Muriwai Beach: its beauty, the gannets...and a story of hope?
Scout editor Sarah-Kate Lynch searches her own Muriwai Beach backyard and finds a mysterious flock of trans-Tasman birds hiding in plain sight.
Once upon a time, when people moved freely throughout the world, bird lovers would jet into Auckland and head straight to Muriwai Beach, just 40 minutes west of the CBD. They would make their way past the surfers running down to Maukatia Bay, barely noticing the paragliders leaping off the nearby cliff or the families picnicking on the grass looking out over the Tasman Sea.
Instead, they’d head straight up through the pōhutukawa trees to Otakamiro Point, a windswept headland next to a precariously stacked rock pillar. There they’d find a 2000-strong colony of gannets (tākapu) – stunning-looking sea birds that can mesmerise even the ho-hummiest of nature lovers. I know – I used to be one.
Fourteen years ago we built a house at Muriwai Beach, on the ridge overlooking the sea. But in those days we had a dog – a pea-brained but much-loved terrier called Ted, who by dint of being a canine was not allowed anywhere near the gannets. So Muriwai for us only happened north of them. The black sand stretches 50km, up to the mouth of the Kaipara Harbour, and is officially a public road. From our house, at night, on a calm evening we see four-wheel drive headlights wending their way home like a string of pearls.
During the day, the gannet end of the beach is packed with swimmers (between the surf club flags is a given), plus sunbathers, walkers, fishers and sightseers. Many of them don’t know these precious birds exist, just a few very accessible metres away.
They’re here for the waves, which like a lot of west coast ones aren’t always for the faint of heart. Bridget Wallis, her husband Martin and their son Dylan run Muriwai Surf School, renting out boards and wetsuits and offering lessons to all ages and stages. Bridget’s face lights up when she talks about the joy of this sport. “I see it all the time. Someone goes out for the first time and they’re hooked. It’s exhausting, you use your whole body, but it refreshes you and it’s great for your mental health. You can’t think of anything else.”
At the far end of the beach, trail bikes and four-wheel drives battle it out for supremacy during weekends but on weekdays you’ll likely see gorgeous Clydesdales among the other four-legged friends of Muriwai Beach Horse Treks.
If it’s your own legs you want to use, there’s a fantastic walk along the coast from Muriwai to Te Henga (Bethells Beach) or there’s the Muriwai Golf Club – described by golfer Greg Turner as “a links of raw beauty and physical intensity”. Which means windy but worth it.
But back to those gannets. When Ted left this mortal coil in 2018 and I had to face beach walks without him, I started visiting them. And the more I saw from the various meticulously maintained vantage points, the more I wanted to see.
“I can sit there and watch them for hours,” says Tony Dunn of tour company Bush and Beach, which has been bringing tourists to west coast beaches for 12 years. “But they’re a bit of a mystery.”
Between Tony, Muriwai Regional Park ranger Van Haresnape and Auckland Regional Council’s “bird nerd”, Tim Lovegrove, I glean that the birds occupy their Muriwai possies only from late spring to early autumn, when the parents share the raising of a single chick who … wait for it … jumps off a cliff or rock and, in its maiden voyage, flies directly to Australia.
But why? “To do their OE?” Van suggests cheerfully. “I haven’t got a clue.”
Van tells me to check out the gannets diving for food on YouTube, which I do. They can hit the surface at speeds of up to 140kph – I guess that’s why they’re so pointy – but when they’re under the water they use their half-folded wings to swim. Tim’s actually more of a saddleback man but adds to my gannet information bank: they can live for up to 25 years; if they fail with the first egg they’ll lay another one; and the chicks fly to Australia but come back three years later to have a chick of their own.
But why? At this point, ornithologist Brent Stephenson who has a PhD in gannets (although I don’t think that’s the official name) steps in. Back before Covid, international clients of Brent’s Wrybill Birding Tours started their three-week New Zealand trip with the Muriwai colony. For now his business is gutted, but his enthusiasm for the gannets remains in extremely good nick.
