A shingly foreshore backed by a small spit creates the Okarito Lagoon on New Zealand’s southern West Coast. Geologists who took core samples in the area discovered that this tidal lagoon appeared in the 1700’s after a Tsunami triggered by an earthquake off Fiordland, swept through the area. Fed by four creeks and the Okarito River, the lagoon catchment area is the forested foothills of the Southern Alps. At 2,340 hectares, roughly 10 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide, it is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland.
Fringed by reeds, rushes, flax and gorsey farm remnants the lagoon is home to over seventy species of native bird. Fish are abundant, and cockles, crabs, and snails creep in the tidal shallows. The Maori saw the Lagoon as a rich source of food while they hunted for pounamu (greenstone). The European settlers focused more on flax milling, gold mining and farming up the Whataroa Valley.
Kohuamarua Bluff acts as a natural breakwater, protecting the entrance to the Lagoon from southerly storms. Okarito became the third largest port on the West Coast during the gold rushes of the 1860’s. Until 1920, Okarito was the social heart of South Westland and people from Hari Hari through to Haast would come to race days, sailing regattas and balls. Find out more about the history of the area from the display boards in the historic boat shed.
In 1865, Gerhard Mueller ‘discovered’ New Zealand’s only white heron or kotuku ‘cranery’ on the neighbouring Waitangi Roto River. In 1907, Alice Moreland on her visit saw the “exquisite” white herons and wrote of “One view after another unfolding of wooded bays, towering snow peaks mirrored in the still waters...”
Today, the lagoon still feeds the busy white heron parents, and six adult herons are permanent residents all year round. People from all over the world come to Okarito to catch a glimpse of these elegant birds. The best way to become truly intimate with these sheltered waters is by kayak or boat. So, check the tide tables and ask a local where to hire a kayak or the time of the next boat cruise is.