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Okarito Lagoon

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Okarito Lagoon
Photograph of Kotuku: David Alexander
Photograph of the mountains: Westland District Council

Okarito Lagoon is the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand, covering 3,000 hectares of shallow open water and tidal flats. It is surrounded by magnificent kahikatea and rimu rainforest. The area is so green and luxuriant that it is often compared to the Amazonian rainforest. Many species of ferns and mosses festoon the towering kahikatea trees and wild orchids can be found in the forest.

Okarito is justifiably famed for its breeding colony of Kotuku, or white heron. The kotuku is sacred to Maori and its only New Zealand breeding colony is north of the lagoon on the bank of the Waitangiroto River. The breeding site is a nature reserve, open from late October to the end of February and requiring an entry permit.

The lagoon is a birdwatcher’s paradise and over 70 bird species have been identified in the area. Black swans migrate here from as far north as Lake Brunner and one will often hear the bittern booming. The bush is alive with tuis, bellbirds, pigeons, robins, and the comical kea.

The kotuku arrive in September, which coincides with the whitebait run in the nearby river, and disperse throughout the country after breeding is completed, which is usually sometime in January.

A small population of Okarito Brown Kiwi exists in a 98 square kilometre area where the Department of Conservation is involved in a kiwi recovery programme. Okarito brown kiwi, or rowi, is New Zealand’s rarest kiwi, with an estimated 250 surviving in just 10,000 hectares in South Okarito Forest, in South Westland. It was only in 1994 that they were found to be an entirely new species and given the name rowi.

In recognition of the history and importance of the locality to Maori a nohoanga was created and Ngai Tahu was granted statutory acknowledgement over the Lagoon as part of the Ngai Tahu Deed of Settlement.

A former goldmining boom town, Okarito once supported one of the busiest ports on the West Coast, with 33 stores and even more pubs.

(page last updated  12 February 2012)