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Learn about Akaroa NZ Wildlife

Experience it yourself at arm's length!

There are three protected species in Akaroa Harbour: Hector Dolphin, NZ Fur Seal and the White Flippered Little Blue Penguin. While on our cruise, we will hopefully see all of the wildlife mentioned however now is the time to understand that they are WILD! They do not perform like trained captive animals, and they are sometimes not interested or curious about us as humans, in fact they sometimes exhibit shyness when mechanical or exhaust noise intrudes on their environment. We may or may not see any or all of the wildlife mentioned. In addition, we'll show you the Paua Farm, The Salmon Farm. We'll also likely see Cormorants and Shags, possibly Albatross, Giant Ocean Petrel and other sea birds.

It is our belief that the Hector Dolphins, and other species, come into the shallow water of Akaroa Harbour to escape large predators and to relax and recover from the job of survival out at sea. The definition of Environmental Sustainability as it affects tourism is "to provide a tourist activity that in no way endangers or affects negatively the ability of future generations to experience the environment". Our objective therefore is to take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but clean water behind us.

Threats to hectors Dolphins: "Potential threats to their survival include trawling, marine pollution, disease and impacts of tourism and aquaculture." Only Akaroa Sailing Cruises could cruise twice daily for 100 years and have NO practical impact on the Akaroa Environment - Who else can say that!

Akaroa Dolphins – Hector's Dolphins

First discovered by Sir James Hector in 1888, these dolphins are unique to NZ, and the South island in particular. They are an endangered species with numbers estimated to be around 7500. It is estimated that around 250 Hector's Dolphins visit Akaroa Harbour annually, normally entering the harbour from spring, over summer, until autumn. Cows and calves are a rare and welcome sight.

The Hector's Dolphins have a lifespan of approximately 20 years. The females mate and breed once every three years, remaining with the calf for around 18 months before abandoning them. This means in their 20 year lifespan they are likely to have a maximim of 5 calves. The males mate with different females repeatedly, and leave immediately following mating.

The predators/threats of the Hectors Dolphin are threefold: Sharks, Orca and Man. Sharks and Orca will eat the dolphins, and they can become trapped in nets at sea. Being unable to swim backwards, once enmeshed in a net, the dolphin usually drowns. Recently a dolphin calf was killed by a jet-skier off Wainui beach. Non-commercial boaties are mostly unaware of the 5 knot speed limit around dolphins and speed across the top of them repeatedly. Resultant damage to dolphin's backs and fins is not uncommon.

Protection of the species is enshrined in NZ Environmental law. Right now, the DOC is attempting to have large areas of the South Island (including Akaroa Harbour) designated a reserve and on October 1st 2009 a Taiapure (voluntary fishing restriction) was put in place. In addition, large stretches of the West coast of the North Island are currently gazetted as reserves to protect the Maui Dolphin (a sub-species of the Hectors) from fishing. This action is currently being challenged in the High Court by the Fishing Industry lobby.

New Zealand Fur Seals

New Zealand fur seals are found around Banks Peninsula and sometimes, rarely, right in the harbour. The NZ Fur Seal was an endangered species when the Europeans first arrived in NZ. After the arrival of the European, the NZ fur Seal was further depleted, being sought for its skin and blubber, which was rendered down like whale blubber.

The seals eat mostly fish found offshore from Banks Peninsula. Recent studies have suggested the seals travel up to 200 miles offshore and their diet consists mostly of Lantern fish as well as some squid. They routinely dive down to 200m for their food. There are estimated to be approximately 20,000 NZ Fur Seals around Banks Peninsula.

The seals breed on rocky beaches with plenty of shaded crevices and tidal pools. Their layer of fat and thick fur coats can cause overheating on land. There's a large seal population at Peraki, approximately 350 seals line the shores. Seals have come right into Akaroa and one specimen was seen to be lazing on the main beach. The dominant male mates with numerous females. Some males do not breed every season.

Male seals can weigh up to 180kg, with the average female weighing 40kg. The female does all the nursing of the baby seals. She stays with the pup for about 12 days, then alternates between feeding at sea and suckling. Pups are weaned in July or August, and the pregnant females go to sea to fatten once again. The young pups then head out to sea, coming ashore at times to rest. Females start breeding at around four years of age.

Akaroa Penguins – Little Blue Penguins

A Little Blue Penguin swimming in Akaroa Harbour

Weighing only around 1 kilogram, and 400mm in length, Little Blue Penguins are also named for the bluish plumage on their backs. They are largely nocturnal on land, coming ashore after sunset.

Little Blue Penguins nest in burrows, caves, rock crevices and, more rarely, under buildings. There's a large cave just north of the Paua Farm where hundreds of Little Blue penguins nest. Typically the female will lay two eggs, eggs are laid three days apart.

Although many species of this penguin are found around Australasia, we have a unique sub-species: the White Flippered Little Blue Penguin (albosignata) on Banks Peninsula. Although scientists are still debating whether the White Flippered variant is a sub species, they will mate with other little blue penguins not of the white flippered variety.

