Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

The Bioluminescent Bay of Islands

Writing a blog entry about spending several days in New Zealand’s equivalent of Hawaii is a bit emotionally trying when its been raining pretty much non-stop here in Dunedin for the past week.  In the interest of my loving readers though, I shall bravely attempt to press on.  Good thing this is written on a computer screen otherwise the copious teardrops would likely render my handwriting even more illegible than usual.

Let me introduce the Bay of Islands:

Panorama from the summit of Waewaetorea Island

Pretty, yes?  The Bay of Islands was the only destination we had reservations for prior to the trip so the first half of our journey was scheduled around being there on Tuesday in order to go on an overnight exploration around the Bay on a ship called The Rock.  We arrived in Pahia, the only town of significant size in the area, on Monday night in some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen. We had been intending to camp, but the rain and wind was bad enough to make even Jim Cantore squirm so we ended up pursing alternative accommodations.  We briefly got excited about the prospect of staying at  a hostel with a pet parrot but we ended up negotiating a cheaper rate elsewhere.

In a reflection of the good fortune we experienced throughout the trip, by morning the weather had cleared and our concerns that the cruise we had planned our trip around would be canceled were abated.  We spent the morning exploring Pahia, which essentially consisted of walking up and down two streets, wandering along the beach, and attempting to mask our pasty white skin tones that betrayed our South Island origins.  While a pleasant enough town, Pahia was easily the most touristy place I’d been in New Zealand so far (note: this all changed when we went through Rotorua later in the trip…).  Once of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about traveling around New Zealand so far is the (relative) lack of commercial exploitation of the country’s major attractions compared to the US.  Even though I’ve been here at the tail end of high-season, most of the places I’ve been have been delightfully non-crowded and in many places, finding so much as a single gift shop has been difficult.  Not so in Pahia.  Tacky souvenir shops and gaudy “EXPERIENCE NATURE AT IT’S FINEST! SWIM WITH DOLPHINS AND WHALES!!!” signs and banners advertising cruised on multimillion dollar, noisy jetboats were everywhere.

Late in the afternoon, we headed down to the wharf where we were shuttled out to The Rock on a old, slightly sketchy motorboat named the Climax (for reasons which will not be elaborated upon here).  The Rock is a two story former vehicle ferry that was converted into essentially a floating hostel a few decades back.  The upper deck consisted of bedrooms and dorms for up to 30 people while the main deck was a kitchen, lounge, bar, and general hang-out area.  The first evening on the boat consisted of getting to know the other passengers, fishing for snapper off the back end (ahem…stern) of the boat, watching our friend eat the still beating heart of the fish we caught for dinner, a delicious steak and snapper dinner, and in one of the highlights of the trip, night kayaking around the bay.

Approaching the Rock

Onboard the Rock

The excitement in the kayaking did not lie in the kayaking itself but in what was living in the ocean.  The waters around the Bay of Islands are abnormally clear and also happen to be home to a organism known as Noctiluca scintillans, a plankton like creature that absorbs sunlight during the day, and, due to chemical reactions of which I do not know the precise details, emit shimmering blue light when disturbed after dark.  This phenomenon is generically known as bioluminescence and if you take a long exposure photograph of the Noctiluca, they look like this.  (needless to say I was killing myself for not bringing a tripod…)  The “disturbing” in our case was kayak paddles.  With every stroke of the paddle you were rewarded with a quick flash of glittering blue light alongside the boat.  Jumping off the boat into the water was even more impressive.  It was seriously one of the coolest, and yet most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in my life.

View from the back of the boat at sunset

Day 2 on The Rock was packed with more fun activities.  First thing in the morning we spent about an hour or so snorkeling along the coast of one of the islands for kina, a common and extremely spiny type of sea urchin that was to become part of our lunch later on.  After the snorkeling, we headed over to  Waewaetorea Island, upon which we were the only inhabitants for the next several hours.  Climbing up to the summit of the island offered an absolutely phenomenal panoramic view of the Bay of Islands, which interestingly was one of the first places in New Zealand to be inhabited by the native Maori coming from Polynesia, and also the location of the first European settlements in New Zealand in the late 1700’s.  I would have had absolutely no objections to staying on this island for the rest of the trip, active volcanoes and other attractions be damned.  The weather here was probably the best I’ve experienced during my time in New Zealand, 75-80 degrees and hardly any clouds in the sky.

The delicious innards of the humble kina

As far as I can recall, the 22 or so hours we spent on the Rock was the longest period of time I’d ever spent on a boat in my life.  While I was strongly in favor of stowing away in the engine room, my traveling companions kindly reminded me that if I stayed on the boat, there would be no one to drive the rental car.  Alas, we returned to Pahia in the afternoon to proceed with the rest of our trip.

And thus concludes this blog entry. I’m going to go back to freaking out about the fact that I only have slightly more than a month left here now…adios!

Beach on Waewaetorea Island

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3 responses

  1. Ng Chelsea

    Hey, just saw your post and have been looking for any details on the bioluminescent plankton. Wanted to ask just where about in the Bay of Islands did you see them?
    Cheers, Chelsea 🙂

    May 27, 2016 at 12:12 am

    • Hi Chelsea,

      Unfortunately I don’t really recall. I saw them on a boat at night and couldn’t really tell exactly where we were. I believe we were told that they could be seen pretty much anywhere in the bay, and that time of year was more important. We saw them in around April or May I think.

      May 29, 2016 at 7:23 pm

  2. Hey, just saw your post and have been looking for any details on the bioluminescent plankton. Wanted to ask just where about in the Bay of Islands did you see them?
    Cheers, Chelsea:)

    May 27, 2016 at 12:13 am

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