Set on the northwestern coast of the South Island, Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park. When we were drafting our itinerary for the country, Abel Tasman fell into the ‘if we have time’ category. It looked like a pretty enough region – scenic coastline, perhaps less crowded – but not what you think of when you think “iconic” New Zealand landscape (i.e. soaring mountains and aquamarine lakes). As we read a bit more and talked to current and former Kiwis, Abel Tasman quickly rose to our ‘must do’ category. Fortunately, we were easily able to fit a visit into our South Island tour… and it was nothing short of spectacular!
We made the small village of Marahau, situated on the southeastern boundary of the park, our home base for a few days. Although not the most dramatic scenery, it was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I’ve been. Golden shores gave way to glassy, green and turquoise waters; lush, subtropical forests laden with immense tree ferns draped the hillsides beyond the sand. A short distance offshore, rocky and thickly-forested islets erupted from the crystal seas. The two largest, Adele and Fisherman Islands are recently-established pest-free sanctuaries for struggling, native bird species, whose populations have plummeted with the ill-fated introduction of non-native, often predatory mammals to New Zealand.
Only steps from our campsite was a small estuary where we spotted a number of shorebirds, including bar-tailed godwit, white-faced heron, variable and South Island pied oystercatchers, pied stilt, rail, and kingfisher.
Despite all this beauty, the place I was most taken with, though, was Sandy Bay. At high tide, the large cove was nothing exceptional – small waves splashed up onto a rocky seawall, with not a trace of beach in sight. During low-tide, however, the bay transformed into a vast, rippling sandbar extending several hundred feet from the break wall. Almost desert-like, various wading birds roamed the sands, plucking small morsels from rippling oases scattered about the now-desiccated bay. It was here, in these transient tide pools, that we discovered a hidden treasure of Abel Tasman…
Back in sixth grade, Ms. Audette’s chapter on cetaceans (which culminated in a whale-watching tour in Provincetown) convinced me I’d grow up to be a marine biologist (clearly, that didn’t happen). Moreover, investigating tide pools was always one of my favorite things to do at the beach. I remember meticulously poring over small, rocky pools along the shores of Whitehorse Beach and Cape Cod on a hot summer day. Typically, I’d discover only a handful of snails and barnacles, but occasionally I’d stumble across a true prize of petite, pink starfish or bright green urchins.
When Stephan and I began investigating the large pools along the sandbars of Sandy Bay, I expected a similar outcome – maybe something distinctive here or there. Conversely, I was completely blown away with the magnificent marine life we uncovered. We first discovered small crabs scrambling through the shallows before abruptly ducking under a clam shell or clump of seagrass. Then we noticed dozens of colorful, spiral snail shells being hauled arduously by their slow-moving inhabitants. Next, we spotted some sort of flat fish gliding through the water, barely visible thanks to camouflage with the sand. Shortly thereafter, we found a small teal-colored starfish… then a sand dollar! I shrieked exuberantly with excitement, as if I’d just won the lottery.
As we continued more carefully exploring, we noticed that the pools were absolutely littered with not only crabs, snails, sand dollars, and beautiful shells, but also with sea stars. In each pool, mounds of cushion stars clumped together, many disguised by a blanket of sand. Each step we took was cautious and calculated, and as we waded from pool to pool, we were met each time with dozens more. Some were only partially dusted with sand, and eventually we noticed the striking color variations – some were a vibrant blue, one faded from purple to a pinkish-red, another was bright yellow, others still were mottled with flecks of blue and gold. It was by far one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Over two days, I think we spent more than six hours hunched over the sandbar pools during the fleeting periods of low tide. And even though we saw hundreds upon hundreds of starfish, each one was a new and special sight. If it wasn’t for the unrelenting tide, I could very well have never left that sandbar. I’m pretty sure I found one of my happiest places on the shores of Abel Tasman.