An early flight got us to Auckland by 7:45am. We stopped off for a quick breakfast in the airport before picking up our hire car, and driving the drive to Whitianga. It doesn’t look far on the map. However the road is twisty and turny, and so it took about 2 ½ hours to complete the trip. We found a car park in the centre of town and stopped for a coffee and tea at The French Fig café, before searching out our accommodations at Marina Park Apartments. We settled ourselves in there, then went out to explore the town. Nicola stopped off at the leaflet emporium to begin with, so we could plan our time here.
The first order of the day was to get some lunch, and for that we went to the Harbour House Café, which, unsurprisingly, is just on the harbour. The rest of the day was spent exploring the waterfront and retail opportunities of Whitianga, as well as a quick trip to New World to stock up on breakfast supplies. Whilst looking around the town we found a place to book the Glass Bottom Boat tour, so we enquired about availability and eventually booked ourselves in for the following morning at 9:00am.
We got down to the jetty in plenty of time, and waited for our fellow passengers to arrive. We chatted to the captain, Fraser, who was doing a degree in tourism at Massey University in Wellington, and our crew, Emily, also a student at Otago University in Dunedin.
Once everyone had turned up, Fraser gave us the safety briefing, then took us out of the harbour and along the coast, stopping off at various caves and rock formations along the way. He and Emily gave us a bit of history of the area, especially the arrival of Captain Cook and why the bay is called Mercury Bay (not Freddie, apparently). It was whilst here observing the transit of Mercury that Cook was able to establish his latitude and longitude with a fair degree of accuracy. I’m not saying he was lost exactly, but it’s always nice to have your position confirmed. We went to Cathedral Cove, the most obvious draw on the Hahei Beach coastline, as well as Champagne Bay, and the blowhole – where the roof of a cave had fallen in, thus exposing the sea cave to the top of the cliffs. In stormy weather, waves come into the cave and erupt like a whale’s spout onto the land. Today, however, Fraser told us that the biggest waves we were likely to see would be the wakes of other boats.
Along the way we spotted a lot of sea birds, including black-backed gulls, some of which were feeding their chicks on the rocks; the inevitable shags; some herons, nesting in a tree on a cliff face; terns, shearwaters, and a gannet; and even an Australasian harrier, circling on the thermals rising over the beach.
We then entered the marine reserve area of the coast. The fish density is much higher in there as all forms of fishing and collecting is prohibited. Canny fishermen set up just outside the reserve area as the fish, being fish, can’t quite see where a line is drawn on a map (but they seem to know). Over the years, populations have increased to the extent that they are now also growing outside the reserve, in spite of the fishing. Fraser and Emily removed the cover on the glass bottom of the boat. The first shallow area we stopped at was full of snapper and not much else, as snapper are quite aggressive (do they snap?) and so other fish tend to keep away. The area was also rich in sea urchins, or kina, which is one of the main food items of the snapper.
Next stop was at an area with more fish variety, including blue mau mau, leatherheads, red miko, and triplefins. At this point the offer was made to go snorkelling, but the weather conditions on the day weren’t quite conducive enough to convince us to get in the water. Maybe if it had been a bit warmer!
We also stopped at the Orua sea cave, which is large enough to take the boat into. Emily pointed out the different rock formations on each side of the cave, as it is on a fault-line – the same fault-line that causes the hot water at Hot Water Beach to be, er, hot. The cave water is very blue, and also full of fish – the same species as we saw before.
As we exited the cave, Emily spotted a little blue penguin, a rare native of New Zealand and the world’s smallest penguin.
We made our way back at full speed past all the rocks, caves and beaches we’d seen on the way out. No stopping this time, as we were running to schedule. The whole trip takes two hours, but it’s full of different sights, geological and biological. We arrived back on shore, and Fraser left us with the inevitable plea to review on Tripadvisor (we did) before heading inland to Espy café for a coffee and a cake.