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White Heron Sanctuary Tours Whataroa


There’s a lot to be said for being original. To be the first and the only, to be a guardian of something special, to find passion in something and share that magic with others.


All in the Family


White Heron Sanctuary Tours is a family business operating out of Whataroa. They are the first and only tour operators visiting the only Kōtuku (White Heron) nesting site in the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve. I recently sat down with owner and second-generation guide Dion Arnold for our Local Spotlight Series.


White Heron Sanctuary Whataroa, West Coast NZ


How long have you been operating for?


Dion: Our family business has been operating for the past 36 years. My father started things back in 1987, and I began guiding 27 years ago.


So, this is a real family affair.


Dion: Yes, that’s right. My wife and I run the show full-time. During the summer months, my father still guides for us part-time. My brother guides sometimes as well, and my mother helps in the office here and there. Aside from the odd time we get a hand from some trusted locals, it’s an all-family staff.


That’s great! What made your father start the tours?


Dion: Before the tours started, very few people were able to visit this remote and special site. White Heron were discovered in 1865, but due to the location of the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve, people didn’t know anything about it or the birds. In the 1940s, the birds were being hunted for their feathers, a popular fashion accessory at the time. Their numbers began to decline, so a conservation effort was put into place to protect them, eventually bringing them back from endangerment. In the early 1970s, the New Zealand Wildlife Service placed a warden in the reserve to monitor the Heron. My father knew the land well and had access to boats, so he looked after the warden, helping with transport and supplies. Becoming very passionate about the Heron, my father thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to share these special birds with others while putting Whataroa on the map. He began applying to the NZ Wildlife Service for permission to run tours. Eventually, when DOC (Department of Conservation) was established in 1987, he was granted a trial concession. The rest is history.


White Heron Sanctuary Tours, Whataroa, West Coast, NZ


When did you know you wanted to get involved?


Dion: I wasn’t allowed to do anything else (laughing). I grew up with it all. I was lucky enough as a child to head out in a dinghy with my father and experience the sights and sounds of the nesting area. It was an incredible and magical experience! I ended up helping out after school, on weekends and during the summer months doing monitoring and predator control, or even just cleaning the vehicles. I understood how unique it was and knew I wanted to continue on. About 7 years ago, after having guided for 20 years, my wife and I took over the business. It’s been fantastic!


Can you tell us about the tours?


Dion: We run 3 tours daily, each lasting 2.5 hours. Our maximum capacity is 11 people, and our minimum is 2, but generally, we average 4 to 6 people per trip. It’s suitable for all ages and abilities. We start with an informative bus ride to the reserve, then walk an easy 800m trail through prehistoric rainforest, absorbing flora and fauna, with views of Aoraki (Mount Cook) and Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (Southern Alps) in the background. It’s a special area with plenty of stunning photo opportunities. If it rains, we provide wet weather gear. Also, the viewing area is sheltered, so we can get out there in any weather conditions. Obviously, it’s magic on sunny days, with beautiful vistas of the mountains. But also, when things are a little cloudy and misty, the rainforest comes alive! So, it’s a beautiful place to visit regardless. And, of course, the Heron are still nesting whatever the weather is doing.


Predator Control, White Heron Sanctuary Tours, West Coast, NZ


You mentioned monitoring and predator control earlier. Is that something you’re still involved with?


Dion: Absolutely! It’s what we’ve always done as a family. We see ourselves as caretakers, and we love the conservation work we do. We run over 150 predator traps as our own private contribution. On top of that, we do a lot of monitoring for DOC, recording bird numbers, pairs, chicks and nests. We’re pretty involved and very passionate.


What would be your perfect day on the job?


Dion: A perfect day on the job for me is when I share everything special about the area we live and work in with our visitors. I show them a little variety along the way, a bit of flora and fauna unique to this part of the world, and explain to them how we look after and protect it. Then, they leave after a tour feeling more informed, educated, and satisfied with their outing. That’s the perfect day on the job for me.


What’s your favourite part about living and working in Glacier Country?


Dion: Oh! Absolutely the variety in the weather and the landscapes! We’ve got the mountains in the background, rivers and lakes, the forest right down to the coastline, and the stunning vistas of the Tasman Sea. Living and working here and sharing that with visitors from around the world is such a privilege.    


White Heron Sanctuary, Whataroa, West Coast, NZ



What is your favourite New Zealand plant, animal or insect, and why?


Dion: I would have to say the Kōwhai Tree. It’s usually one of the first to bloom, telling us that springtime is here. Also, these trees attract a lot of birdlife. Korimako (Bellbird), Tūī (Tui), and Kererū (New Zealand Wood Pigeon) are but some of the species that come out to feed on the nectar, filling the air with their lovely songs.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dion: The Kōtuku (White Heron) is a very rare and unique bird. There are only around 200 in New Zealand, and this has always been a limited population. In 150 years, the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve remains the only nesting site in the country, which is pretty incredible. The Heron nest here in spring and summer, from mid-September until the end of February. Then, they disperse during the cooler months. Some will hang around the area here, but only a few. During autumn and winter, there will be sightings all around New Zealand, but they’ve all come from right here in the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve near Whataroa.



White Heron Sanctuary Tours, Whataroa, West Coast, NZ


What are you waiting for?


The White Heron Sanctuary Tours are at 64 Main Rd, Whataroa, opposite the school and the Lonely Stag Cafe & Store. Entry to the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve is by permit only, meaning access to the one White Heron nesting site in NZ is exclusive and only possible on a guided tour.


So, drop in to see Dion and the team, or get in touch to book this unique and magical experience.


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Mike Bilodeau is a content writer for eco and sustainable tourism operators and an advocate for Slow Travel.