The Bay of Islands: so much more than just dolphins

'Did you see that?' Even a 10-minute trip across the harbour from Paihia to Russell can become a spectacle, and we have front row seats...

‘Did you see that?’ A shag or New Zealand cormorant is bobbing in the water, its head half-submerged. All of a sudden it jerks its beak out of the water and we see why – it’s caught a massive snapper and is struggling to keep hold of it. Charlotte the skipper slows down and steers the Bay Belle ferry in a wide circle around the bird so we can watch it do battle against the frantic fish. Even a 10-minute trip across the harbour from Paihia to Russell can become a spectacle, and we have front row seats.

The Bay of Islands is a place where you can see orca chasing stingrays for lunch and dolphins leaping and capering like clowns. Big game fishing brought the tourists here in the 1920s, while today it’s the marine mammals and beautiful island vistas that draw the crowds. But even sitting on a bench down by Paihia wharf can turn into something magical – get there at the right time and you’ll see stingrays basking in the shallows.

Paihia and Russell are small towns, booming in summer but calmer and quieter outside peak season. Paihia’s town centre can be explored easily on foot, but to get a good sense of Kororareka’s history, the Russell mini tour is your best bet.

As we cruise through town in the van, our driver guide John points out all the ‘official’ historic sites like Christ Church, Flagstaff Hill and Pompallier House – but we’re also introduced to other neighbourhood landmarks like the general store (still run by the Baker family, seven generations on), New Zealand’s oldest petrol station, and most endearingly, John’s own house.

Whether they’re a longstanding local or a more recent import, everyone you meet in the Bay seems to have a fascinating back story. Charlotte was 42 when she got her skipper’s ticket. When she and her husband moved here (‘to escape the fast lane’) they lived in a tent with a German Shepherd and two Burmese cats. Another skipper, Tammy, is Russell born and bred: her whole family have worked for Fullers at some point, and in fact her mother was the first official female skipper in the Bay of Islands back in 1966.

While she never tires of spotting marine mammals like dolphins, orca and other migrating whales, Tammy’s favourite part of the job is showing off the everyday sights and sounds of the Bay during the Cream Trip cruise. “I love it when you get the whole boat of 120 people standing up to look at one little penguin. The day I stop for a penguin and no one gets off their arse, I might have to leave the job.”

The shag that bit off more than it could chew finally gives a giant gulp and finishes the job as a crowd of excited ferry passengers look on. Looks like Tammy won’t be hanging up her skipper’s hat any time soon.

Learn more about Bay of Islands wildlife.

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