 2 in the rankings, but “it loses points for an elitist vibe and poor public transport connections”.

Worser Bay is a small, sandy public beach which usually has a scattering of dog walkers and sunbathers in the summer. It’s also home to Worser Bay Surf Life Saving Club. A recent (free) community snorkel event was held there by Mountains to Sea. There’s a cold-water shower for after your swim. It’s also very dog-friendly, with a water tap and poop bags provided.

It’s true that the bus service is pretty lean along Marine Parade, but you can always walk from Seatoun Village, five minutes away, or down the hill from Miramar Heights. Cycling is also very popular around the coast.

A summer swim at Scorching Bay (Photo: Supplied)

Scorching Bay

The Spinoff rankings also point out a lack of public transport to Scorching Bay, which came in at number 6. There is in fact a commuter bus, albeit one with a very limited timetable that doesn’t really line up with beach-friendly hours. A weekend or public holiday service would be an asset and result in less competition for car parks, which are in short supply along the beach on a hot summer’s day. But you can always park a bit further up the road, or arrive later or earlier. I recommend an early swim which will  practically give you the beach to yourself (no dogs allowed here), and heading to Scorch-O-Rama for a warm drink after. Another plus point for Scorching Bay: it’s sheltered from the northerlies.

Sunrise swimming at Claude’s Cove (Photo: Supplied)

Claude’s Cove

There is another little beach just north of Scorching Bay which Elgoran enjoyed but couldn’t identify. This is Claude’s Cove and has been the meeting point of my local swim group for years. If you drive, walk or bike past on a Saturday morning in winter (or nights of the full moon) you’ll see us stumbling into the sea with gritted teeth or happy shrieks. It’s a great little cove with good wind protection in a northerly.

Breaker Bay

Elgoran noted she came away from Breaker Bay (number 25) with sore feet from the rocks and large stones. If only she’d brought along beach shoes or some other sole-protecting footwear, things might’ve been more fun! While the main beach is not swim-friendly due to strong undercurrents, Breaker Bay residents organise a bracing midwinter swim event each year (located further south in a sheltered bay) followed by mulled wine and hot soups in the nearby community hall.

A ‘seaweed swim’ at Kau Bay, 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

Kau Bay

Kau Bay is described in the rankings as “forgettable”, but perhaps it’s more memorable and exciting once you know a bit about it. Originally the site of a Māori pā called Kau-whakaara-waru, the beach then became home to Kau Point Battery, built in 1891 as a military defence during a fear of Russian invasion. It remained operational during World War One and is a great spot to explore before or after a swim.

Kau Bay is north-facing, so it’s a good option during a strong southerly and becomes even more interesting if you’re able to put your head under the water and look at all the beautiful swaying kelp. There’s a seaweed farm nearby and Kau Bay is also one of the pilot planting sites of Love Rimurimu, a project which aims to restore giant kelp in Wellington Harbour.

Wellington is the northernmost limit of where giant kelp grows in Aotearoa, but kina barrens (areas where kina have eaten everything else in the vicinity) have caused the decline of giant kelp in many areas. This is an issue because giant kelp provides habitats for sea life, releases oxygen and absorbs carbon, and protects our coastlines from erosion.

Wellington Underwater Club, with input from Taranaki Whānui, has been monitoring the decline of giant kelp in Kau Bay since 2016 and in 2022 my swim group enjoyed a ‘swim with seaweed’ experience and a talk from Nicole Miller, president of the Underwater Club and also chair of the Friends of Taputeranga Marine Reserve Trust. You can view a multimedia presentation of the day, which I created for a university project. I remember submerging below the glassy blue surface of the sea that day, listening to the thick underwater vibrations, touching the tiny bubbles released by the kelp, watching its dancing fronds.

Shark Bay and Shelly Bay

Elgoran would “not recommend [them] at all” as swim destinations, but I feel differently. The bays are west-facing, perfect for pink and orange sunsets, and also close to the excellent Chocolate Fish Cafe which has recently reopened since the purchase of land in Shelly Bay by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.

In short, every beach has its own story and its own personality. Rankings aside, I urge you to visit the beautiful Te Motu Kairangi, learn its stories, and decide for yourself.

Swim tips:

  • Pack sandals or beach shoes in case there are stones or rocks.
  • Swim with a buddy for safety.
  • Get to know a beach: prevailing winds, access, currents and tides all play a part.
  • If you’re swimming in Wellington, the Facebook group Wellington Ocean Swimmers is a great place to find tips and other people to swim with.
  • LAWA is handy for checking the water quality and conditions at swim spots in Aotearoa.
  • Inflatable tow floats are recommended for visibility to boats (and you can store your keys in them).
  • Always pack warm clothes and a warm drink for after a swim as your body temperature continues to drop even after exiting the water. Large hooded towels are great for a quick change out of togs.
Keep going!