One of the many perks of living in Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand, is its proximity to nature. The city sprawls over more than 3,000 sq km of eroded volcanic remnants from an extinct shield volcano that last erupted 10-million years ago. This hilly landscape is organized around a large tidal inlet dominated by Mount Cargill (700 m) to the north and the beautifully indented Otago Peninsula to the south. Thanks to this fabulous setting, it only takes a short drive to surround yourself with breathtaking natural scenery and a very unique wildlife.
Situated 25 km north of Dunedin, Aramoana is one of these places where one can escape the urban life for an afternoon. This small settlement of 264 dwellers is the mouth of the Otago Harbor and known for its small sandy spit, salt marshes and man-made mole.
A sandy spit, a shipping channel and a mole
|On a dark note – The quiet settlement of Aramoana is infamous for a massacre that occurred in the spring of 1990, when local resident David Gray went into a killing spree, shooting 13 people dead—most of them at random—before being executed by the police. This tragedy remains in the annals for being the deadliest mass shooting in the history of New Zealand.|
In Maori language, Aramoana means “pathway to the ocean”. By extending toward Taiaroa Head (i.e. the tip of the Otago Peninsula and home to a breeding colony of royal albatrosses), the Aramoana Spit indeed narrows the inlet’s entry and seems to form the last gate before the Pacific Ocean.
Cargo ships have been navigating this thin, shallow path to reach Port Chalmers and Dunedin harbors since 1881, when a shipping channel, known as the Victoria Channel, was dredged to that purpose. A year later, a frozen meat shipment departed from Port Chalmers and successfully reached London, an unprecedented performance that marked the birth of the refrigerated meat trade. Nowadays, the portion of the channel between Port Chalmers and Dunedin continues to be regularly dredged despite most of the port activity being centred in the former.
The Aramoana mole, a 1km-long man-made breakwater, was erected between 1884 and 1930 to help trap sediment carried by the current and thus keep the mouth of the Otago Harbor navigable by large cargo ships. The mole splits the local beach in two: Big Beach to the north and Shelley Beach to the south-east. Although the mole looks barren and non-spectacular when seen from the beaches, walking along it is worthwhile for the beautiful perspectives it offers on both the Pacific Ocean and the mainland, including the Otago Peninsula, and the close encounters it provides with some of the local avian and mammal wildlife.
A wildlife hotspot
Aramoana sits on a sand dune bordered by salt marshes that represent important wildlife habitats. While walking on the beach, one will stumble upon many shells of various shades and shapes, especially large mussels and cockles. Although man-made, the mole also attracts various species of plants and animals, both on land and underwater.
Walking along Shelly Beach, one may encounter endemic Hooker’s sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) taking a sun and sand bath.
With a population of about 10,000, Hooker’s sea lions are the rarest sea lion species in the world and are listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List. Their population is steadily declining and the largest breeding colony is likely to go extinct within the next 50 years, i.e. the Auckland Islands’ colony. Another substantial breeding ground is Campbell Island and, to a lesser extent, the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island and Stewart Island. Stress incurred by commercial sealing between the early 19th and the mid-20th centuries and, in recent decades, commercial fisheries bycatch are partly to blame, but causes are not fully understood at this point.
Hooker’s Sea Lions can dive down at depths of over 600 m for as long as 14 min and have virtually no predators besides the Great White Shark.
On a warm, sunny day, New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri)—also called kekeno—are commonly encountered along the mole, where they enjoy sunbathing along the pathway.
Unlike Hooker’s sea lions who affectionate beaches, fur seals are typically found in rocky areas. Their pointy nose and smaller size is another way to distinguish them from sea lions. New Zealand fur seals dive deeper and longer than any other fur seal species, that is deeper than 238 m and for as long as 11 min.
Their current population of roughly 200,000 is split between the New Zealand shores and most of the southern Australian coast, including Tasmania.
Following Maori and then European settlement from the 18th century, fur seals were copiously hunted and almost driven to extinction—930,000 skins are known to have been exported from New Zealand and Australia. It is not until 1978 that they became fully protected in New Zealand under the Marine Mammals Protection Act and their population started increasing everywhere again—save a decline observed in colonies of the West Coast. Their recovery has been successful and they are now considered a least concern by the IUCN Red List.
New Zealand fur seals can also be spotted playfully rolling around like a ball in the water, like the one on this photo who seemed to be greatly enjoying the strong waves on this late Sunday afternoon!
Aramoana is also a bird hotspot, especially around the salt marshes (which I have not yet had time to explore).
Some birds can be found along the mole, which provides roosting and nesting habitat for a colony of about 140 white-fronted terns (Sterna striata). They breed in and around New Zealand and Tasmania and generally winter in New Zealand and along the south-eastern Australian coast. Despite a decline in population over the past 40 years, white-fronted terns remain the most common tern of the New Zealand coastline.
White-fronted terns stood on the mole together with a large flock of handsome red-billed gulls (Larus novaehollandiae) in a generally harmonious mixed group. The birds would briefly take off and swarm around visitors passing through before landing again, a true Hitchcockian sight!
Red-bills are no special sight on the mole as the species can be observed virtually all along the New Zealand coastline. They are nevertheless considered nationally vulnerable due to a sharp drop in their numbers in recent years, which is expected to continue and decline by a dramatic 50 to 70% over the next thirty years.
Various whales species occur in the area and have been sighted entering the inlet and swimming around the Otago Harbour. On a lucky day, one may spot southern right whale, humpback whale, orca, dusky dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and the endemic, critically endangered Hector’s dolphin. Sharks, including the great white shark, occasionally visit the area—there has been only three human fatalities in the past along the Otago coast, one of them in Aramoana.
The Aramoana mole is a popular diving location, including night diving, due to the rich and active marine wildlife that can be observed in its vicinity such as octopus, crayfish, eel, wrasse, shark and a diversity of colorful sponges. The maximum depth around the mole is 25 m. For more information, you can visit the website of the Otago University Dive Club.