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Bay of Islands Marine Mammal Sanctuary

a dolphin

Understanding the 3 Key Restrictions for Bay of Islands Visitors


The Bay of Island has increasingly become a popular destination for visitors to the Northland. It’s an ideal spot for fun activities such as boating, diving, snorkelling and fishing as well as being famous for its stunning scenery, rich cultural history, and diverse range of wildlife. All of these factors combined has made it one of the key tourism destinations with coastal towns including Paihia, Russell and Kerikeri providing key sanctuary access points. It is therefore essential to understand that there are three key restrictions for users of the Bay of Islands to ensure it remains a true place of sanctuary for marine mammals and it remains a unique and beautiful destination.

The sanctuary has three key restrictions for users of the Bay of Islands:

  • No one is allowed in the water within 300 m of a marine mammal. No vessel to approach within 300 m of marine mammals – if your vessel breaches the 300 m rule for a marine mammal you must stop.
  • You must remain stopped until any marine mammals are at least 300 m away.
  • You must travel 5 knots or less at all times while within the marine mammal safe zones.

How the Marine Mammal Sanctuary is Managed
The sanctuary is managed by a DOC-hapū advisory committee. This committee makes management decisions and recommendations in line with the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 (external site). This joint management shows DOC’s commitment to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Nature and Conservation
The Bay of Islands is declared as a marine mammal sanctuary under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. This was then gazetted on 17 November 2021 by the Minister of Conservation and came into effect on 15 December 2021. The purpose of the sanctuary is to reduce the various known threats to marine mammals in the Bay of Islands, and in doing so making it a safer environment for them.

The creation of safe zones gives marine mammals designated areas where they are safe from harm and left in peace. By creating such quiet zones, it allows them space to display their normal behaviours, including feeding and nursing, free from human distractions. Bottlenose dolphins are being viewed as an indicator species as research has shown a reduction in survival critical behavioural and a drop in the number of bottlenose dolphins visiting the Bay of Islands in recent times.

The History, Culture & Partnerships of the Marine Mammal Sanctuary
The marine mammal sanctuary was created through a consultation process and the key restrictions were developed in partnership with a collective of Te Pēwhairangi hapū ( (Bay of Islands) in line with the history and culture of the sanctuary. This was informed by key research including the effects of vessel interactions on bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands.

Working in partnership with Mahinga rangapū it has been declared that “The bottlenose dolphin is a taonga species for Te Pēwhairangi hapū. They are kaitiaki, protectors (guardians) of our people. Tohunga were known to call the dolphins. They are a gauge on the health of our fishery and moana and represent the closeness of the whanau.”

Additionally, the Mana Whenua (people of the land) have extensive knowledge of Te Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands) marine mammals – their life cycles, roles and interrelationships within ecosystems and tikanga/cultural practices. It is therefore essential to acknowledge whakapapa (identity) and including mātauranga Māori (Maori knowledge) is key to managing marine mammals in Te Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands).

As stated by Robert Willoughby, a Te Pēwhairangi hapū member: “Mātauranga Māori encompasses a holistic world view. It starts from the heavens, comes down to earth and covers everything in between. Our ancestors imparted knowledge to us in waiata, legends and chants and there are words that keep being emphasised like whakapapa, mauri, oranga and kaitiakitanga.”

He concluded that throughout the process of the Marine Mammal Sanctuary that Mana Whenua and the Crown would have a perfect opportunity to set an example of working together on a common goal and to achieve a worthy outcome which is to protect and sustain our taonga, the dolphins.

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