Visiting New Zealand's wetlands

Wetlands are not only crucial to the environment, they also offer an attractive landscape for conservationists and tourists to explore – especially in New Zealand.

Far from the misconception that wetlands are just muddy swamps, New Zealand lists dune lakes, tidal forests, mangroves and marshes amongst its many fascinating wetland areas - most set in interesting locations and featuring native plants, birds and fish that can be viewed at close quarters.

As well as being home to a number of rare native species, New Zealand’s wetlands are special in that they provide the perfect stopping-off point for the world’s migratory birds.

And many visitors keen to explore the unique environment of the youngest country on earth are realising that wetlands not only provide a valuable insight into diverse flora and fauna, but also offer plenty of scope for recreation like walking, boating, fishing, swimming, kayaking and bird watching.

World Wetlands Day

The plight of the world’s wetlands is highlighted annually by World Wetlands Day, and the 2011 celebration also coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention - an international agreement to promote and protect freshwater environments.

Since the agreement was signed in 1971, 186 million hectares of wetlands have been protected throughout the world - including 55,000ha in New Zealand.

Since European settlement New Zealand has lost more than 90% of its wetlands - many drained to create productive farmland and supposedly help with flood control.

Now the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) and community groups are working hard to redress the balance aiming to educate people about the importance of wetlands - rated amongst the most important, productive and highly threatened ecosystems in the world.

Wetlands provide a range of crucial ecosystem services such as improving water quality, controlling extreme flooding, regulating carbon levels and supplying fresh water.

Threatened wildlife

DOC refers to wetlands as "cradles of biological diversity" and says they support a high number of threatened plants and animals, as well as providing the greatest concentration of birdlife than any other habitat in New Zealand.

Wetlands are especially important to Māori and have historical importance having provided abundant supplies of food and materials used in every day life during early times.

Flax was used in clothing, mats, kits and ropes; raupo for thatching and dried moss for bedding.

Eels, fish and birds from the wetlands were a good food source, and the feathers of birds like the pukeko and bittern were used to adorn cloaks and other garments. The waterways were also an important means of access by waka or canoe.

New Zealand species

New Zealand wetlands have exceptional habitats - 47 species of rush and 72 species of native sedge alone - as well as a number of endangered plant species that have learned to totally depend on the wetland environment.

Migratory birds also depend on chains of suitable wetlands and the survival of threatened species such as the Australasian bittern, brown teal, fernbird, marsh crake and white heron all rely on New Zealand’s remnant wetland areas.

Native fish also need wetlands and eight of New Zealand’s 27 species including inanga, short-finned eels, kokopu and bullies are found in wetlands. Whitebait also spawn in freshwater wetlands.

Wetlands to visit

New Zealand has significant wetland areas throughout almost every region of both North and South Islands, many featuring restoration and education programmes with visitor centres offering information and guided tours.

The National Wetland Trust - which aims to increase appreciation of wetlands and their values - is developing an online directory of publicly-accessible New Zealand wetlands which already includes the Auckland, Wellington, Waikato and Tasman regions.

The trust has a long-term project to build a National Wetland Centre which will include an interpretation centre, research and educational facilities, wetland gardens and heritage trails.

The following list covers some of New Zealand's most visited wetlands.

Farewell Spit

Farewell Spit - in the Nelson Tasman region at the northernmost tip of the South Island - is one of New Zealand’s most important wetland areas, and is now a proposed World Heritage site.

Farewell Spit is New Zealand's longest sandspit system, extending eastward in the Tasman Sea for approximately 30km, but sheltered to the south with tidal mudflats extending up to 6km seaward at low tide.

Part of the spit forms a Ramsar Wetland site of significance and is an important staging area for migratory shorebirds on the East Asia - Australasia path.

Farewell spit is just two hours from Nelson and is easily accessible. The area has been a wildlife sanctuary since the 1930s and its dunes provide a haven for over 90 bird species including the black swan, Australasian gannet, Caspian tern, southern black-backed gull, red-billed gull and variable oystercatcher. Many of these birds migrate 12,000km each year from the northern hemisphere.


Whangamarino - 62km south of Auckland is the second largest bog and swamp complex in the North Island - is another listed Ramsar.

Managed by DOC, the 5,923ha of peat bog, swampland, mesotrophic lags, open water and river systems, is an important habitat for threatened species like Australasian bittern, grey teal, spotless crake, the North Island fernbird and black mudfish. Eighteen species of fish have also been recorded.

Pest control, restoration planting and fencing to exclude stock are some of the conservation measures helping to protect Whangamarino.

Firth of Thames

South of Auckland at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Firth of Thames has 8500ha of wide inter-tidal flats which attract thousands of migratory wading birds.

Some make the arduous 10,000km journey south from the Arctic circle to arrive in the spring and fly north again in the autumn; others fly 1,000km north from the braided river systems of the South Island in the autumn and return in the spring.

