Saturday, October 29th, 2011: Bay Of Islands, New Zealand
After more than 50 days onboard the Dawn Princess, we have arrived at our final port of call, Bay Of Islands, in the northeast corner of New Zealand’s North Island. We had the good fortune of spending two days here earlier in the trip, experiencing the amazing history of Waitangi, sandboarding in Te Paki, and riding along 90 Mile Beach in a high speed 4×4 bus. How does one attempt to top that? We’re spending the day with Great Sights New Zealand on a high speed catamaran, looking for bottlenose dolphins, spending time on an island called Urupukapuka (say that 10 times fast!), visiting the seaside town of Russell, and riding said catamaran through Motukokako, the Maori word for “Hole In The Rock”.
Our ship anchored shortly after 7am, and since today was a tender service day, we were in the appropriate meeting place around 7:30am to ensure that we could make our scheduled 9am departure from the wharf in Paihia. Generally speaking, 90 minutes should be enough to accomplish this, however when your day is dependent on exiting the ship to board a tender to reach a jetty to find a shuttle bus to get into town to board a catamaran, there are a lot of moving pieces in that puzzle. All in all, everything worked out just fine and we had an extra 20 minutes to grab a hot chocolate before boarding our boat.
A few minutes before 9am, we got onboard and after departing the wharf, the crew opened up the bow of the catamaran for any passengers that wanted to sit out, enjoy the sun, and have a front row seat for the day’s events. Our first stop was to Russell, to pick up a few additional passengers, and then we were out and into the water on the hunt for dolphins.
Within minutes, the boat slowed to a halt and we were within sight of our first pod of bottlenose dolphins. Far larger than the Hector dolphins we saw in Akaroa, bottlenose dolphins can reach 5 meters (15 feet) in length or more! This particular pod was extremely playful and within moments were swimming up to the boat, jumping, flipping, and performing acrobatics in the water.
We got a show for the next 10-15 minutes and everyone on board was able to capture tons of photos of these playful, intelligent, and wild animals. They seem to have an attraction to the catamaran and stayed very close to it, even while we were in motion. To these dolphins, we were simply challenging them to a little race. In order to maintain our schedule, we headed out of this area and towards our first point of interest. As we sped up to leave, a good number of dolphins followed the vessel staying with us as we continued to speed up. At full speed, we finally left the dolphins behind, only to watch them hop and jump in the boat’s wake. It was a blast!
As we made our way through the islands (there are 144 of them, so we had to focus on a small subset of them), we passed by Moturua, alongside Parekura Bay, near Rawhiti, and continued out into the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to encounter another pod of dolphins, so we were able to stop and view this pod as well. The best part was that we were still within our first hour of a four hour tour! Not sure how they intend to top this…
We enjoyed another 10-15 minutes with this second pod and the passengers onboard took more pictures. It was amazing to see them perform many of the “tricks” that dolphins are known for at places like Seaworld and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and realized that these actions are not taught to the dolphins, but rather are inherently a part of the animal, only to have these timed and synchronized by the theme parks. The experience made us appreciate the privilege we have to see these dolphins in their native environment.
Out into the Pacific Ocean we went, passing Deepwater Cove, the Sisters, and Bird Rock to reach our next major destination — Cape Brett. This is the last point on the peninsula and is the home to an automated lighthouse (they are all running on solar by computer these days) and a small lightkeepers home. The home is now available to rent for $13 a night, and seems like a cute place with a lot of charm. The only problem is that to reach the house one has the option of 1) A 9 hour walk, each way to the point, 2) A 45-60 minute boat ride and a climb up a craggy rockface, or 3) A 10 minute helicopter ride. Someone joked that the view is spectacular, but pizza delivery can cost an arm and a leg.
From here, we arrived a few minutes later at Motukokako, or The Hole In The Rock. This island has had a massive hole warn away from it through wave action, erosion, and wind. These days, if the seas permit, you can actually send entire vessels right through the hole and travel from one side of the island to the other by passing right through it. Our catamaran was quite large, with a capacity of 200 people, a length of 40-50 feet (13 – 17 meters), a width of 20-25 feet (6 – 8 meters), and had two decks. This was a sizeable ship. The captain took his position about 300 meters from the openeing, timed our approach with the ocean wave movement (there were decent swells, so it was far from calm waters) and brought us to full speed as we drove into the massive cavern, passed through its length and popped out of the other side.
Unbeknownst to the passengers there was a massive seabird colony on the other side, so as this huge vessel comes barrelling out of the tunnel in the rock, thousands of birds immediately scatter. It was a neat sight and a lot of fun. From here, our captain slowly began to make the journey back towards our start point in Paihia, but not before allowing us an hour’s stop on the island of Urupukapuka. Today, Otehei Bay is home to a small summer beach resort, but today, it was just a quiet stop for the catamaran to allow us all some time on the beach or to take the short 10 minute hike to the lookout point at the top of a small hill.
We made the hike up and enjoyed stunning views of the Bay of Islands, and then laid out in the golden sun of the day. It was quiet, peaceful, and just the right way to cap off our day on the water in the Bay Of Islands. Once back aboard the catamaran, we were given the option of either disembarking in Paihia (our original start point) or Russell (the small seaside town) and we would be provided a free ferry ticket back to Paihia. We elected to see the small town of Russell as we had previously not had the chance to visit.
Russell was at one time known as the “Hellhole of the South Pacific”. One of the first colonial settlements within New Zealand, it was the home of the first settlers to the area, which included a number of convict laborers. Without a strong law presence in this area, it quickly became a home of lawlessness, crime, and was not very desirable. Very happy to report that in recent times, Russell has become a quaint seaside town, with cafes, a waterfront promenade, and is a liked holiday spot for many Kiwis. Though the entire place can be covered on foot within a few minutes, we glad we had the chance to see it.
So, now to return to the ship, we had to depart our catamaran in Russell, board the ferry to Paihia, board the shuttle bus to Waitangi, and get on the tender to return to the cruise ship. A lot of travel, but well worth it for a visit to the Bay Of (144) Islands. It was a wonderful day and capped off a wonderful itinerary here within New Zealand.
We’re back onboard and headed back to Sydney, Australia to begin the final leg of our journey and look forward to sharing our upcoming travels to Adelaide, Barossa Valley, Kangaroo Island, The Grampians, Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island, Melbourne, Ayers Rock, Cairns, Cape Tribulation, and The Great Barrier Reef in the coming weeks! Talk to you all soon!