Here’s the gen... The male gannets come to Muriwai at breeding time and find a nest. The females come next, and often return to the same male as before, but they’ve been flying separately around New Zealand in the meantime.
“Don’t go painting a romantic picture,” advises Brent. “They’re not in love or together forever. Generally, they will have the same partner year after year but there’s a relatively high incidence of divorce. And at Cape Kidnappers [the Hawke’s Bay gannet colony where Brent did his research] it was found that something like 20 percent of chicks were not the offspring of the male who was sharing the rearing. So there’s hanky panky going on.”
The young birds fly to Australia for food, which might be plentiful at Muriwai during the summer, but gannets are visual predators so they need to be able to see what’s happening in the water – not possible when it’s a roiling stew in the wild winters.
“But it’s not like they sit around saying to each other, ‘Hey, let’s go to Oz and hang out because the beaches are nice,’” says Brent. “It’s an innate behaviour, hardwired in their brain. Just one of those marvels of nature.”
Marvels of nature are all around us in Muriwai, which attracts more than its fair share of artists, including my neighbour, Liz Smith, whose delicate stitchwork flies out of her hands into new ownership every time the Muriwai Arts Open Studios collective is in session. Liz confesses to having been an East Coast person until she met her husband, Rob Hutchison, who’d hooned out here in his youth, surfboard out the window of his VW beetle. In 2004 they bought a weekender, which they later upgraded to a new house and moved into permanently.
“There’s a lot of weather,” says Liz, “so you feel like you’re living life. Go for a walk in Herne Bay and it’s pretty standard. But go for a walk here and you don’t know if you’re going to come back with your hair still on. It’s exciting.” Liz already had her crafting business, The Stitchsmith, but only started making art after being drawn (or “bulldozed”) into it by jeweller Joss Hong and the owner of Muriwai’s Ocean View Art Gallery, Judy Stokes.
These friends, who are in the art collective, have not only informed Liz’s work, they’ve also helped fill the devastating hole left by Rob’s passing last year after a brutal battle with cancer. “People kept asking me if I wanted to leave but I want to be here because this is the place he loved,” says Liz. “I feel him here, hanging around. I wouldn’t ever live anywhere else.” Plus, it’s impossible not to be inspired, she says, “when you sit here and you have kererū flying past, and tui with their beaks stuck in the flax”.
Ah yes, birds. “What most people can’t believe about the gannets,” says Tony from Bush and Beach, “is how big they are and how close you can get. Then they start hearing the facts, about that crazy journey to Oz and the diving. The more you think about them, the more interesting they are.”
Tony knows about more than birds too. His tours can include a visit to west Auckland’s Westbrook Winery, and he knows the best places for a strawberry ice cream, although I’m more about The Pie Shop in Kumeu. Definitely worth stopping for. Like Brent with his bird tours, Tony’s lost a massive chunk of his business thanks to Covid, but you can’t keep this good man down.
“We’re loving doing deliveries for a charity called Woven Earth, which helps people being rehomed because of family violence. Turning up to someone who’s been a victim of something like that with a vanful of things people have given for free? It’s pretty moving.”
I don’t know if I’m overtly seeking the upside these days, but I’m finding it regardless. A young bird that will leave the nest for the first time in its life and head across an unknown sea to a different country with only a 20 percent chance of survival? If that’s not optimistic, I don’t know what is. “People – travellers – are always telling us, ‘It’s so beautiful! You’re so lucky,’” says Bridget, smiling as she sits in the sun outside the Muriwai Surf School. “And we take that. We really do. We know! We know! We know!”
Things to do at Muriwai
- Stop for a pie
- Visit the gannets
- Learn to surf
- Visit the gannets
- Check out an art gallery
- Visit the gannets
- Take a hike
- Yes, we get it – the gannets!
- Swim between the flags
- Go horse trekking
- Taste wines
If you’re thinking of making a weekend of it, there’s the Muriwai Beach Campground - you literally can’t get closer to the waves. But for something more countrified, try putting your feet up at Freshwater Cottages.