In October it's a changing of the guard as the Arctic migrants like the eastern bar-tailed godwit, the turnstone and the red necked stint arrive and the birds from the South Island like the wrybill, South Island pied oystercatcher and the kōtuku which have over-wintered in the Firth, fly back to their southern breeding grounds.

Wairarapa Moana Wetlands Park

Lake Wairarapa, Lake Onoke and their associated wetlands make up the largest wetland complex in the southern North Island, supporting native plants and animals of national and international importance.

The park is made up of the beds of two lakes and the publicly-owned reserves around them which cover over 9,000ha - from Lake Domain in the north to Onoke Spit, 30km away, at Palliser Bay.

The wetlands are traditionally and spiritually important to Māori as an area for food gathering, including eel, fish, waterfowl, and plant material, in particular, flax and raupo.

The diverse habitats within Wairarapa Moana attract a wide range of wetland birds - about 100 species including international migratory birds have been recorded there including bar-tailed godwit, golden plover, pied stilt, banded dotterel, black-fronted dotterel, great knot, Japanese snipe and Caspian tern.

The wetlands have also been identified as being of national importance to fisheries. Among 10 native species, which migrate between the sea and fresh water, are long-finned and short-finned eel, brown mudfish and giant kokopu.

Lower Kaituna Wildlife Management Reserve

Located northeast of Te Puke in the western Bay of Plenty, Kaituna is a reminder of how the country used to be, with an abundance of cabbage trees and flax, pukeko prowling through raupo, numerous ducks, shags and pied stilts foraging for food in the waterways.

Walking tracks, a kayak trail and a hidden viewing area have been built so visitors can observe wetland life at close quarters.

West Coast wetlands

The West Coast of the South Island is endowed with a wide variety of large and valuable wetlands, including lakes, swamps, fens, bogs, marshes, lagoons, estuaries and pakihi / poorly drained, infertile land.

Most of these areas are now fully protected and have become important breeding grounds for rare species.

The only kōtuku / white heron breeding colony in New Zealand is located on the Waitangiroto River close to Okarito Lagoon - north of Franz Josef glacier.

The region is one of the last strongholds for the Australasian bittern and a large part of the habitat is suitable for crakes although the shy birds are rarely seen. Whitebait breeding is still prolific in various coastal swamps, creeks and lagoons and the seafood delicacy fetches high prices during the spring netting season.

Two West Coast wetland areas, the Whataroa Ecological Region and the Paparoa karst wetland are both being investigated for Ramsar status.

Ō Tū Wharekai wetland

Ō Tū Wharekai, covering the Ashburton lakes and Upper Rangitata River in Canterbury, is one of the best examples of an unspoiled, intact, intermontane wetland system remaining in New Zealand and is nationally important for wildlife.

The area’s conservation values include native fish, trout / salmon, water birds, diverse threatened native plants, and aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates.

As well as being a valuable wetland in terms of biodiversity, Ō Tū Wharekai is also a popular recreational area closely managed as part of a restoration project involving the local community.

Otago wetlands

Lake Waipori, Lake Waihola and their associated wetlands are the most significant waterfowl habitat in Otago and are situated on the Taieri Plain, 40km south of Dunedin.

The lakes are shallow and drain through an extensive swamp into the Waipori River and then the Taieri River.

The swampland includes vegetated islands, lagoons, shallow pools, meandering channels and backswamps.

The Sinclair Wetlands between the two lakes is a tourist attraction with several walking tracks and a visitor centre offering guided tours.

In 1960 Horrie Sinclair purchased a run-down farm between the two lakes and reverted it to its original wetland condition. The Sinclair wetland now consists of ponds, water channels, swamplands and a couple of scrub-covered islands.

Over 60 species of bird live in or regularly visit the wetland. It is now privately owned by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and protected by a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust Open Space Covenant.

Southland wetlands

The waters, mudflats and marginal vegetation of Southland’s large tidal estuaries and coastal lagoons - Jacobs River Estuary, New River Estuary, Bluff Harbour and Awarua Bay, Waituna Lagoon and Toetoes Harbour - make up the most important bird habitat areas in Southland.

More than 80 bird species have been sighted in the area, 65 of which are dependent on the estuarine environment.

Southland’s estuaries rank alongside Farewell Spit and Lake Ellesmere as the top three wading bird habitats in the South Island. They are internationally important because from spring to late autumn they become the feeding and breeding grounds for thousands of migratory waders from the northern hemisphere.

Arawai Kākāriki Wetland Programme 

Since 2007 DOC has been involved in the Arawai Kākāriki wetland programme which aims to enhance the ecological restoration of three of New Zealand’s most important wetland / freshwater sites - Whangamarino, Ō Tū Wharekai and Awarua.

As well as research into how the wetlands function, species living there and any threats to the habitat, restoration work has involved fencing, willow tree control and riparian planting.

Community objectives include conserving historic and cultural sites, improving facilities for the public and increasing awareness of wetland values.

New Zealand is one of 160 countries that celebrate World Wetlands Day on 2 February each year.

More information

Bird conservation in New Zealand

Cyberspace boosts West Coast birdwatching