Shags and Cormorants

A Shag drying it's wings while perched

The Shag is the most numerous and widespread sea bird on Banks Peninsula. It is a large, dark coloured bird with grey markings. Also called the Spotted Shag, it is confused often with the white fronted shag or Crested Cormorant. They are two separate species of sea bird. It is thought they are called shag because of the sometimes shaggy feathers on the heads of some species.

The Spotted shag tends to prefer nesting on rocks and crevices around the outer reaches of Akaroa Harbour. Its nesting sites are easily picked out because of the white guano marks made by the excrement of these birds, on the rocks around their nests. Large pebbles are occasionally found in shag nests, and the shags sometimes treat them as eggs. In rocky breeding colonies where the nests are placed on the ground, young shags leave their nests and congregate into groups with other youngsters for fishing expeditions.

The Crested Cormorant prefers to nest in trees. There is a colony of these birds in the pine trees on the rocky shoreline opposite Akaroa township. The Crested Cormorant makes a bulky nest of sticks and other materials, high up in the branches of the trees. It frequently picks up rubbish, such as rope, and plastic flotsam to incorporate into the nest. Both sexes of bird share in incubating the egg, and they also share the fishing duties.

We often see groups of 200 or more of these birds (juveniles) on the surface of the harbour. Then they all dive simultaneously and there are none visible at all. Then 30 seconds later, they start popping up from underwater at the same time. Now you see them, now you don't.


A group of Paua on the seafloor

Paua (pronounced pawa) is a species of NZ Abalone, and it is exported around the world with this name. Our NZ variety is only found in the sea around New Zealand. The NZ variety differs from northern hemisphere abalone in that its flesh is dark in colour, whereas the northern variety is white fleshed. This marine mollusc eats seaweed and naturally lives clinging to rocks at depths of 1-10 metres, normally along the shoreline.

In Akaroa Harbour, the Paua occurs naturally, but for the most intensive use, the paua is farmed and cultivated for the Blue Pearls. The immature paua is placed into a plastic container, with a small ceramic disc placed under the body of the paua as an irritant. Every two weeks the plastic container is hauled up, the paua removed. The container is then water blasted to clean it, the paua replaced, with some seaweed as food, then the container is lowered back onto the line suspending it from the large black buoys.

This goes on for three years, after which the paua have grown to around 150mm in length. The paua are then harvested. The hope is that in the intervening three years, the paua will have coated the ceramic disc artificially inserted three years ago with that lovely blue-green nacre as seen on the inside of its shell. The pearls exhibit the same colouring. The Blue Pearls made with this colorful natural coating are unique to Akaroa and the details of their cultivation remains a closely guarded secret.

The meat of the harvested paua is exported to Asia and the USA, where abalone has always been regarded as one of the best seafood delicacies. However, we have to bleach the flesh to make it attractive to both the Asian and USA markets, where consumers are used to the white coloured flesh of the abalone. Paua meat tastes really good. It's like a cross between the taste of crayfish and cashew nuts. It's best eaten sliced thinly, and cooked very quickly in garlic butter. An alternative is to mince the meat and make it into paua patties, frying them either deep fried or in a pan with butter. Yummy!


The Akaroa Salmon farms, a stop on our cruise

Salmon are farmed commercially in Akaroa Harbour. The company Akaroa Salmon operates two salmon farms, raising the salmon from tiny fingerlings to fully grown, 800mm long fish. We hope to show you this on our cruises.

The Akaroa Salmon is naturally tasty and bright pink due to the wide range of natural nutrients they get while living in the wild salt water. They are VERY tasty and are available from many local restaurants.

Other Fish and Sea Life in Akaroa Harbour

Cod Fish – In Akaroa Harbour we used to have large reserves of Red Cod and Blue Cod, but these have been mostly fished out. At one stage there were 17 trawler fishing vessels operating from Akaroa Harbour. All have moved to the larger commercial facilities of Lyttelton.

Kahawai – A common visitor to Akaroa Harbour especially in the summer months when the water becomes warmer. Kahawai are known in Australia as Sea Trout. They are a fine fighting fish, taste good and are easy to catch, if you can find them.

Kingfish – Kingfish follow the Kahawai into the harbour. Hunting in packs, they round up Kahawai and then plunge through the ball, eating as much as they can.

Stingray - Skate - Flounder – All bottom dwellers. There are some very large black stingray which hang around the Akaroa Main Wharf, to the fright of the occasional swimmers. Measuring 1.5m across, to see the dark shadow moving around the wharf is a great sight.

Orca – Orca occasionally visit the harbour. Somtimes we know there are Orca at the harbour entrance because the dolphins travel further up the harbour to escape them. Orca are mammals (air breathing, warm blooded), are members of the dolphin family and are occasionally seen inside the harbour. Orca also like to eat Sharks, Stingray and Skate.

Sharks – Sharks rarely visit the harbour. Small dogfish are there in plenty, but large sharks are a rarity. They mostly hang around outside the harbour. It is thought they feed on Fur Seals, Dolphins and other fishlife. Most seen species are Blue Sharks and Bronze Whalers.