The Big Daddy

Snorkelling at Goat Island Marine Reserve

The rental guy held his arms wide. ‘A real big daddy’ he said and pointed toward the western end of the island. I had promised my brother-in-law that his first snorkelling adventure in New Zealand would be spectacular. A diver’s paradise I said, clear water and right near the beach, fish eating right of your hand. Instead, when we got there a large storm had just passed through and wind and waves were marching down the channel leaving a muddy cloud of seaweed and twigs. As we tenderly lowered ourselves into the water, we realised we couldn’t see more than a few centimetres in any direction.

Goat Island, or Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve as it is officially known, is the oldest marine reserve in the country. Formed in 1975 after six years of lobbying by scientists at the Leigh Marine Laboratory, fishing was completely stopped and nature left to take its course. The ecosystem quickly proved its ability to restore itself and 40 years later the reserve is thriving with fish and other sea-life and surrounding fish stocks have bloomed.

Just as importantly, it is also thriving with tourists, hundreds of thousands of whom cram each year onto its tiny beach. The Goat Island experiment was crucial in the argument for marine conservation and has since paved the way for other reserves that now dot the New Zealand coast.

It seemed to take an age to cross the channel and we were cold and bored, almost on the verge of turning back. Then the water started to clear slightly, 30 centimetres became a metre - I spotted a rock, a patch of white sand. The snorkel had become infinitely more interesting. Now in the lee of the island, we turned west toward where the most sheltered spot should be, and hopefully the big daddy.

We headed over to a patch of other snorkelers figuring they might be on to something, but when we got there there they were making whale noises to each other, as clueless as we were. By now we could see several metres and schools of small fish appeared out of the murk, occasionally a small snapper cruising the shellfish beds. But still no big daddy.

We swam around investigating the reefs, kina and anything else that we could find. The fish seemed to have no fear of humans at all. They barely noticed our existence. And then a dark shape appeared through the gloom. There he was hovering over a large rock, lethargically swinging his tail from side to side, the big daddy.

Snapper can live for up to 40 years, which would put him at about the same age as me. Both of us are post-sanctuary babies, born as this one was becoming established. I’m not sure about the big daddy, but I certainly have taken that for granted in the past. I‘ve been ignorant of the struggle to protect and manage our delicate marine ecosystems. On that day, drifting around above the big daddy as he ignored us and went about his business, it became clear how special and unique this place was.