Exploring the Bay of Plenty on board the Bay Explorer (29 Dec 2015)
On December 27th, 2015, I boarded the Bay Explorer and headed out of New Zealand's Tauranga harbour into the deep blue ocean. I decided to have no expectations, just experience whatever was coming. Who would have guessed it would be the perfect day of sunshine with an easy going crew, yet you knew there was strong efficiency, planning and competency undergirding this epic fun day.
I invited other friends to come, later they were to tell me that never had they felt so relaxed, and furthermore had decided they needed to go out on the Bay Explorer one day a month just to experience that complete relaxedness again. It was a few days after Christmas, and the stress of the year just dissipated like the clouds burning off to reveal a sun-speckled sea. The crew decided to have some fun with the passengers, mildly taunting us to see which group could spot seals, penguins, dolphins, orcas and more first. I love a good-natured competition but have to say that Dom is the king for seeing the first splash of a fin across the blue.
We encountered a pair of dolphins, so coasted along with them for a while until coming across a whole pod of them. They twisted and spun beneath the front of the boat pushing into the wave created, with one turning upsidedown, I think to look up at us as we sped along through the water. I learned that each dolphin had its own individual markings, differentiating it from every other dolphin of its species. Some had younger dolphins swimming alongside, it was like a ballet of sleekness and one of our crew hung over the side, held firmly in place, while running a go pro camera underwater at the end of a long stick. On our return journey later we were treated to the thrill of an albatross lifting its large body slowly across the surface of the water, until it was gliding in the air and then descending onto a wave further away.
Penguins, petrels, other coastal birds that I'm still learning the names of - it was fascinating experiencing the richness of marine life so close to where the Rena went down. After circling for a while following the dolphin pod, we radioed across to another boat so they could move in on our spot in the ocean, and we set off the rest of the way to Motiti Island, where we anchored for a couple of hours in a sheltered cove. A private launch was already there, as well as a few local islanders driving down to the beach in cars to go diving. Brandon and the crew put stand up paddleboards and kayaks over the side into the water, and those of us who wanted to, set off exploring the reef area in the bay. I coasted along on a paddleboard looking down, and could see a stingray passing below and such a surprising amount of marine life that I headed back to the boat to return the paddleboard, then swam back to dive amongst it.
A head popped up near me - one of the islanders with a speargun and a roughie pierced through on the end. He said "do you realise there's stingrays swimming under you?" For a moment I felt shock that anyone could go fishing or speargun hunting through this beauty, clearly I'd had a mindshift change. Would I be able to eat fish again? Would I go fishing off the wharf again? I replied - "yes, I know, they're amazing." He was fishing for dinner and swam ashore while I explored around the rocky parts of the reef that were above the waterline.
One red-billed gull sat on an outcrop for the whole time we were there, quietly watching us. I wondered where the closest colony was, probably on Moturiki or Matakana. Plate Island, where the seal colony is, was off to our left. I eventually swam back to the boat once I realised we were packing up to go. Most people had already had lunch, either a barbeque on board, or their own packed lunch.
On our return trip to Tauranga harbour, the skipper regaled me with stories of a leopard seal, a "real predator" who they had encountered the week before. He showed me photos they'd taken, which reminded me we were in a wildlife area and there can be some quite fierce creatures out there. Looking over the side at the little blue penguins diving and swimming past us, you wonder how they manage to survive the epic nature of the sea. Someone spotted what they thought was a whale breaching about 2 kilometres away on the horizon, and then someone else also confirmed they had seen it, so we hovered and circled abit, but didn't spot anything more.
Coming into the harbour, we received a text from someone on board a boat near Mayor Island saying there was a pod of, I understand, about 30 orca out there. We missed it! Somehow though this didn't matter at all because I'd started the day with no expectations and been 'blown out of the water' with the diversity and richness of life. I took about 100 photos of just Mauao (Mount Maunganui, a local extinct volcano) as we left the harbour and then again as we returned, picking out the pied shag colonies, pohutakawa trees, walking tracks and grey faced petrel colony area. About 800 little blue penguins live there, feeding in the ocean during the day and returning to their burrows to feed their young at night.
We left in the morning with hundreds of other boats skipping across the sea out to their favourite fishing spots, and returning later with launches and small boats humming back into the harbour. The Bay Explorer leaves and returns to a jetty on The Strand in downtown Tauranga, and the boat stays in the bridge marina overnight. What did I think of the day? It was my first time and I completely fell in love with this boat, this day, this rich Bay of Plenty, and with New Zealand all over again. The crew laughed and talked excitedly as if this too was their very first experience, which is why I want to go back and do it all again.